Greg Lalas
Monday January 18th, 2010

The failures of foreign coaches litter the annals of Major League Soccer like cigarette butts on the sidewalk outside a bar. Such luminaries as Carlos Alberto Parreira, Bora Milutinovic, Ruud Gullit, Frank Stapleton and Bobby Houghton have all come to America, struggled to find a groove within MLS' arcane rules and gotten out of Dodge as quickly as possible, leaving behind a club in turmoil and a chorus of tsk-tsking pundits.

Commentators (this one included) have often decried imported coaches as unable to understand the American player -- as if the American player is a hard-to-pronounce foreign letter, like the Greek "g" or the German ö. And with the recent hirings of Hans Backe by the New York Red Bulls and Carlos de los Cobos by the Chicago Fire, many of the same concerns have come to the fore again.

Oddly, critics have lashed out at the Backe hiring more than the de los Cobos one, despite the fact that Backe speaks English and has exactly as much experience coaching in the U.S. as de los Cobos does -- i.e., none.

Still, many believe Backe will struggle. This, even though everyone I spoke to admitted they know next-to-nothing about Backe. What they do know is that he isn't the marquee name for whom they had hoped, he has had a litany of one- and two-year coaching stints and he is foreign.

The media's doubt about a foreign coach's ability to succeed in MLS has had one disturbing unintended consequence. Namely, the players have a gift-wrapped excuse for struggling under certain coaches: "I'm not playing well because [insert foreign coach] doesn't understand the American player," they can say.

No more. It's time to kill off the coddled and excused American player and replace him with one who just happens to be American. Because as MLS grows and improves, and the U.S. national team continues to succeed on the international level, more and more American players are going to go overseas.

In Europe, obviously, Americans don't receive any special treatment. The Americans who accept that and have the ability to adapt to a foreign framework are the ones who will succeed -- Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra, Maurice Edu, et al. The rest, like Eddie Johnson, will bounce around and, unless they figure it out at some point, eventually disappear.

The nationality of a player shouldn't matter; talent and mentality should. Same goes for a coach. The question is not whether Backe or de los Cobos can coach the American player, but whether either can coach in MLS. Can he take advantage of the draft, work the salary cap, navigate the long summer slog, etc.? These are more important factors than his players' college education and upper-middle-class background.

Over the years, I've talked casually about this with many coaches, including New England's Steve Nicol and Philadelphia's Peter Nowak, two of MLS' most successful foreign coaches ever. They both say the same thing: In effect, players are players. Sure, American players often have different backgrounds than their European and South American counterparts, so a coach might have to nuance things differently, but American players have similar motivations and ambitions -- to play, to improve, to win, to earn a bigger contract.

Nicol's and Nowak's success as coaches, then, has come from their ability to operate within MLS' rules. They adapted to the U.S., just like Dempsey and Bocanegra adapted to Europe.

How will Backe and de los Cobos adapt? Will they accept the rules and learn to thrive within them like Nicol and Nowak have done? Or will they bristle, grow frustrated, and find themselves floundering like Parreira and Gullit did?

If early indications are anything, both are on the right path. De los Cobos' hiring has enthralled many in Chicago, and he has re-energized the Cuauhtémoc Blanco-loving Mexican fan base. Backe and the Red Bulls had the second-best draft in the league, picking up a few sure things and addressing several of their biggest holes. And Backe proved to be a good interview, to boot.

Still, time will tell if any of this means anything. But regardless of how it ends up playing out, the fact that they're foreign should mean nothing.

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