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MLS familiarity a growing trend among league coaching hires

Frank Klopas Ousted Chicago Fire manager Frank Klopas was hired by the Montreal Impact, which turned to an MLS-experienced manager after letting Marco Schallibaum go. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press/AP)

Conventional wisdom suggested that if Montreal Impact officials decided to replace Marco Schällibaum, they surely would look East, toward Europe, for the Swiss head coach’s successor.

Instead, sporting director Nick De Santis looked into his past, recalling chats and meals he shared with Frank Klopas, a kindred spirit from Chicago.

“Even before MLS we had phone calls about players, maybe players he didn’t want, we’d bring them down from MLS to the second division. Once we went into MLS, when we played against him I asked if we could go out to dinner after the game,” De Santis told SI.com. “We hit it off right away. He’s got that Greek background. I’ve got an Italian background. We understood the emotional side of things.”

They both played pro soccer before it was fashionable, both tried their luck in Europe and both represented their countries in the late 1980s and ‘90s. One year apart in age, Klopas and De Santis then went into management with their hometown clubs. When Klopas was cut loose by the Fire in late October, shortly after missing out on the playoffs (on a tiebreaker to Montreal, of all teams), De Santis began to consider what really mattered in an MLS coach.

He was impressed by the way Klopas, 47, responded to challenges despite the league’s roster restraints. After it became clear Sherjill MacDonald wasn’t the answer up front, Klopas traded for Mike Magee. With injured defender Arne Friedrich headed into retirement, the Fire reacquired Bakary Soumaré. And De Santis appreciated Klopas’ devotion and loyalty to his club.

“I thought, there’s a coach there who kept them believing that they were going to get out of it,” De Santis said.

“When I looked at this year and saw the four teams that were remaining the league [playoffs], I looked at [Caleb] Porter. I looked at Jason Kreis, Peter Vermes and Dom Kinnear,” he continued. “What they have is important. You can see those four coaches put a stamp on their teams. ‘This is who we are. This is what we believe in.’ There’s a true identity and in the end, when you have an identity, consistency is going to surpass everything … It was about winning and doing everything they could to keep a team together.”

Of course, all four coaches also played in MLS and were raised on the game in the U.S. They understand the North American soccer landscape, player identification and development and, crucially, are committed to the success of their clubs and their league. They’re not management mercenaries. Throw in Mike Petke, who won the Supporters' Shield in his first year with the New York Red Bulls (who sought but failed to hire a second straight European coach), and Jay Heaps, who guided the New England Revolution back to the playoffs, and 2013 represented a new high-water mark for homegrown coaches in MLS.

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That wasn’t lost on the Whitecaps, who tried to entice Bob Bradley before naming Carl Robinson, a first-time head coach who spent five years as an MLS player before working two seasons as a Vancouver assistant. It wasn’t lost on Real Salt Lake, which named long-time assistant Jeff Cassar as Kreis’ replacement. It wasn’t lost on the Seattle Sounders, who opted for continuity in retaining Sigi Schmid despite a disappointing season rather than a roll of the dice with an unfamiliar replacement.

And it wasn’t lost on the two MLS teams most likely to hire a foreign manager, Chivas USA and Montreal.

Although Chivas remains without a head coach, it did offer the position to former Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United manager Curt Onalfo. Although the contract terms weren’t sufficient to entice Onalfo away from his role at the L.A. Galaxy, it signaled a departure for a club that was so committed to Mexican management only last year. And of course, there’s Montreal. While others might call Klopas a “retread,” De Santis sees a coach with a winning record, priceless MLS experience on the bench and as a technical director, and a passion for growing the game in North America.

“For me, it’s very important that the technical staff, the team manager, the equipment manager, they need to be committed and passionate about the team,” De Santis said. “The players who come from outside who come to this club, they’ll see, ‘Man, these people care. They care about the success of the club and nothing else.’”

Players do notice that sort of thing. When RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen, president Bill Manning and GM Garth Lagerwey spoke to their team’s veteran core about Kreis’ replacement, they received a unanimous endorsement of Cassar, who’d been Kreis’ right-hand man throughout the recent run of success.

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“I don’t think it’s necessarily a magic elixir that everybody [on RSL’s technical staff] played MLS soccer, but when you have a lot of guys who did, that’s a real positive,” Lagerwey said. “You understand the guys, you understand the situations they’ve been in and you can empathize. You put yourself in their shoes and often it helps you resolve conflicts.”

Lagerwey stressed that a coach didn’t have to play in the league to understand the league (see Arena, Bruce). But that experience, combined with the continuity offered by Cassar, helped RSL make its decision. Lagerwey, his bosses and his players knew what they had in the former goalkeeper. They could avoid taking a technical and financial flyer on a coach that was new to the club or country (or in the case of candidate Robin Fraser, absent in recent years) and follow a proven path. In MLS, foreign seasoning and head coaching experience is less important than a deep knowledge, comfort and enthusiasm for domestic soccer.

“It’s huge just knowing how this league operates, what type of talent a player needs to be successful in MLS and also knowing the USL, NASL, the college player. I feel like I’ve made so many great relationships in these 18 years now, almost 20 years, that you can reach out all the information’s just right there in front of you. I feel like an outside coach would have a hard time with that,” Cassar, 39, told SI.com.

He’s been at Salt Lake since 2007. He’s desperate to win there.

“I’m all about information and getting better. I’m not the finished product right now, I have a lot to learn, but I’m willing to learn and I have a work ethic that will not stop,” he said.

Cassar also took note of the increasing number of MLS coaches with domestic roots, adding that the pool of potential managers continues to grow.

“It’s definitely a trend, and I think it’s only going to continue,” Cassar said. “There are so many qualified people now.”

De Santis said that he does see a scenario under which a foreign coach could succeed. (Gary Smith, who guided the Colorado Rapids to the 2010 title, is the only manager new to North American soccer to win the league championship.) He envisions a “top level” foreign coach able to bring advanced tactics to the table, especially during matches, who then is “surrounded by people who understand the league.”

Finding that coach and instilling in him the patience, personality and passion that De Santis or players from Red Bull Arena and Rio Tinto Stadium seem to respond to, however, may be a tall order. They’re more expensive and aren’t any more likely to succeed.

“That’s the reality of soccer. It’s about relationships. It’s about emotion. It’s more than just the sport,” De Santis said. “We’ve gained experience [during two seasons in MLS], but it worked out really well with Frank. We found someone with MLS experience that we feel can work in our environment. We feel he can work in our environment, because he’s been around something like it before.”
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