Thoughts on coaching

Photo courtesy of 215pix

On Tuesday, Philadelphia Union announced that former players Fred and Kléberson would be joining the Philadelphia Union Academy as coaches, continuing the quiet tradition of the Union players becoming Union coaches. Of course, Fred was the most obvious example of this minor tradition; even before his time as player-coach last season in Bethlehem it was speculated that his inclusion on the 2015 Union roster was more about mentorship than any product on the field, not dissimilar to the position Brian Carroll is in this season. So they join the likes of Jim Curtin, Chris Albright, Mike Sorber, and Oka Nikolov as members of the Union coaching staff with MLS experience. The majority of them even have Philadelphia Union experience, no small feat considering the relatively short history of the team.

Now, that’s less spectacular in the scope of world soccer. Unlike baseball or football, soccer does seem to favor coaches with playing experience. Men like Jürgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola are known for their success as managers, but they had plenty of success as players before that. Contrast that with the American model, where coaches like Bruce Arena or Bob Bradley are arguably some of our best products despite no meaningful professional playing timeSo the Union’s personnel decisions might not be as surprising as they seem at first look.

But there is something significant about the prior experience being overwhelmingly in MLS, with an emphasis on the Philadelphia Union. One interpretation would be that as MLS/Union players they are seen as damaged goods due to association, but Kléberson in particular makes that feel inaccurate as well as ungenerous. He’s a World Cup winner with experience under Sir Alex Ferguson. Whatever taint the Union or MLS may come with, his other playing experience should certainly be able to overcome it. So it doesn’t take any fantastic leap of the imagination to assume that he, and probably the rest of the players turned coaches, are here by choice rather than for lack of other opportunities.

Coaching, like so many other jobs, is about who you know as much as it’s about what you know. But that so many players have chosen to return does suggest that for all the strife and lack of success that surround the Union, there is something worth returning to. Maybe it’s the work environment. Presumably for some of them, it’s proximity to friends and family. But for a career where success is essential for continued employment, that isn’t enough. They’re going to put their time and effort into what they think is going to pay off, and for a lot of these guys they saw something during their time in Philly that makes them believe that payoff can happen here. Maybe not this season, but that kind of commitment, personal and professional, provides a sliver of hope that is desperately needed as the Union face what is certain to be a very difficult rest of the season.


  1. It means we are cheap.

    I have no issue with bring in former players, in fact its good our kids will be learning fro ma former WC winner.

    But they need to be offset by proven, veteran, accomplished coaches higher up the chain.

    We don’t have that.

  2. A lot of these guys are comfortable either in this area or in the US in general. One of the quiet undercurrents of this franchise has been how much the international guys like the area. They like the schools for their kids, the neighborhoods, etc. It doesn’t seem that they are in a hurry to head back to their countries of origin, whether that is Brazil, Germany, or France (thinking ahead with LeToux).
    I don’t think there are any negative signs to take from this, particularly if these guys focus mainly on the Academy. Their experience and the respect they have earned is a positive.
    It becomes a problem if the Union continue to operate as they have in the past with just grabbing the next guy in line for their manager of the big club. But let’s not jump to that conclusion yet, and just appreciate that the local youth players will have exposure to guys with wonderful experience.

  3. “Contrast that with the American model,…”
    That was representational of MLS 1.0, but at this point MLS coaching staffs are mostly populated by ex-players. Right now there are only two head coaches w/o an MLS playing career (Sigi & Schmetzer – both played before MLS), and only four coaches who never played in MLS but played elsewhere (Viera, Heath, Cabrera & Martino). The rest are all MLS alum. All current coaches have national team caps – except for Sigi, Schmetzer and…. wait for it…. Jim Curtin.
    I don’t think Curtin is a bad guy, he does great with player management and has a lot of the qualities that you want in a coach. He just doesn’t have the experience (i.e. tactical acumen) to be coaching at this level yet. I sincerely believe that we need to bring him back to the U-20s and let him gain that under the tutelage of a credentialed head coach, then maybe in 5 years he’ll be ready.
    But in the mean time, let’s go out and get ourselves a head coach.

    • When I said “American model”, I was thinking about American coaching across sports. With the possible exception of basketball, successful coaches often AREN’T successful players in the major American sports. Like you said that carried over into MLS 1.0, but isn’t the trend any longer.

  4. Any article that successfully uses the word “taint” is A-OK in my book!
    Also – I believe Brian Carroll is serving as a coach now with the Academy as well. He was one of the evaluators for the Pre-Academy. Maybe not on the books yet, but looks like he’s going that route.

    I’ve heard players before talk about what a great area this is to raise kids, so I think that probably factors in as well…especially once you’re kids stop going to bed at 10pm 😉

  5. Fore every Klopp and Pep there are Jose Mourinhos and Aresne Wengers.

  6. Did Nikolov ever actually play?

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