The new year is officially here in MLS: after Jurgen Klinsmann announced an MLS-heavy roster for his first US squad of the year, and with the SuperDraft fast approaching, several clubs have been ringing the changes in recent days, in a scramble to be ready for the new season. With Montreal appointing Swiss coach Marco Schaälibaum and Toronto introducing (sort of) ex-D.C. United and current QPR defender Ryan Nelsen as their new coach, to follow José Luis Sánchez Solá at Chivas USA and ahead of Paulo Sousa's possible confirmation as New York Red Bulls coach the managerial merry-go-round has speeded up.
Nelsen's appointment occurred in somewhat bizarre circumstances that won't ease the impression of persistent turbulence at the club. Moments before the announcement of his appointment, club sporting director and the interim coach for much of last season, Paul Mariner, was quietly shown the door, only for there being nobody to actually walk through it in the other direction when the announcement was made. Nelsen is still a vital part of QPR's relegation struggle, and in announcing his appointment new club President Kevin Payne (synonymous with D.C. United for many years), also admitted that there was no clear date as to when Nelsen could actually take over. Unless QPR's struggles ease dramatically, new assistant Fran O'Leary could conceivably be in place until May.
It's an appointment that represents a signficant gamble on the goodwill that Payne brought with his arrival at Toronto. At D.C. United, Payne developed the blueprint for a successful, stable franchise with strong support, and was expected to steady the ship at Toronto. While Mariner may have been responsible for bringing in the personnel that failed under Aron Winter, and then himself as interim coach last season, and so could be said to have made his position untenable, replacing him with another interim situation is a gamble. Add to that the fact that Nelsen (who captained D.C. under Payne) has no coaching badges and this already feels like a make-or-break move by the President.
"Ryan has better leadership qualities than any athlete I've ever been around and I always thought that Ryan would always wind up becoming an outstanding coach someday," said Payne. "Someday" needs to come pretty quickly.
Montreal are taking chances of their own with their new appointment. After the smart young coach Jesse Marsch graduated from MLS playing ranks to take the expansion team to the verge of the playoffs last year, management let him go a few days after a public show of support. His replacement, Marco Schällibaum, has one of those resumés that looks impressive until you look at the dates. The Swiss coach has had stints at Basel, Servette and Young Boys of Bern, but his last club job was at second division FC Lugano (where he was fired with the club top of the league), and none of his last six jobs have lasted longer than a year. He has most recently been a FIFA coach of coaches in Asia.
Schällibaum is known as a theorist of the game and the multilingual coach may also, initially at least, be a creditable presence with the veteran Italian contingent at Montreal. But MLS has historically been a very difficult league for European coaches to adapt to and it's possible that the veteran coach may struggle to adapt to the salary caps, allocation money and, most immediately, the SuperDraft as he starts on a steep learning curve. If he gets frustrated by this, expect to hear about it - he has the reputation of being somewhat quick to anger, and once ran onto the field to confiscate the ball in fury at a refereeing decision.
Chivas USA limped to the end of last season woefully short of confidence - a state of affairs hardly helped by a change in ownership resulting in Robin Fraser's already troubled reign officially entering lame duck territory. Nobody was surprised when he was let go, and there was little surprise that the new outright owners would seek to reassert the club's Mexican roots by appointing Jose Luis Sanchez Solá, better known as Chelis, to try to revitalize the side. With attendances down and the success of Home Depot Center stablemates LA Galaxy casting a big shadow, this is perhaps the last chance for the franchise to get it right as a viable second LA team in their current form.
Other changes have been anticipated for longer, but still represent new starts for their teams. Caleb Porter is new at Portland Timbers and a lot of eyes will be on his performance in the draft, as someone who made his name in the college game. And while John Hackworth took over from Peter Nowak during the middle of last season at Philadelphia, his off-season moves so far (bringing back Sebastien LeToux, taking a chance on Conor Casey, bringing in Jeff Parke from Seattle) suggest this is the moment he gets to put his stamp on his team.
The big outstanding coaching vacancy is of course, in New York. Nature and rumor mills abhor a vacuum and there has been a steady stream of names linked with the post since Hans Backe's contract was not renewed after three seasons in charge. Gary McAllister, the presumptive favorite, as a protege of Red Bull global sporting director Gerard Houllier, has dropped back in the running for now, with new Sporting Director Andy Roxburgh, and general manager Jerome de Bontin, thought to favor an appointment with more local knowledge, or at the very least an expanded American-heavy coaching team similar to the model that has driven LA Galaxy's recent success. To this end names like Claudio Reyna, current interim coach (and ex-New York player) Mike Petke, Robin Fraser, Jesse Marsch, and Tony Meola have all entered the frame - even vocal league critic Eric Wynalda has been mentioned. Though few of these are thought to have been seriously entertained as new head coaches.
Of these names, it seems the most likely to figure in some capacity might be Reyna - possibly as an assistant being groomed to take over longer term. In that scenario, the most recent persistent rumor of Paulo Sousa as head coach, makes some sense. The ex-Portugal international has announced his departure from the Hungarian side Videoton, who he took into the UEFA Cup, and has been cropping up repeatedly in connection with the New York job over the last few days. Sousa is another man with a QPR connection - he experienced the revolving door at Loftus Road as Tony Fernandes cycled through managers, but was perhaps most celebrated for laying the foundations, along with Roberto Martinez and then Brendan Rodgers for the possession game practiced by Swansea. He'd be a good candidate to shore up New York's ever-problematic defense, but if he were to arrive would need some local guidance on the steep learning curve of the idiosyncracies of the league.
The first of those idiosyncracies is celebrated next week at the SuperDraft. We'll be covering it - don't be surprised if we're describing one or two furrowed brows on new faces...
Duncan Fletcher, Waking the Red, Toronto:
When Kevin Payne was announced as TFC's new President/Technical Director back in November, it was received well, experience, success, all good things. The initial reports about Ryan Nelsen coming on board were met with more measured optimism, after all did we need ANOTHER new coach, especially another rookie coach? Most though could see that Payne bringing in his own man was a good thing that should lead to stability down the road, so were willing to look past the inexperience and go with it.
One question was, would he still be a player as well, and the answer to that is where things get weird, even by TFC standards. Yes, but with QPR. There's apparently a good chance that he won't be joining up until May. And oh yes, he has 0 coaching badges or licences. Long term it could still work out, but the way it happened, it seems to be setting us up for more short term chaos and I think Payne's just dramatically shortened the amount of time fans will give him to get this right. In Payne we trust? Yes, I'd still say that, but nowhere near as much as I did yesterday.
Sonja Missio, 90 minutes of Hopp, Toronto:
Personally, I find it almost heartbreaking. This is nothing personally against Nelsen himself, but rather the basic structure of Toronto over all. We continue to be the laughing stock of MLS and we do it to ourselves. I mean, they hired a man with no coaching experience, who is currently playing (yes, playing!) with another team. A team, mind you, that is the English equivalent to Toronto FC. Aka not very good. Now, that's not Nelsen's fault. But the fact remains.
How are we expected to do ANYTHING with a) someone with no experience and b) who will not be starting (let alone have time to get to know the team, the city, and the league!) until a few months into the season? We'd honestly be better off holding a reality tv show competition to find a new coach. In fact, I won't be surprised if that's their next hiring method. Right now, it's like Toronto FC thought of the worst possible option and took it one step further. The whole situation reads like an article in the Onion. Again, this is nothing against Nelsen. Rather, the structure of TFC. I used to think "we can't get any worse." But I've been proven wrong.
The other thing that irks me is the fact Kevin Payne assured Paul Mariner's position. Why bother to do that? It's the lack of transparency of the club that makes the whole thing a joke. Yes, people didn't like PM as a coach, but surely, going in completely blind can't be the lesser of two evils?
Sofiane Benzaza, Montreal:
Between the NHL lockout being over and the preparations for the MLS SuperDraft, Montreal was pretty busy sport-wise. Then the Montreal Impact introduced the MLS world to its newest head coach: Marco Schallibaum.
The initial thought was: who? After researching about the man and the coach, he fits exactly the profile set by the Montreal Impact. On paper, he fits the Impact's need for a professional coach that can handle veteran players and young players while integrating the youth program (the Impact Academy).
Does this mean that he will be able to handle players like Nesta, Di Vaio and Ferrari? Will he be able to translate the team's vision on the field (Joey Saputo's and Nick De Santis') fast enough and correctly? My initial sources say that Marco Schallibaum is coming alone and his #1 assistant will be Mauro Biello. How much leeway does he have or is he here to build the building blocks the way the Impact want it?
Alicia Ratterree, The Goat Parade, Chivas USA:
Chivas USA fans were pretty much unanimous by the end of the 2012 season that Robin Fraser wasn't the right coach for the team, and in some respects, the appointment of Chelís was effective in exciting the fanbase. There are some major caveats to his hiring, including the fact that he has never worked in MLS, and he has a history of walking off the job abruptly, but his strengths as a coach in Mexico (most notably, motivating players) appear to be translatable to a new league.
Otherwise, the changes that have taken place at Chivas USA have been received with mixed reviews by the fanbase. Jorge Vergara and Angelica Fuentes taking over full ownership has to be the major sticking point, since the other club they own, Chivas de Guadalajara, has been beset by poor performances and bizarre front office decisions with the Vergaras in charge. There is substantial trepidation about how seriously they will take the American club, how much they will invest in it, and how much attention they are willing to pay. Right now, fans are adopting a "wait and see" approach, but many fans are nervous about the prospects for having a winning team, in 2013 and beyond.