Patrick Vieira laughed on Wednesday afternoon when asked how many times a reporter had wondered whether the Frenchman’s lack of familiarity with re-entry drafts, discovery lists and other esoteric MLS mechanisms would hinder his ability to coach New York City FC. He laughed, and he was only halfway through a 12-hour gauntlet that included his introductory press conference at Yankee Stadium, one-on-one interviews and an evening fan event at a Manhattan pub. He’d be getting similar questions for several more hours.
That’s because managers without prior U.S. soccer experience simply don’t succeed in the global game’s most peculiar league. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. Englishman Gary Smith shepherded the Colorado Rapids to a surprising MLS Cup title in 2010. Otherwise there’s been a lot of failure or frustration for first-time foreigners, from a few one-and-done stints during the league’s inaugural season to the chaotic tenures of Carlos Alberto Parreira, Ruud Gullit, Hans Backe and Marco Schällibaum, among others. To win in MLS, you’ve got to understand and embrace MLS. That’s been the perceived pattern.
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Vieira, 39, spent the first four years of his coaching career with Manchester City and doesn’t yet have a degree in targeted allocation money, but a key difference between the 1998 World Cup winner and many of his foreign MLS predecessors is that he seems to welcome the differences. He's eager, rather than exasperated.
“I’ve been learning about TAM money and the salary cap and all this stuff,” Vieira told SI.com on Wednesday, the day he was formally introduced as NYCFC’s second head coach. “It makes it really exciting and I believe it’s one of the strengths of Major League Soccer. I quite like the fact that you have a limited amount off money and you have to build a team using all that stuff.”
In other words, the smartest club—not necessarily the richest—prevails. In England, Manchester City surged from the third tier to a Premier League title in 14 years thanks to City Football Group/Abu Dhabi’s investment. The recipe for success in MLS is a bit more complicated. NYCFC spent big money on David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard in 2015 (the latter two joined midseason) but finished 10-17-7 and out of the 12-team playoff.
Coach Jason Kreis, who’d been so successful with modest Real Salt Lake, was fired in November.
“My main focus and job will be, 'How can I get the best out of every single player on the field and help them be stronger?' All the other stuff is just about a desire to learn and to understand and wanting to improve yourself,” Vieira said. “I’m surrounded by really good people who have really good experience in MLS, who understand the rules really well, and it’s all about spending time to see how things are done in this country and I have to adapt.”
That combination of humility and enthusiasm is a big reason why NYCFC sporting director Claudio Reyna is convinced that Vieira is both the right man to lead the second-year club and a manager who’s ready to establish a new standard for MLS newcomers.
“He’s been really open,” Reyna told SI.com at last week’s MLS draft in Baltimore. “I think perhaps other coaches in the past haven’t done that, to be honest. They probably looked down on how our sport’s developed. It has a uniqueness in its evolution from 30 years ago, 20 years ago … He quite likes the idea and structure that everyone’s playing with more or less the same rules and there’s parity. The preparation and the coaches make a difference.”
Reyna added, “We also have to realize that it’s just soccer in the end. That’s what he’s coaching. He’s coaching players.”
Vieira’s “openness” should make a difference in the locker room as well, Reyna said. While Vieira’s playing career speaks for itself, his tenure as head coach of Manchester City’s Under-21 team has prepped him for working with the less renowned end of an MLS roster. Sitting near the likes of Villa and Lampard are recent college players making 1-2% as much money. Communicating with both is essential.
“One really key element is that he can have a conversation and speak the same language with our Designated Players and he can go down to the younger players, put an arm around them and give them the confidence and commitment to develop them,” Reyna said. “There’s certainly from our end an assuredness that Patrick is the right fit. First and foremost, because he’s a fantastic presence. We need a real strong leader and this looking ahead, not really talking about the past [under Kreis]. Patrick was that as a player. There’s a lot of value in that. You need the right type of presence who’s going to be a strong leader when things perhaps aren’t going well. You need a developer of players. What he did in Manchester, he developed some fantastic talent. And also being able to talk to the big players.”
While there were times last season when Kreis seemed impatient or appeared to chafe under the duress, missing the playoffs was hardly all his fault. Several signings, like Slovakian striker Adam Nemec and a few who passed through the club’s revolving door of a back four, didn’t work out. U.S. national teamer Mix Diskerud failed to make a consistent impact and CFG’s decision to keep Lampard in Manchester through the first half of the MLS campaign wrecked any chance of full-year continuity.
So far this winter, NYCFC has bolstered the back line with MLS veteran Ethan White and Costa Rican international Rónald Matarrita. And Reyna promised that Lampard and Pirlo “never came with an attitude that it would be easy” and that they’re well rested and hungry to bring a winner to the Bronx.
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“I don’t see it as a challenge,” Vieira said when asked about uniting a diverse locker room. “I think that is part of how I want to work and it will be easy communicating with the players. It can be Pirlo. It can be [draft pick] Jack Harrison. What is really good is that in our football club we have three fantastic, world-class players who are good human beings and they don’t need me to tell them how to conduct themselves … I want the young players to bring energy, to challenge the experienced players and if everybody thinks like that, I think we’ll be in a really good place.”
Vieira loves New York City. He said he’s vacationed there frequently with his family over the past five or six years. He came to watch former France and Arsenal teammate Thierry Henry play for the New York Red Bulls, and hopes that when NYCFC takes the field it will reflect the city’s energy and diversity. He and Reyna both know that fans in the league’s biggest market don’t want to play second fiddle, whether it’s in the standings or to a bigger brother in Manchester. Building chemistry, forging an identity and thriving under that pressure will be Vieira’s biggest challenges.
“It’s never a question about changing the philosophy or the fans’ vision of what they expect and what they want,” the new coach said. “I think New York City is part of the City Football Group with its own identity and its own fan base and its own culture and this is what’s important. We as [CFG] aren’t going to change that, and me, as a coach, I don’t want to change that. That’s the strength of this football club.”
CFG has invested a lot in Vieira and has an interest in his success. That interest suggests he’ll have more than one year to turn NYCFC into a championship contender. While Reyna said he was reluctant to “set an exact target” this season, he does “need to see progress in the way the team is playing, the way it’s being built and the way individuals are improving.” Last year, he added, that progress wasn’t apparent.
Reyna has high expectations for his new coach while Vieira, whose career with some of the sports biggest clubs conditioned him to demand immediate success, expects much from himself. And there was no laughter when he talked about that.
“We are living in an industry where we don’t have time,” he said. “We have to be successful. We have to be successful. We need to win football matches and to be treated the same way as anybody else. That is the world we are living in. There’s pressure, and that’s part of the game. I think I have enough experience and I know what to expect and how to deal with certain situations.”