Of the twenty coaches currently working in Major league Soccer a full seventeen of them got their first top level job in the league itself.
Maybe we can put that down to insularity, maybe we can put that down to penny pinching by the clubs or maybe we can put it down the relative lack of success of coaches who arrive in MLS from elsewhere (Hello Ruud Gullit, pleased to meet you Carlos de los Cobos) but whatever the reason if a young coach wants to cut his teeth in the professional game then MLS is a pretty good place to start.
Or is it? (Ooh! See what I did there?).
MLS may be a league unto itself in terms of the complexity and quirks of roster rules and player acquisition mechanisms but at times it also feels like a league unto itself in terms of how little emphasis is placed upon tactics on the field.
Earlier this week the Colorado Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni said
“In this league the parity is such that anyone can beat anyone on any given day. The edge that you get in this league is more psychological than it is anything tactical, and when you believe that you’re a good team, and you start to play to that standard, other teams perceive you as that team.”
Mastroeni has taken the Rapids to the top of the standings this season so on one level it’s hard to argue with the thrust of his argument but on another level it’s hard to imagine such an assertion being accepted without comment in many other leagues around the world.
There’s certainly no harm in saying that a team has to believe in what they are doing and, even more specifically, believe in what the coach is asking them to do but when the foundation for that belief is belief itself then we’re wandering dangerously into the area of magical thinking.
What will Pablo do when his side suffer through a couple of bad results? Try to make them believe more?
Fair enough I’m taking him at his most literal word here because I’m sure he and his coaching staff do have some kind of plan going into games, it’s just that he doesn’t seem to think that plan is as important as the confirmation bias he hopes will make the opposition think the Rapids are better than they actually are.
And there was a similar air around the Whitecaps last season as Carl Robinson stubbornly refused to move away from the 4-2-3-1 formation which worked so well for two thirds of the year but ultimately failed the team at the business end of the season.
And while stubbornness may be one of the most crucial attributes every football coach needs it’s only valuable when mixed with the right amount of objectivity with regard to reacting to actual results on the field.
So roll on to the 2016 season and the big question wasn’t really how the Whitecaps new acquisitions would adapt to Major League Soccer, it was more along the lines of how Carl Robinson would adapt to the new acquisitions.
And, after a hesitant start, the signs are looking pretty good.
Even when playing 4-2-3-1 Robinson has mostly played Pedro Morales as one of the ‘2’ alongside Laba and thus turning an inherently defensive formation into a far more attacking lineup, but Saturday’s 4-3 win over Toronto kind of felt like a sea change in the development of both the coach and the team.
Social Media and predicting starting elevens is pretty much the old “an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of keyboards will eventually create the collected works of Shakespeare” given life but even the great and the good of Twitter et al probably struggled to foresee a 4-4-2 lineup that featured Kekuta Manneh and Erik Hurtado as the two forwards designed to burn a hole through the Toronto central defence, with Pedro Morales in a wide left role which simultaneously moved him away from the heart of the action while also freeing him from the attentions of both Will Johnson and Michael Bradley.
It didn’t work perfectly (three goals conceded is never perfect) but it still felt like a victory earned for a team based on tactical tweaks rather than TFC’s “give the ball to Giovinco and see what happens” approach.
Whether this flexibility will be a template for the season remains to be seen, but at least the likes of Bolaños, Pérez, Kudo and even a reinvigorated Hurtado offer the potential for Robinson to spring the occasional surprise on the opposition manager.
So what does any of this tell us about the value of being a young coach in Major League Soccer?
Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, MLS coaches are not exactly sought after by other countries and no doubt there’s an element of shortsightedness to that disinterest but there must also be the sense that the skills required to coach an MLS team aren’t directly transferable to the rest of the world.
“So Mr. Vanney you’re interested in the Aston Villa job? What are your plans?”
“I’d just buy one brilliant player and let him win all the games for us”
“Hi Mr. Mastroeni. Your plans for Villa?”
“I think once we start playing well we will carry on playing well and other teams will then think we are really good.”
“Welcome to Aston Villa Mr. Moyes.”
I guess the point of all this is to say that while soccer in North America may be taking steps to improve the development of young players, MLS itself is almost inherently designed to stunt the growth of young coaches.
Maybe Carl Robinson has recognized that fact and has decided that a) there are genuine on the field advantages to be gained through tactical flexibility and b) he will learn nothing about himself as a coach by simply accepting that what’s good enough to get into the playoffs is good enough and that’s the end of the story.
It could be that the most fascinating part of this whole season will turn out to be witnessing how the coach continues to grow into the role and how that shapes the Whitecaps as a whole.
(Or it could just be that having a fit and in form Pedro Morales is all that really matters?).