Chivas USA and The Montreal Impact: North America’s Anti-North American Clubs

chelis_300Schallibaum

The Montreal Impact introduced their new coach, Marco Schallibaum (right), on Monday, and the club’s owner, Joey Saputo, had some interesting things to say following the announcement. Schallibaum replaces retired MLS player Jesse Marsch, who led Montreal to a not-bad 12-16-6 record in their first year of MLS existence (and his first as a head coach), keeping them in the playoff chase till the final third of the season.

Here’s the owner’s take on the change:

“Getting into MLS, we were told that the MLS [sic] was different. You need the American experience or people in your organization who understood the MLS [sic]. We moved away from what we really believed. Last year, when we looked for coaches, we didn’t look abroad. We looked at American coaches. We basically gave that coach carte blanche with the people on his coaching staff. We went away from our core values.”

Of course there’s a reason Saputo and his team received that advice. The track record of North American coaches, or coaches who’ve spent a lot of time on these shores, is pretty glittering, while the track record of foreign-reared coaches, with only a few exceptions, is the direct opposite of glittering.

There have been 17 MLS Cup trophies handed out in the league’s history. All but one have gone to coaches with substantial experience in US and/or Canadian soccer circles. The lone exception, Englishman Gary Smith, who won the 2010 championship with Colorado, is no longer in the league, having clashed with Rapids management and returned to England just one year after winning the MLS title.

That’s not to say that a foreign coach can’t or won’t soon find sustained success in MLS, it’s just to point out that the grain of history has so far run against that happening.

Yet Saputo and Montreal are undeterred. Here’s more from Saputo at the Schallibaum presser:

“We are a very European-type city. We like the European flavor. We’re different from Toronto. We’re different from the other North American cities. The culture is different. Our fans didn’t want to see the American players. They wanted to see the European players.”

And so, in 2013, Montreal fans will see more Europeans. Or at least one more: The Impact have signed Italian journeyman midfielder Andrea Pisanu, bringing him into the fold alongside the Serie A veterans they already have—center backs Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari, and striker Marco Di Vaio.

What Saputo’s comments mean for the nine Americans still on the Impact’s active roster of 22 remains to be seen.

Across the continent in Los Angeles, Chivas USA is undergoing a similar re-think (or, in their case, re- re-think; they started life in MLS saying they would only sign players of Mexican descent). The club has hired the fiery, enigmatic Jose Luis Sanchez Sola, formerly of Puebla, as its new head coach.

Here’s what Sola—more readily known by his nickname, Chelis—had to say about MLS before he was hired, in response to rumors that he might in fact be hired. He was speaking to the Mexican site MedioTiempo.com:

“I believe that in MLS almost all the teams play the same. The champion plays the same like all the teams. It’s not that you want to improvise, but I don’t have the sensibility to do what they do over there. It could be good as far as points and achievements, but I don’t think I have the profile to play that kind of soccer.”

That sounds for all the world like a man turning down a job prospect, yet, just days later, Chelis was announced as the Goats’ manager, their eighth in nine seasons as a franchise.

Like Saputo, he said the club’s problem lay in the nationality of its personnel:

“It doesn’t have a style and it has lost its Mexican base. In the last tournament they played without Mexicans and I imagine that giving the team a Mexican base, we can get to that style of soccer that I like to play. From there, people will come on board, we’ll achieve more, and from there you begin to please and give something different from the soccer in [MLS]. It’s possible to achieve it and reach many objectives.”

It probably is, Chelis, and we wish you the best of luck in reaching them. The league—and the game in this country—would only benefit from having two competitive teams in Los Angeles.

But both you and Saputo should keep in mind that not only have almost all of the MLS Cup–winning coaches been steeped in North American soccer culture, but most of the championship-winning players, too, have been American.

The rosters of every single one of the 17 MLS championship teams have been predominantly American.

As a famous American coach used to say, you could look it up.

But good luck with the new directions you’re pursuing. And you can take some solace in the fact that you’re not alone. The New York Red Bulls—a team without a trophy of any kind in 17 years of existence—are on the verge of hiring their second straight foreign-born-and-bred coach, as they’re reportedly close to a deal with Paulo Sousa of Portugal.

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Rising in the East: New York

Given the team’s unsteady history, there should probably be a question mark instead of a colon in the header above. But the Red Bulls did add some intriguing signings to their already talented roster this offseason, and they, like most of the rest of the Eastern Conference, believe they have the players to contend for it all in 2012.

And we mean literally contend for it all: Here’s coach Hans Backe on a recent conference call with reporters, as relayed by MLSsoccer.com: “I say we should go for it all: the Open Cup, the [Supporters’] Shield, the MLS Cup. We have a very good squad this year.”

And so they do. But they had a very talented squad last year, and barely scraped their way into the playoffs. They’ve had some talented teams peppered through their 16-year history, and yet the franchise doesn’t have a single trophy to show for it. Not one. (Unless you count the 2011 ‘Emirates Cup,’ which you probably shouldn’t.)

The problem with New York (well, the main one) is that the team has never had an identity. From the get-go in 1996, they’ve lacked personality, continuity, and stability. The team has had 12 coaches in 16 years, and cycled through a phone book’s worth of players.

The Backe era, now entering its third season, hasn’t been much different. Last season, on the all-too-appropriate date of April 1 (considering what followed), the team traded promising midfielder Tony Tchani, defender Danleigh Borman, and a draft pick to acquire Toronto FC attacker Dwayne De Rosario.

Thirteen games later, though, New York shipped De Rosario to DC United straight-up for midfielder Dax McCarty—and De Ro promptly went on a tear, finishing the season with 16 goals, 12 assists, and the league MVP award.

The upshot was that they’d cut loose two useful bench players, a draft pick, and the MVP of the league, for … Dax McCarty. It was not an efficient piece of front-office maneuvering, and it reminded fans of the bad old days they’d hoped had been left behind when Backe and GM Erik Soler took over after the 2009 season.

This offseason, though, has produced reasons for cautious (very cautious) optimism among those shell-shocked fans: The team lost central defender Tim Ream, an unheralded 2010 draft pick who played his way onto the U.S. national team, but they replaced him with Markus Holgersson, a 26-year-old fresh from winning a treble in his native Sweden and earning his first international call-up.

The 6-3 Holgersson will most likely partner with 6-2 Wilman Conde, a 29-year-old Colombian who was an MLS Best XI selection with Chicago in 2009.

If Conde is 80% the player he was in 2009, and if Holgersson is a genuine international-caliber centerback, then New York will have upgraded its backline significantly. The height of the two new defenders should also help the team get better in the air on set pieces—a glaring weakness last season, both offensively and defensively.

In midfield, the team added Icelandic U-21 player Victor Palsson, whose signing was announced today. He’ll add depth in the center of the park, where the team relied too heavily on Teemu Tainio last season.

The most curious acquisition was that of former Portland and FC Dallas striker Kenny Cooper. It’s hard to imagine him and Thierry Henry on the field together, as their styles seem too similar to mesh well. But if the team is going after three trophies, as Backe says they are, they’ll need depth—and if Cooper, who’s still only 27, can recapture something like his 2008 form, when he scored 18 goals in 30 games for Dallas, he’ll be a solid pickup.

The Red Bulls also have five players trialing with them in preseason at the moment, and Backe told the MLS website that he would like to sign them all if he can fit them under the salary cap.

Now if they can just solve their goalkeeping problem….

Rising In the East: Chicago

As we said yesterday, the 2012 edition of Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference appears poised to put a dent in the Western Conference’s recent dominance (last three MLS champs, five of last six MLS Cup finalists).

There are a number of teams in the East with lofty goals and the ability to achieve them this year. We’re not saying the Western dominance will be reversed, but don’t be surprised if there’s a noticeable shift in conference power this year.

Today, we look at the Chicago Fire.

Chicago closed last season as one of the hottest teams in the league, going 7-2-1 down the stretch. But as torrid as their closing run was, it couldn’t make up for their frigid start: The Fire won just once in their first 13 games under coach Carlos de los Cobos. He was dismissed in late May, and after new coach Frank Klopas acquired midfielders Pavel Pardo (148 caps for Mexico) and Sebastian Grazzini (an Argentine who had five goals in 11 appearances last year), the Fire became a very tough out.

They finished 9-9-16, with those 16 ties being both an MLS record (tied—appropriately—with New York) and an indication of what might have been.

This season, with Pardo and Grazzini in the fold at the start, Chicago is aiming high. “We feel we can reach the playoffs,” Klopas told MLSsoccer.com in January. “The [US] Open Cup, the Supporters’ Shield, [those are] things we think we can win. It’s great that we’re setting those goals early on.”

They’ll have their two influential midfielders for the entire season this year, but the Fire did not stand pat during the offseason. They acquired experienced Colombian midfielder Rafael Robayo, 27, from Millonarios, where he was captain and helped lead the club to the 2011 Copa Colombia title.

They picked up goalkeeper Jay Nolly, formerly of Vancouver, to spell Sean Johnson, and they added depth up top with Zimbabwean speedster Kheli Dube. He’ll start on the bench behind new signing Federico Puppo, a 25-year-old Uruguayan who has two goals in three appearances for his nation’s U-22 side, and should make for some interesting announcing sequences when he combines with Fire midfielder Marco Pappa this season.

The Fire also locked in promising striker Orr Barouch on a permanent transfer after he’d been on loan from Tigres of the Mexican top flight, and they picked up some interesting prospects in the SuperDraft, including potential Name Hall of Famers Lucky Mkosana (Dartmouth) and Hunter Jumper (UVA).

Yes, things are looking up at Toyota Park, and if the team stays healthy, it could be looking down at much of the Eastern Conference table come October.

Tomorrow: New York.

Rising In the East: DC United

For the past several seasons Major League Soccer’s Western Conference has been markedly more competitive than its Eastern counterpart.

The last three league champions, and the last five MLS Cup finalists, have come from the Western conference—with the lone East representative in that span, Houston, being a transplanted Western team.

The top four teams in the West last season all had higher regular-season point totals than the 2011 Eastern Conference champion, Sporting Kansas City.

But as we ramp up toward opening day of the 2012 season, slightly more than a month away, the winds of change could be blowing through the East.

We’re not saying the Western dominance will be reversed, but don’t be surprised if there’s a noticeable shift in the power (im)balance in 2012.

We’ll start with last year’s seventh-place team in the East, DC United. They narrowly missed the 2011 playoffs, battling Chicago and New York for the final berth right down to the last week of the season (NY claimed it), and in the offseason they’ve both gotten healthier and made some significant acquisitions.

In the health department, talented young attacker Chris Pontius will be back after breaking his tibia down the stretch last season. Defender Dejan Jakovic, a Croatian-born Canadian international, should be fully fit after an injury marred 2011.

Finally, and probably most importantly, designated player Branko Boskovic (top right) will be 100% after a knee injury that caused him to miss most of last season and, apparently, he’s fully motivated. He’s a skillful, experienced midfielder who could form a lethal partnership with reigning league MVP Dwayne De Rosario (top left).

On the acquisitions front, DC did very well this offseason. They picked up steady veteran outside back Robbie Russell, who won an MLS Cup with Real Salt Lake in 2009. They acquired towering Argentine center-back Emiliano Dudar from the Swiss top flight, and added 30-year-old Brazilian defensive midfielder Marcelo Saragosa, who has played in MLS before and is a solid, proven commodity who’ll add depth behind Perry Kitchen.

The Black-and-Red also traded for athletic former Houston Dynamo winger Danny Cruz, and signed Brazilian forward Maicon Santos, who has shown flashes of brilliance in MLS. Speaking to the Washington Post about the former Chivas USA, FC Dallas, and Toronto FC man, DC coach Ben Olsen said, “I don’t think he’s been at the right team. I think he’s at the right team now.”

Lastly, and again, most crucially, DC nabbed Albanian striker Hamdi Salihi (top, center) as their second designated player. Salihi is a 28-year-old international with an incredible strike rate in several mid-tier European leagues (ie., leagues roughly equivalent to MLS). He bagged 36 goals in 67 appearances for Rapid Vienna of the Austrian top flight, including 11 in 15 matches this season.

He and Boskovic were teammates at Rapid Vienna.

Also studding DC’s 2012 roster are 2010 Rookie of the Year Andy Najar, and a pair of solid American defenders in Chris Korb and Daniel Woolard.

On paper, the Black-and-Red have made a solid bid to return to the glory years of the franchise. If they can translate it to the field, they’ll rise well above last year’s seventh-place finish.

Tomorrow: Chicago.

Where Have You Gone, Claudio Reyna?

We heard from Backpost reader RefBaiter after the U.S.’s 1-0 loss to Ecuador on Tuesday night, and he had some interesting things to say about the match, and the U.S. team in general. Take a look:

“Last night was a mixed bag. They certainly played okay, but never really threatened. It’s hard to figure out the problem.

My initial reaction is that they have lots of problems in the center of midfield. Kyle Beckerman is fine defensively—not better than Michael Bradley in my opinion—but I don’t think he’s a particularly good passer. Same with Maurice Edu. He is being asked to do more than he is capable of. His first touch is weak and he can never get us out of pressure.

These guys can’t receive a ball in traffic and pass out of trouble. Think back 10 years—the U.S. had Claudio Reyna and John OBrien (and before that, Tab Ramos). We are still waiting for their replacements.

Without an outstanding creative midfielder, we are never going to be very good. And I don’t think Clint Dempsey or Landon Donovan fall into the category of creative midfielder.

Some unusually levelheaded points from the RefBaiter, who was never so even-keeled with the officiating during his playing days.

We agree that the U.S. currently lacks a player in the Reyna-O’Brien mold—a box-to-box midfielder who is strong in possession and can pull strings on offense.

(They also lack a post-up striker such as they used to have in Brian McBride—an absence that may be as glaring as that of a playmaking midfielder, but that’s another discussion.)

Is there anyone out there, yet to be tapped by Jurgen Klinsmann, who can fill that role?

Stuart Holden, if he ever gets and stays healthy, could be the guy (he’s 26, btw).

What about Benny Feilhaber? He’s certainly good in possession and on offense, but he’s not exactly a bulldog ballwiner (and he’s 29).

Other possibilities include Jose Francisco Torres (23), Mikkel Diskerud (21), and, at the youthful end of the spectrum, rising Real Salt Lake youngster Luis Gil (17).

Also, you never know who will emerge in the next two years or so. Dempsey, after all, was hardly a household name when he won the MLS Rookie of the Year Award in 2004, and then went on to USMNT and EPL greatness.

There’s another possibility, too, one that Klinsmann brings up in this recent piece in The Atlantic (where he also has high praise for Torres):

“One thing you see less and less in modern soccer is the classic Number 10 [creative midfielder], because as a coach you don’t want to depend too much on one individual. The role model at the moment is Barcelona. Xavi, Iniesta—these guys work both ways. Defensively, they are nasty to win the ball back, then when they have it they are very skillful. Are they classical Number 10s? No, because you never know which one is the Number 10.”

If Klinsmann is looking to apply that model to the U.S., then he is definitely not done auditioning central midfielders.

Perhaps we’ll see a new face or two when the Yanks take the field against France on Nov. 11 in Paris, a friendly that was just confirmed today.

Klinsmann’s Opening Gambit

Jurgen Klinsmann has only made two significant moves in his short tenure as coach of the USMNT, but each one is intriguing on its own, and taken together, they reveal an unexpected amount of what the new coach is trying to implement.

In the days after his hiring, Klinsmann spoke about the importance of including the Latin influence in this country, and giving that element its due in the makeup of U.S. soccer going forward.

He also discussed the needs for developing young players and for improving the technical ability of the American player, while demonstrating a knowledge of the various structures in place for the game in the US, from the pay-to-play, highly organized system of youth soccer, to college soccer to the various youth national programs to MLS.

His first roster selection has a notable Latin contingent in Edgar Castillo, Jose Torres, and Michael Orozco Fiscal (he might have added Herculez Gomez as well, but chose not to).

It’s also strong on youth, with 18-year-old Juan Agudelo and 19-year-old Bill Hamid carrying the flag in that department (also 20-year-old Brek Shea, and Tim Ream, who, while not as young as the others—he’s 23—has only one and a half years of professional ball under his belt and just six caps with the U.S.).

Immediately after taking the job, Klinsmann stated that he would keep US Youth Technical Director Claudio Reyna and interim US U-20 coach Tab Ramos as very close associates in his regime. Reyna and Ramos are both players with Latin heritage who grew up in the U.S. and played college soccer before going on to successful professional careers.

When it came time to name assistants for Wednesday’s Mexico friendly, Klinsmann chose Ramos, Martin Vasquez—a Mexican-born former U.S. midfielder—and Thomas Dooley, a German-born U.S. World Cup veteran.

Vasquez coached Chivas USA last season and was an assistant to Klinsmann at Bayern Munich in 2009.

Ramos, one of the best and most skillful American players of all time, has been heavily involved in youth soccer since dropping the curtain on a playing career that included three World Cups and stints in Spain, Mexico, and MLS.

Dooley played in the Bundesliga and for the U.S. in the 1998 World Cup (against Klinsmann in both cases) before wrapping up his career in MLS. Since then, he’s been involved in youth coaching in the U.S. and was part of the staff of Pateadores, the club that won the 2011 Development Academy U-17/18 championship.

These choices blend, pretty seamlessly, all of the elements Klinsmann has talked about so far, from the Latin influence and an emphasis on technical ability to an understanding of the youth and college scenes in the U.S.—all seasoned with a dose of European perspective (himself and Dooley).

Beyond that, Dooley, Ramos, and Vasquez all played with one another on the U.S. team and in MLS, so they have a built-in familiarity.

This trio has not been handed the jobs—Klinsmann said he’ll try out a number of assistants—but they’re an intriguing group and, combined with the roster selection, show a new coach proceeding with a multifaceted plan, and an eye on the endgame.

*Klinsmann also tapped an outside-the-box (no pun intended) goalkeepers coach in Mike Curry, and a proven fitness coach in Mark Verstegen.

Curry was named one of the 100 most influential blacks in corporate America last year for his work with the Vanguard Group and in diversity causes. He played soccer at the University of Baltimore and has been a goalkeepers coach for nearly four decades, working with famed Pennsylvania youth club FC Delco, among other organizations.

Verstegen is the owner and founder of Athletes’ Performance, a Tempe, Arizona–based state-of-the-art training facility. He worked with Klinsmann and the German team in 2006.

Let’s Check Today’s Temperature in Qatar, Shall We?

Just for smiles.

On our way into the office this morning, we overheard a gentleman talking about how he had just returned from a business trip to Qatar. (He actually used both of the pronunciations we’ve heard for the 2022 World Cup host nation—“Cutter” and “Kuh-TAR”—opting for the second one when his listener blanked on the first.)

He said, referrring to the current summer temperatures in NYC, “This is comfortable compared to where I was yesterday. Just got back from Qatar. It was 118 degrees.”

That’s right. One hundred eighteen degrees.

Let’s take a glimpse at the extended forecast for the capital, Doha.

Oh, looky, the heat wave is over: Thursday’s high is predicted at only 104—followed by 107 on Friday and 108 on Saturday.

Sarcasm aside, the mind balks at these numbers. There will be a double-digit dropoff from Tuesday’s scorcher—will people be able to tell? What we mean is, there’s a noticeable difference between, say, 94 degrees and 80 degrees. Does the same apply to 118 and 104? Or does the human body just categorize anything above 103 as “bloody effin hot?”

We’re not sure, and we wouldn’t especially want to find out.

In any case, we hope those robot clouds are coming along smoothly.