Coaches come and go, but the departure of Robert Warzycha from Columbus feels like the end of an era for more than one reason. After 18 years with one of the MLS original teams as a player, then coach, Warzycha was fired on Monday after the latest defeat in a run that had seen the Crew lose five of their last seven games. It was a run that prompted new team owner Anthony Precourt to bring forward his plans to replace Warzycha and some of his principal coaching staff at the end of the year.
Certainly it looks more like a move with long-term planning in mind, rather than a realistic act to salvage another season of on the field drift. Warzycha is replaced on an interim basis by the in-house Brian Bliss, who has eight games left to make up the eight points and two places that currently separate the Crew from the final playoff spot. Saturday's defeat to a ten man Seattle team, led by Warzycha's predecessor Sigi Schmid, proved the final straw, though as Precourt noted in the club statement on the firing, the writing had been on the wall for the coach for some time:
"I have been intently following this team since mid-April when we decided to explore the possibility of acquiring the Crew...When I became the club's new Chairman, I said that I would take the necessary time to be thoughtful and evaluate where we needed to make changes. When we came to the conclusion that we were not going to retain Robert beyond this season, it was apparent that we needed to make this change now so that we can refocus the club around Brian's leadership for the remainder of this season, as well as get the process started on finding a new head coach."
Precourt's arrival and now Warzycha's departure are moves laden with symbolism for the league as a whole. When Precourt acquired control of the club from the Hunt family on July 30 it moved the league to a state where AEG's 50% ownership of Houston Dynamo (to go with their ownership of LA Galaxy) remains the only share that stops the league's 19 teams being in the hands of 19 owners. The Hunts, under patriarch and US sporting benefactor Lamar, were one of the original ownership groups in MLS, which at its inception had only three owners for all its teams (Phil Anschutz's AEG and Patriot's owner Robert Kraft were the other two). The Hunt group still own FC Dallas, but Precourt's arrival is typical of a wave of young ambitious ownership groups moving the league along from its paternalistic origins.
Columbus of course was also the place where that closed MLS 1.0 model began the process of what's been labelled as MLS 2.0 — in 1999 Crew Stadium was the first of the soccer-specific stadiums that marked that next phase, though unlike say Houston Dynamo's BBVA Compass Stadium from 2012, it didn't benefit from a downtown location, and certainly compared to New York's Red Bull Arena from 2010, or Sporting KC's Sporting Park from 2011, it is far from a state of the art venue. While it is an intimate stadium that has proved a favored venue for the US national team, particularly for games against the old enemy of Mexico, it has been losing traction in that regard. Saturday's visit by Seattle also carried with it a further symbolic reminder that the Seattle branch of the American Outlaws (the official US supporters group) had been invited to help coordinate support for next week's vital World Cup qualifier against Mexico, following the successful game against Panama in an earlier qualifier. Sporting KC too have been pushing their claim as a central location to host the national team in fitting surroundings, and while the new Crew regime's promised replacement of some of the stadium bleachers with proper seating may not exactly be a case of refurbishing deck chairs on the Titanic, both Precourt and GM Mark McCullers have made some cautious noises about looking again at possible downtown locations for a stadium for the long term future.
First impressions can't have helped — Precourt attended his first Columbus game in April, on a night when kick off was delayed after the stadium scoreboard caught fire. Certainly Precourt believes that the Crew franchise is underperforming within what in theory should be a thriving sports market. His investment company diversified to start Precourt Sports Ventures last year, and this is their first step into team ownership, but he has been clear about expecting the organization to do better on and off the field.
That's an expectation that was always likely to put pressure on Warzycha. On the opening night of Precourt's ownership he conducted a Twitter Q and A on the MLS account and was asked directly if he'd replace Warzycha. His response:
"RW deserves our respect. Long-term Crew contributor. Will evaluate. No doubt winning is critical."
And Warzycha hasn't won. As we pointed out in this weekend's MLS analysis, prior to his departure he had presided over a gradual slump in the team's fortunes, not just this year, but over the last five seasons. After Schmid won MLS Cup in 2008 and moved to Seattle, Warzycha had two Conference semi-final appearances, followed by a Wild Card appearance and last year missing the playoffs altogether. The weekend's results in the East cut his team further adrift and took away what little mandate he had left in his fifth year as Crew head coach. Ironically, his temporary replacement, Bliss, had been running various parts of the team related to personnel issues and is widely credited with bringing in the Crew's second ever designated player Federico Higuain, who in sparking the Crew's late season surge last year arguably helped extend Warzycha's reign. That said, the "family club" management of the Hunt family era was not given to drastic changes, and had Precourt not arrived, the decision on the coach's future might not have been taken at all, let alone mid-season.
But Precourt did arrive, and while he has been publicly respectful of the Hunt's legacy — even citing an NFL Hall of Fame dinner event where he was seated next to Lamar Hunt Sr., and praising his "humility and quiet passion", his actions suggest that he is well aware the spirit of family club steadfastness has potentially been a burden as much as bedrock in recent years. The Cascadia clubs and perhaps most pertinently, the small market success story of Sporting KC (another former Hunt family club, and one-time also-ran franchise) have revised expectations of what a well-run MLS club can function as, while on the playing side several teams have begun to see early returns on an expanding academy system.
The league Warzycha left is transformed from the one he entered 18 years ago. Just three weeks ago D.C. United's Michael Seaton became the first player born after the league was founded to play in it — just a year after the last of the MLS original players, Ramiro Corrales, was given something of a valedictory All Star game selection with one of Commissioner Don Garber's two discretionary picks. This year Garber used the second of his picks to honor Seattle's homegrown rookie defender DeAndre Yedlin, and in All Star week announced the Precourt deal surrounded by children at a newly-dedicated futsal court during Kansas City's exuberant hosting of the event, before announcing further intended expansion of the league during the game itself. It was as if MLS, having finally outlasted the old NASL this year, could finally dare to look to the future. The message has not been lost in Columbus and for Warzycha, the future there will happen without him.
Ian Fraser, Crew Union
This is long overdue in the eyes of most. Warzycha inherited a team that won MLS cup and had run it into the ground. Yeah he won the supporters shield his first season but if I recall it was a lower points total (that won it) so it was partly that no one else stepped up to take it. He proceeded to get dumped out of the playoffs (one series in which he benched Guillermo for the first leg) in round one, before turning us into a non playoff team.
The end result of the seasons is just one piece. Numerous players who have exited have had negative things to say about the coach. There is an issue when even the players are perplexed about personnel and tactics. He relentlessly used the same defensive tactics and played players out of position constantly. When results didn't come, there was always an excuse or someone else to blame.
I assume it was more than coincidence that after Precourt took over we saw a change in formation....and we won both games. The last 2 have seen a reversion to the 2 defensive midfield setup and we lost both.
To be fair, I actually think the blame should go on some of the players this year. Just Saturday, the chances were there but guys (Oduro!) didn't finish. Too many mistakes and missed chances have plagued the team all season. Warzycha can't go out there and perform for them, but I also feel he lost this team a long time ago. The anti-Warzycha sentiment grew so strong that people were willing to give the players a pass.
Precourt has said all the right things and people are excited. This was a smart move by him. Everyone knew he (Warzycha) wasn't going to be back — time to cut your losses. It seemed like they were just going to ride it out this season but they quickly realized that was not the best decision for the club on or off the field.
Warzycha had been a great servant to this club but his managerial reign has probably tarnished the status he built as a player. Onward and upward from here.
Ben Hoelzel, Crew Union
I loved Warzycha as a player. I liked him as an interim coach (and when he filled in a few games for Sigi). But watching his teams the last couple years it became obvious that Warzycha's tactics were still very much rooted in the era that RW played in. The league has progressed. Clubs are becoming more dynamic, fluid, and adaptable. RW played a rigid defensive minded game. It simply doesn't work in this league.
Precourt knows this. And Precourt knows that if the Crew is going to catch up with the MLS v2.0 teams that we need a coach capable of adapting to the evolving style of MLS play. I know from talking to Precourt that he wants to focus on improving things that signify "major" league. One thing we talked about was the need to update the training facilities. This is something behind the scenes that many people won't see, but it matters when attracting international talent. The facilities were fine say 10 years ago, but they are a laughing stock and a detriment when competing for signings. He knows Columbus needs to grow.
The Hunts got us this far, but we need energy and new ideas to get over the hump and leave MLS v1.0 behind. This means upgrading old assets, but it also means dropping some Hunt legacy personnel. I can all but guarantee you that the next Crew boss will come from outside of the Crew organization and will look to change how a lot of things are done around Columbus.
I will always have fond memories of RW the player and assistant and thank him for what he has done for this team. But, some old dogs can't learn new tricks. He was simply not capable of taking the Crew into the same level of modern MLS clubs. We now have an owner that is going to demand that his club progress and compete and isn't shackled by nostalgia. Precourt will bring the Crew into the modern era, and I am very excited to see who he will select as his first manager. I also suspect we will see some more changes towards the top of the organization.