Call it a less learned era, but there was a time when Americans wanted their chefs to be French, their cops Irish and their interior designers gay. The actual service was second to the stereotype, see? It just needed to feel right.
And for whatever reason, we liked our soccer endeavors guided by British accents. Preferably English, but Scottish or Irish would surely do. Recall the endless parade of British broadcasting voices going back to the North American Soccer League’s 1970s heyday, when a British accent seemed all but required, almost as if by royal decree.
And then there was coaching. Oh, how we did embrace our inner Anglophile while seeking tutelage on the, err, pitch. So many Saturday morning superstars, at some point, surely heard the English-lilted urge to “get stuck in.”
The fascination didn’t end with youth soccer; the suits of the pro game seemed equally smitten with British accents – never mind that Major League Soccer’s first kick got airborne 30 years after English soccer’s unquestioned zenith, success in World Cup 1966. English soccer has wandered toward irrelevance on the global stage ever since, a substantial archive of “over-rated” and “under-achieving” performances as evidence.
So where is all this going? Here’s where:
The MLS team seeking its next manager might want to think twice about hiring British. Long story short, British managers or those schooled in the English football ways simply do not work now in American soccer’s highest professional level.
Carl Robinson edged Vancouver into the playoffs only to see his team bow out in the first round of Major League Soccer’s postseason. In his first year on the Whitecaps’ sidelines, Robinson was the league’s only British head coach to enjoy postseason soccer. (Photo: Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)
Four managers who are British or who spent a significant portion of their pro careers in England began the 2014 season in charge of an MLS team. Congratulations to Carl Robinson, the lone member of that foursome to make the playoffs; his Vancouver Whitecaps sneaked into the last spot in the West, but then spent just 90 minutes in the postseason.
Frank Yallop is Canadian but spent 15 years playing in England and is quintessentially English in terms of coaching style and tactics. He was fired in mid-season of 2013 for lack of results in San Jose. Hired to lead Chicago this year, Yallop’s first year in charge at Toyota Park was a dud. The Fire finished ninth out of 10 teams in the East, tied for fewest wins in MLS.
Mark Watson, who is Canadian but spent some of his professional years in England at Watford, Oxford United and Oldham, and who mentored under Yallop, began this year in charge at San Jose. His Earthquakes finished bottom in the West, and his replacement had already been named with weeks remaining in the regular season. (Pretty lame from the organization, but that’s another story.)
Ryan Nelsen was Kevin Payne’s hand-picked choice to guide a new era at Toronto (yes, the latest “new era” there). Nelsen was New Zealand born (and spent some pro years at D.C. United) but truly made his name at Blackburn, Tottenham and Queens Park Rangers in England. It was a rock solid playing career, but as a manager? Well, Nelsen’s debut managerial campaign at Toronto was pretty much a disaster, and his second season was looking equally grim when he was fired in late August.
By the way, Nelsen had replaced Paul Mariner, a former English international who went an unspectacular 6-14-8 at BMO Field – although in fairness, that was while straining to untangle the absolute mess at Toronto left by failed Dutch idealist Aron Winter.
Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
It goes on. In the last four MLS seasons, 12 clubs opened under managers who were British or schooled substantially in the enshrined English soccer ways. Well, that list is chalk full of flop and fiasco. Congratulations to Gary Smith’s 2011 side, Yallop’s 2012 side and Robinson’s 2014 bunch. Of the 12, just four made the playoffs. Two of those were fifth-place, skin-of-their-teeth qualifiers – and that from a league where it remains statistically easier to make than to miss the playoffs.
Smith (above) did win MLS Cup in 2010, and his teams were generally balanced and tactically prepared, even if overly physical and as classically English as afternoon tea. A 4-4-2? You bet! Still, the next year his team finished fifth in the West and fell to Sporting Kansas City in the conference semifinals. That was a massive success compared to teams managed that year by Yallop, Steve Nicol and fiery Scotsman John Spencer. Combined record of New England, San Jose and Portland in 2011: a fairly bankrupt 24-42-36.
In Major League Soccer’s early years, old school Englishman know-how was often enough to get by or even prosper. Nicol (right), a playing legend at Liverpool, certainly knew how to create a strong roster and foster accountability. He had an eye for players who had “bags full of desire,” as he would say. And that was enough as MLS grew through its spindly roots; Nicol guided three good teams to MLS Cup finals, although none could ever eclipse that final hurdle.
And Yallop had his successes, too. His teams claimed MLS Cup in 2001 and 2003, and later won a Supporters Shield in 2012, although that team was more about smash-and-bash than anything that resembled stylish, tactically inclined soccer.
As head coach with New England, Steve Nicol took the Revolution to three straight MLS Cup finals. As more talent has come into the league and teams have developed their own on-field styles, it’s been harder for similar approaches to replicate that success. (Photo: Gail Oskin/Getty Images)
But as MLS teams began establishing on-field identities, as the league grew in every way and as bright minds began infiltrating the game and generating new ideas – think Jason Kreis, Peter Vermes or Jay Heaps – tactical concerns and modern methodologies of player development became paramount.
The pox of English soccer has been dissected to death; theories on why the English game stinks are simply too varied and too involved to get into here. Boiled down, it’s probably about intransigence, about being married to the glory of tenacity and tackling and the utility of the “long ball up to the big lad,” all at the expense of greater attention to modern tactics and more studious development of technique at youth level.
The results speak for themselves. Heck, even English teams seem sketchy on the idea of hiring English coaches; Just 12 of 20 clubs the venerable Premier League are currently guided by Brits, a number that actually represents a slight uptick from the previous year, when 11 of 20 clubs finished with Brits at the helm.
Only two British managers have maneuvered their club to a Premiership title: Sir Alex Ferguson (in fairness, he racked up a bunch of ‘em) and Kenny Dalglish. Otherwise, Frenchman Arsène Wenger, Portguese tactician Jose Mourinho and Italian coaches Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Mancini have earned all the other Premier League titles. (Don’t forget, it’s been the “Premier League” for just more than 20 years now.)
The next managerial change in Major League Soccer is never far away; MLS coaches face the same pressures as others around the world. Names like Kreis and Ben Olsen and Gregg Berhalter, or Colombian Oscar Pareja, are the coaching success stories now. Along with the “deans” like Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid, of course.
Another British manager in MLS? That sounds very “2007,” doesn’t it?
Of course, there were just 13 teams in the league then, and fewer than half played in their own dedicated stadiums. The league looks a lot different today, a lot fresher. The preferred coaching choices should, as well.