A View from Afar

The American sports management model finally takes hold in MLS

Photo: Earl Gardner

Last week, after former Philadelphia Union midfielder Veljko Paunovic was revealed as the Chicago Fire’s new head coach, some called the move “bold” or “risky.”

Wrong. It’s a great move, extraordinarily smart and far-sighted, for reasons laid out here two weeks before the hire was announced. Paunovic is exactly the sort of head coach teams should be trying to hire: Multilingual, experienced in MLS, has an attacking mindset, media savvy, has experienced legitimate coaching success with this year’s U20 World Cup victory for Serbia.

This is the type of move you get when you change your soccer management model and hire a smart general manager or sporting director to run soccer operations, instead of the head coach or a team owner running them.

Several MLS clubs have made that paradigm shift over the last two years, and it probably heralds a new way of doing business in MLS.

  • Toronto hired Tim Bezbatchenko.
  • The New York Red Bulls hired Ali Curtis.
  • Seattle hired Garth Lagerwey.
  • Chicago hired Nelson Rodriguez.
  • Philadelphia hired Earnie Stewart.

Historically, MLS clubs have fielded a model premised largely on European soccer’s most common model: A powerful coach with a weaker sporting director who had input on player personnel moves but did not hold the final say.

Now, MLS clubs are incorporating the American sports model into their management setup, installing a powerful general manager above the head coach and reporting only to ownership. The general manager chooses the head coach and players. The coach runs matters on the field.

The American model has clear benefits for managing a club under the premises of a salary cap. It separates a coach’s immediate needs from a club’s long-term needs, which may not necessarily be the same. For example, how often in Europe do we see a pressured coach blow a big transfer fee on a player who will help the club in the short-term but saddle it with unreasonable expenses in the long-term? The strong general manager model separates these priorities. Olympique Lyon is a great example of a European club that has succeeded with this model. There are plenty of American examples in other sports.

This model gives general managers the authority to make “bold” personnel moves, rather than putting the onus on ownership to identify the right head coach. Owners aren’t always soccer experts. But these general managers most certainly are.

Notes around the league
  • The Portland-Columbus final for MLS Cup is great for the league. No, it’s not a big market like New York, which league officials were probably hoping for. But it pits two dynamic teams that like to attack against each other in the final. From a public relations standpoint, it might have been better if Portland was hosting the final, but either way, good soccer should be on display.
  • The New York Red Bulls fared no better under Jesse Marsch than Mike Petke. A supporters shield? An Eastern Conference final? Sounds familiar. Yes, Marsch led his team this far with a very different team than Petke had, notably without Thierry Henry. But bottom line, the team accomplishment on paper is no different from before. Could Petke have done this well too? We’ll never know.
  • FC Dallas can’t fill its stadium. Major black mark against the club. A conference final, and you have empty seats? Please. That club has some significant problems off the field that need to be addressed, and it may be that new ownership is necessary to do it.
  • John Hackworth is doing just fine, thank you. The former Union coach landed on his feet with the youth national team setup, and he’ll be coaching the U17 boys national team in a tournament this week. Good for him.
  • PPL Park is now Talen Energy Stadium. Bleh. So much for “the people’s stadium.”

34 Comments

  1. Not only are the two finalists great for the league, I thought the Final Four was about as good as you could get in terms of entertaining soccer. It converted by British-born Euro-snob uncle, at any rate. And I think the environment for the final will be just fine without Timber Joey.
    .
    MLS Cup prediction: Columbus wins, dos a cero.

    • Playoffs have been really entertaining. And I agree that the final is very good for the game here. Both teams are likable and deserving of a cup appearance.

      I, too, like the Crew.

    • The Final Four couldn’t be better. Not a single team that dumps tons and tons of money into DPs. All four spent wisely and took years to bring along young talent. It’s a wake up call for MLS.

  2. I noticed empty seats at the Pink Cow game also….I guess the fans were seeing… Red…it was a wide open game. Fun to watch them not make another final. I’ll be rooting for Columbus also.

    • Those empty seats in RBA did not speak well of the team’s fan base. NY/NJ fans are always so fair-weather, but Philly fans get the bad rap. I don’t think Philly fans hit the exits that fast in the same situation.

    • Those empty seats happened late in the game as fans lost hope and left early. The crowd was pretty hot all game, but it was cold, Sunday, and taking public transportation is worse to RBA than it is to Whatever Park where the Union play. (if that is even possible.)

      • Need Red Bull tickets its easy, just dial 1-800-MT-SEATS.

      • I guess that’s fair. Its a sad thing that even a playoff game won’t fill the place. I live in South Jersey and don’t use public transportation. It’s just not close for us…so I can only speak to traffic. It’s not that bad.

  3. Security lines hurt in Dallas, as they have elsewhere since the Paris attacks. Not sure how many tickets they sold, but the security issue made that game and others look worse than they were.

  4. Anyone else notice that the Union’s two best results this season (3-0 wins) were against Portland and Columbus?

    • Only a 2nd level thinker would see that and clearly you are. Well done.

    • Nicely done. I only wish that Sak was here so he could spin this to put the Union’s season in a better light.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      I don’t keep records of the opposing lineups, and my memory is not young and reliable, so I’d appreciate help.

      We played Columbus more than once.

      Did not Portland have injuries and play a weaker side in a game that was a 6000 mile round trip?

  5. Sevilla is another great example of a club who have embraced the GM/Sporting Director model. Monchi has a real eye for seeing value in players who can help the club now and then he can sell for a much higher price 2-3 years later. All the while, they remain near the top of La Liga and alwyas competing (and sometimes even winning) European competitions.

  6. Have I mentioned lately that I wish Paunovic was our coach? Has it been a few days? Still smarting a bit. Once again… I have no distinct proof other than instinct. Course I thought Chip Kelly was the answer too… so occasionally…..instinct is just that.
    .
    Anyway…. The race is on between Chicago and Philadelphia to see who gets it righted faster.

  7. Someone explain to me why we’d trade for Chris Pontius, who is earning $420,000 and has a tendency to get himself injured? Doesn’t seem like an Stewart move, though it has to be. He’s a good player and all, but $420,000?

    • I’m a bit befuddled myself…not gonna lie. I asked for arguments for and against on a different thread.

    • A lot of cap space is cleared. Union have tried for him before. And when healthy, Pontius is a very, very good player. I’m guessing Stewart wants a MLS proven LW for a 4-3-3

    • I also don’t get this. The only thing I can think is that they learned new information about his health or they know they can get rid of his contract soon. Or they see him as a solid replacement for Casey and backup for Sapong and Nando. The other thing I can think is Colorado wanted him so maybe there is someone they want from Colorado and they want to use Pontius for trade bait since it has been stated that there is no one on the Union that other teams want. I mean could a deal be in the works for Torres or Figueroa/ Burling/ St. Ledger/ Sjoberg I mean Rapids have a ton of players with good size that could play CB.

      • Pontius isn’t a target forward. More like a CF or second striker. He doesn’t fit in a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 as a lone striker. So unless the Union are going to start playing a 4-4-2, I don’t think he’ll be up top at all unless as a winger.

      • Well I don’t think we need more target forwards. We need something different up top to throw teams off (personally I would say a change of pace, but thats not Pontius at this point either). But I agree he is more of a second striker and while I have thought for a long time that the Union should be playing a 4-4-2 I don’t see it happening. In replacement for Casey I was more talking a veteran presence and as a Sapong/Nando backup my thought was more of the fact that he knows how to get shots on goal not that he has the same style of play as any of them.

      • That makes sense. When I saw “replacement,” I thought you meant an on-the-field replacement. I do think he’s a great addition as a wide player or even off the shoulder of Sapong or Aristiguieta [sp]

      • Makes sense. It just seems like an anti-money ball move to me.
        .
        If I want to look at it in a positive light, the U paid Vitoria nearly the same amount to be decent in one game and a lump of flesh in his other appearances. I’ll consider it an upgrade.

      • Still not impressed by the move, but its only one move lets wait and see where things go from here.

      • Agreed. Not impressive but better than sitting on their hands.

      • Now trade Edu and get me Tchani, Hollingshead, or Poku and allocation funny money and I’ll consider any of those a massive win.

    • Can’t.

      Like him when he’s healthy, but he’s never healthy.

    • That’s a lot of dough for Partyboy to sit in the injured seat for half the season. Hopefully he is just trade bait.

  8. Moves since Stewart announced as sporting director:

    1. Chicago signs a coach who played for Union and led Serbia to an international youth title – against Brasil.

    2. We still have Curtin, who never played for the Union and has never won anything as coach.

    3. We trade for an injured $400,000 player. (And then DC reportedly turns around and uses our allocation money and Pontius’ roster spot to sign Lamar Neagle, who’s not injured and makes less $. Now that’s moneyball!)

    4. We reportedly decide to keep ‘Nando, who’s too slow to play striker in MLS, and flops unconvincingly.

    As I’ve said before, the shine is coming off this Stewart-led team pretty damn quickly…

    • Bro.

      I mean this in the nicest way possible.

      But you are the worst kind of Philly fan.

      • Lucky Striker says:

        Ben:

        You might be the worst, but I kinda like you.

        I’ve always had a thing for visionaries though…….

        Only thing I’d hold off on is affixing blame on the Mighty Ern.

        This move strikes me as purely a Curtin ploy before supervision arrives.

        btw: White apparently moving on as well.

  9. Old Soccer Coach says:

    My thought about the Pontus deal is that it may mean Conor Casey is hanging up the cleats.
    .
    Of much greater interest is solid information on the options picked up and declined and the 2015 loaned players.

    • Pontius seems to me to be an Andrew Wenger replacement – a much more expensive replacement, at that. Does that mean Wenger is spending a year in Bethlehem re-learning defense? Gone? That my guess is way off base? Who knows…
      .
      What we do know here, though, is that this is at most half a move. There’s still at least one other shoe to drop.

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