MLS' foreign coaches under the microscope in 2016
Halfway through his offseason coaching search, Chicago Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez believed that he had found the ideal candidate in Serbian Veljko Paunovic.
If Rodriguez had one reservation, however, it might have concerned Paunovic's roots. After spending much of his career as an executive in MLS's Manhattan headquarters, Rodriguez knew full well how difficult it has been for foreign-born coaches to win in a league in which the ability to navigate complex roster rules and limitations is as important to success as tactics or man-management.
The long list of foreign failures reads like a who's-who of elite international managers. Despite proving themselves with some of the biggest clubs and national teams on the planet, the likes of Carlos Alberto Parreira, Bora Milutinovic, Juan Carlos Osorio, Carlos Queiroz and Hans Westerhof combined to win just one playoff series during their time in MLS. (Osorio, who now leads Mexico's national team, helped the Fire upset D.C. United in the first round in 2007.)
There have been outliers, of course. Hans Backe made the postseason in each of the three years he coached the New York Red Bulls. Scotsman Steve Nicol, now an analyst for ESPN, led the New England Revolution to three MLS Cup appearances. Nicol, though, had spent three years in the U.S. before landing the Revs job in 2002 -- experience that proved vital in adapting to MLS's peculiar intricacies. Paunovic also knows what to expect in North America, having spent part of the 2011 season with the Philadelphia Union. For Rodriguez, that short entry oo the 38-year-old's resume made all the difference.
"I had to look at it. I had to consider it," Rodriguez said of foreign coaches' historic struggles. "But Pauno's having played here virtually eliminated any concern, because he knew what it was to sit in the middle seat of a cross-country flight, what it's like to go from a turf field to grass, to play three games in eight days across an entire continent.
"That gave me great, great peace of mind that he would understand that this league is different," Rodriguez added. "I have to admit that was a big help for me."
Rodriguez also believed that Paunovic's international chops could play a big part in changing the culture of a team that finished dead last in the league last season.
He was not alone. This winter, other MLS clubs have looked abroad for help. The Union hired Dutch-raised former U.S. international Earnie Stewart, who spent almost a decade as the technical director of Eredivisie mainstay AZ Alkmaar before heading stateside. And New York City FC replaced Jason Kreis -- considered the one of the brightest young American coaches -- with former Arsenal and France captain Patrick Vieira.
"Pauno's vast and varied experiences were a huge draw for me and a big plus in how I evaluated him and other candidates, and that's because I think the world of MLS is shrinking," Rodriguez said. "Knowing that we are going to be attracting players from all of the world, from different cultures and with different approaches to the game, having someone who has had those experiences I think gives us an advantage."
With the new season now less than three weeks away, the transition has been seamless so far.
"My experience in the league as a player helped me to understand the style the culture of the game here," said Paunovic, who also played for clubs in Spain, Germany and Russia and coached Serbia's U-20 team to a World Cup title last summer. "I'm also very influenced by the style that Spanish clubs and the Spanish national team play, and the old-time Serbian school, which was famous for good technical and tactical attacking play. That mixture is something that I'm very proud of and grateful for. It all helps to shape my style of coaching."
Still, challenges surely lie ahead -- and not just because rebuilding an MLS team typically takes more than one season. La Liga employs perhaps the greatest amount of technically advanced players in the world. MLS has a long way to go by comparison. But Paunovic wants to get there.
"I can tell you that we are working from the very first day on the technical aspects of the game, on individual technical work," he said. "Collective technique -- passing, combinations -- but also individual technique and a good understanding of the game. I think everything is trainable. The difference is how much emphasis you put on it."
If he, Stewart and Vieira are successful using new approaches this season, it could lead to more chances for outsiders following a decade in which domestic clubs, starting with Kreis at Real Salt Lake in 2007, leaned toward just-retired MLS lifers to fill technical staff vacancies.
"Like in all leagues, there's a tendency to follow trends when they're successful, and in this case, Pauno carries the burden -- and I use that word carefully -- of the perception that foreign coaches can't be successful," Rodriguez said.
"This might sound strange, but I want Earnie Stewart and the Union to be successful, because I think this league needs an injection of some different thinking. We are 20 teams, soon to be 22. There is no reason why each of those teams can't be different. But to have that variety, we need to introduce different methodologies, different approaches and different people."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.