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Monday, September 17, 2007
Rookie head coaches breathe fresh air into MLS

Steve Davis, ESPNsoccernet

Here's hoping that soccer in the United States never adopts that most tired and senseless of American sports practices: the lame recycling of marginally successful managers and coaches.

Indeed, one of the most unfortunate staples of baseball, basketball and American football is this constant reprocessing of coaches who flopped elsewhere, or produced less than memorably. Oh, maybe they had a little burst of success at some point. And that was just enough to make them an expedient choice for some suit. So the retread-of-the-moment gets another stab at the prize while the fresher faces remain relegated to assistant roles.

It's the easy way out for the GM and the owner. Perhaps their newly recycled hire won't be the second coming of Knute Rockne, but at least he won't be a major embarrassment. He represents the safe choice.

So, kudos to the general managers around Major League Soccer, who haven't been afraid lately to hand the car keys to somebody less tedious -- somebody on the younger side, somebody yet to run a club.

There are five rookie managers in MLS this year, the most since 1998, when Bob Bradley, Carlos Cordoba, Tim Hankinson, Alfonso Mondelo, Ivo Wortmann and Walter Zenga all took their first spins of the professional managerial wheel. That's not exactly a distinguished lot. But the current crop of rookies in charge looks more promising.

For 2007, four newbies were overseeing matters to start the season, and if the playoffs began today all four would find themselves in the postseason. Three of them won during Major League Soccer's just-completed 25th round of matches: Chivas USA's Preki (who won in midweek, then drew on the weekend), D.C. United's Tom Soehn and Kansas City's Curt Onalfo. FC Dallas' Steve Morrow was the only member of the foursome to lose over the weekend.

Even Jason Kreis, who joined the rookie managerial class a month into the season, guided his team to a draw on the road. (FYI: The two best strikers during Saturday's scoreless tie at BMO Field may have been Kreis and Toronto manager Mo Johnston. Seriously.)

Somewhere from that group of new managers likely will come the league's 2007 coach of the year. And a difficult choice it's bound to be. Whoever it is, the selection almost certainly won't be from the crop of senior MLS managers. Outside of New England's Steve Nicol and Houston's Dominic Kinnear, who have mostly needed only to keep the train on track in 2007, the familiar group of veteran shopkeepers has been average at very best this year.

Sigi Schmid's team is struggling. So is Fernando Clavijo's. We've all watched with special interest as Frank Yallop's team has driven right off the road.

Johnston's sputtering, injury-depleted offense hasn't scored since Easter -- or so it seems. And Bruce Arena's season hasn't quite flatlined, but it's definitely gone dull around the edges. His Red Bulls have won only five of their last 15.

Here's the truly important point about the new managers: They go about their jobs boldly, unafraid to do things their way. Maybe it's that these managers aren't constrained by the tethers of history, the bane of GMs and owners who attempt to appease fans and reach for former glory by hiring guys who will churn away in a familiar fashion.

Here, perhaps Major League Soccer's lack of history works in everybody's favor.

Look at Onalfo at Kansas City. The Wizards had put the "B," the "O" and the "R" in "boring" ever since the gunslinging Ron Newman left. Bless Bob Gansler's heart, but watching his prosaic brand of soccer over almost eight seasons in the Heartland was about as much fun as having carpal tunnel syndrome.

But then along comes Onalfo, 37, who immediately promised to have his troops attack like madmen. The Wizards play high-pressure defense and transition into offense faster than any MLS side.

And in Onalfo's world, ties are worthless as a rash. He's consistently hell-bent on getting all three points -- and good for him. Saturday against Columbus, which was desperate to hang tough in the playoff chase, the Wizards pulled level on a 93rd-minute penalty kick. Onalfo noticed the Crew's beaten body language (somewhat rightly so, for the PK judgment was certainly dodgy) and implored his Wizards to press hard in the precious seconds remaining. Sure enough, Scott Sealy nailed the 94th-minute game winner. Only twice before in 12 MLS seasons had a team erased a stoppage-time deficit.

Kansas City is Preki's old team. But his young coaching career took him out to Southern California, where he inherited Chivas USA this year. Preki, 44, the oldest of the rookie managers, immediately demonstrated that he wouldn't hesitate on tough choices. He jettisoned troublemaker Amado Guevara, banking on the tricky vagaries of addition by subtraction.

Then, he rescued Paulo Nagamura from the Toronto mire and, voila! His side is on an absolute late-summer tear, unbeaten now in seven matches. Chivas USA kicked poor ol' Los Angeles to the curb in the midweek SuperClasico. And don't undervalue Sunday's draw in Colorado. To get points out of that match, three days after such an emotional outcome at the Home Depot Center, says something about how much mental toughness Preki has already implanted into the team.

And then there's Soehn's side, the current best bet to hold aloft a trophy on Nov. 18 at RFK Stadium. Soehn is hacking out his own MLS path by treating September exactly as predecessor Peter Nowak refused to. Remember how Nowak stubbornly declined to acknowledge that players sometimes need rest? Soehn certainly remembers. That's why Fred, Greg Vanney and Clyde Simms were on the bench to start the midweek win over Real Salt Lake.

He has talked about the need to rotate starters for weeks now. It's a gambit that proves too risky for some coaches. For Soehn it was another case of a worthwhile philosophy from a manager willing to get after things his way.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.


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