Martino proving that “MLS experience” is a myth

MLS clubs have long overvalued “MLS experience” in appointing managers. And it’s likely restricted the league’s progress. Until now.

We’ve all enjoyed the rapid rise of Atlanta United under Tata Martino, asserting themselves as one of the league’s elite clubs after just one season of play. While Atlanta United deserves all of the credit for its many accomplishments in such a short period, it’s worth mentioning that AU’s model of splurging on youth, and pairing it with a prestigious international manager is hardly a new formula for success around the world. Unfortunately, MLS clubs have refused to go this route — until recently. And it seems the reasons for resisting this direction surround a widely accepted myth that foreign managers can’t do the job in MLS.

New Team, New Model

Atlanta United’s immediate success in MLS was no fluke. The braintrust of Club President Darren Eales, Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra, and Director of Soccer Operations Paul McDonough have certainly worked wonders. But as far as player recruitment goes, all signs point to Martino being the key.

Under Martino, Atlanta enjoyed the best expansion season in league history, and recently solidified their plan with the acquisition of a truly world class talent in Ezequiel Barco. The proof is in the pudding. And this is all after just one season of play.

But for whatever reason, this formula has hardly been tried in MLS. And although the league does appear headed into a new era with new thinking, the immediate successes of United under Martino makes you think — why has no MLS club seriously invested in high-profile managers until recently?

There has been plenty of time and money for someone to try and mimic the “United way” prior to 2017. As SBN’s own Kevin McCauley tells us, MLS clubs have been generally risk averse, with most clubs spending a markedly smaller proportion of overall revenue on players salaries than their foreign competition. The absence of big name managers in MLS tells us clubs are not investing in their management either, with MLS managers’ salaries lagging behind much of its competition.

But MLS clubs consistently rejected the idea of bringing foreign managerial talent stateside. Meanwhile, a tall tale permeated around front offices that outsiders couldn’t fit in with the “uniqueness” of the league, a faux-identity of sorts for a league that has only been around for 20 years. Even more dumbfounding is clubs’ misunderstanding of the actual foreign managerial results themselves, remaining convinced that previous failures of mostly-mediocre foreign mangers meant a top class gaffer like Martino wouldn’t work.

A Foreign Manager

Full credit should go to Eales & Co., who displayed an uncanny ability to identify, scout, confirm, and negotiate successfully for AU targets. The recent acquisition of Barco from Independiente for a league record fee, tells us all we need to know about what Atlanta has built. But if we take the many talented South Americans who’ve joined Atlanta at their word, the main selling point was a chance to play for “El Tata.”

The 23-year old Miguel Almirón was one of the best players in MLS last season, joining from Lanus in Argentina. After the season, he revealed to the Player’s Tribune his reason for coming: “I didn’t know much about MLS. I didn’t know where Atlanta was. I didn’t know anything. But Tata was manager, and that was all I needed to know.”

Stalwart Argentine defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez also left Argentina’s Primera Division for AUFC, and when asked why he left a proven league for an expansion side in MLS, he echoed Almirón’s comments.

“He’s [Martino] well known and highly rated by everyone in the soccer business in Argentina. As a player, it’s an honor to get a call from a coach at that level to be part of his plan on a new team.”

Eales also credited the gaffer for increasing AU’s ability to recruit top players.

”Clearly,” Eales said, “it’s a lot easier when you have Tata Martino as your coach to speak to a player.”

The same surely rings true for the arrival of other South American talents, such as the now-departed Yamil Asad, 2017 MLS Goal of the Year winner Tito Villalba, veteran Chilean international Carlos Carmona, and more.

In Atlanta, the mix of front office adeptness and the allure of a big time manager in Martino immediately generated an extremely talented side, and sparked the much-discussed move for Barco — a player of unprecedented value at a young age for the league. And with Martino heading the charge, it took just one year to make all of that happen.

“Insiders Only”

If we can safely assume that Martino has been the key to attracting new talent to the league. We must ask the question – why has it taken so long for an organization to hire a top, foreign manager to work in MLS and use him as a recruiting tool? What factors have driven this lack of interest in bringing a foreign manager on board?

It’s true that MLS might not have always been the most attractive destination. But we know teams have the money to woo a manager of Martino’s ilk, and that MLS offers a unique selling point in that it’s a relatively new competition, giving managers a chance to leave an imprint on the league and its culture (something Martino alluded to as one of his reasons for wanting to manage stateside).

But the sad reality is not that MLS’ stature has impacted clubs’ ability to truly pursue widely-respected managers, but that front offices and team owners simply haven’t been bold enough to appoint them until recently. Between 2000 and 2015, foreign managers manned the bench for just 15% of matches played. NYCFC bucked the trend and hired Patrick Vieira in 2015. Chicago Fire hired Serbian Veljko Paunovic the following year.

Paunovic is certainly not on the level of Martino, who manged in a World Cup Final and at Barcelona, but the Serb was considered a rising star internationally after guiding his home country to the U-20 World Cup title in 2015. Two years into the Paunovic era, the Fire have made the playoffs for the first time since 2012 — much in part to the recruitment of European players like Nemanja Nikolic and international legend Bastian Schweinsteiger.

But it’s worth mentioning that the Fire’s supposed risk in hiring the Serb was “lessened” in that he had played in MLS previously, unlike Martino or Vieira who had no previous league experience. The Serbian’s time playing in MLS (a mere one season in Philadelphia for the final year of his career in 2011) was apparently a huge selling point to Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez.

“I had to look at it. I had to consider it,” Rodriguez said regarding the hiring of a foreign coach in MLS. “But Pauno’s having played here virtually eliminated any concern, because he knew what it was to sit in the middle seat of a cross-country flight, what it’s like to go from a turf field to grass, to play three games in eight days across an entire continent.”

This sentiment regarding MLS’ having too many quirks to handle for outsiders, has been echoed across the league. MLSsoccer.com’s Bobby Warshaw gives us an example of this once-widely held belief, writing that NYCFC’s Patrick Vieira, a manager with no previous league connections “has undoubtedly dealt with an amazing amount of nuance in his soccer life, but he had probably never had to manage a squad through a turnaround like a Saturday game in Houston heat and then a midweek match at Gillette Stadium.”

Let’s be honest here, it’s not as if the varying climates of Houston and New England are unpredictable, or hard to prepare for. Nor is it hard to ready for the rather obvious affects of a turf field as opposed to grass. And as we saw in the Five Stripes moving from grass Bobby Dodd to turf Mercedez Benz Stadium, the change in surface may make no difference at all.

Basing managerial hires on their ability to adjust to things like long plane rides or an unbalanced schedule simply seems foolish. But regardless of whether you consider these outside factors to be minor or not, Martino, Paunovic, and Vieira all gave themselves a safety valve by hiring assistants with MLS experience to help with the complexities of the league. Thus far, the results of all three managers suggest they’ve got on just fine despite the occasional cross country flight.

Then there’s the angle of MLS being “too confusing for an outsider thanks to the league’s many rules and all roster restrictions. As Warshaw continues: “MLS has unique rules. I’ve followed the league since the inception and I’m still not positive how Allocation Money works. I can only imagine the first time someone told Atlanta’s Tata Martino an opposing team wanted to trade him a draft pick or GAM.”

But Martino isn’t responsible for working around the rules – it’s former MLS veteran Carlos Bocanegra, Orlando City GM Paul McDonough, and others who have taken this on, sometimes using said rules to their advantage, to sign a slew of talented targets, with the prospect of playing for Martino as the major selling point. Even our own resident MLS roster guru Tiotalfootball has provided a guide to building the best possible side under league salary rules. Again, we have a simple problem, with a rather simple answer. But for whatever reason, MLS has been unable to see the forest for the trees.

“There’s man all over for you, blaming on his boots the fault of his feet”

While the obsession over long flights, a playoff system, playing surfaces, and other nuances were one reason for the league ignoring quality foreign managers. MLS was also ignoring the evidence itself. And when we look at the history of foreign managers in the league,the obvious fact is that the failed hires were hardly the Tata Martino’s of the managerial world. With the information available to us, it seems that the issue was not with foreign managers failing (or even that they did fail, as we will discuss later), but MLS clubs lacking the competency to locate, chase, or sign good managers in the first place.

Yes, there are some prime examples of foreigners struggling- NY/NJ Metrostars struggled in the early MLS years under the likes of Carlos Quieroz (Metrostars, 1996), Carlos Alberto Parreira (Metrostars, 1997) and Bora Multinovic (1998-99) provides us with one. Current Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio lasted just one year in Chicago (2007), before leaving by mutual consent.

However, the real poster boys for foreign failure come in the form of Ruud Gullit’s unsuccessful spell with LA Galaxy (2007-08) and Owen Coyle’s misadventures for Houston Dynamo (2015-16). We hear the stories of their messy reigns as cautionary tales for hiring from abroad. But this angle lacks perspective.

Gulitt’s time at for LA Galaxy is a constant example of “foreign managerial failure.” The iconic Dutchmen was a legendary player. But as a manager, his résumé’ was lacking when he was hired by LA. Gullitt had only previously performed the role as player-manager at Chelsea (1996-98), before disappointing in short stints at Newcastle and Feyenoord. After departing L.A., he failed to last an entire season with Russian side Terek Grozny in 2011, and hasn’t been on the bench since.

Another go-to anecdote is Coyle’s short time in Houston. To be fair, Coyle was a respected manager, whereas Gullit was simply a famous name, giving the impression that at least some homework had done on the hire. Coyle is still best known for getting tiny Burnley promoted to the English Premier League in 2009 and leaving them for fellow Premiership side Bolton the following year. But in his time at the Reebok Stadium, the storied club were relegated (to be fair to Coyle, the club in general was going through a torrid time and have not returned to the EPL since). Coyle saw his contract terminated by Bolton after struggling the following season in the English Championship. This all precipitated his unsuccessful move to Houston. Today, Coyle manages minnows Ross County FC, who sit dead last in the Scottish Premiership.

A look at the league’s list of foreign managers and you’ll see the obvious: MLS has hired run-of-the-mill candidates, and predictably experienced run-of-the-mill results under them. And even despite that, foreign managers haven’t done that poorly overall, with their results coming at an essentially identical clip to their American counterparts. An analysis done from 2000-2015 found that domestic managers edged their foreign counterparts by a razor-thin .07 points per game.

How could the failures of the likes of Gullit and Coyle discourage clubs from hiring managers in the respective classes of Martino or Paunovic? Was the problem here the foreign managers? Or was it MLS clubs’ inability to hire the right ones? The data indicates there has never been a difference when it comes to results. And Martino’s success in Atlanta indicates that bringing in a reputable foreign manager can do wonders both for results and player recruitment.

The American Trend

So with all of this in mind, let’s be real for a moment – The belief that a foreign coach couldn’t cut it in a league that is still very much in its infancy, is the height of arrogance and ignorance. And not only was this idea essentially baseless, but it also restricted the progress of MLS significantly, evidenced by the successes of Paunovic, Viera and especially Martino.

Even more disturbing is that this erroneous conclusion was based on weak, anecdotal evidence. After all, large-scale data indicated that there was little difference in results between domestic and foreign managers, even though MLS clubs had never truly gone after first class managers like Martino in the first place.

If you needed any more confirmation that the league missed the bus, just look at what many teams have done this offseason. Various teams are raiding South America for young talent like never before. And on the coaching side, things seem to be changing as well. In addition to Martino, Vieira and Paunovic, Montreal have appointed Remi Garde, a manager who spent three years in France for Lyon and also manned the sidelines in the EPL for Aston Villa. Meanwhile, Portland hired former Venezuelan Giovani Savarese to replace Caleb Porter.

Thankfully, there are reasons to believe the league is finally moving forward on foreign managers. Still, one must wonder why the idea of going outside the U.S to hire a a boss was ever considered so taboo. And in the end, did MLS’ avoidance of foreign managers hold the league back? We will never know for sure, but the successes of Martino and others around the league certainly suggest as much.