MLS clubs staffing up for success as robust front offices paying dividends
Of the five Major League Soccer teams that changed head coaches last offseason, three of them -- the New England Revolution, Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes -- will again miss the playoffs. Another, the Montreal Impact, need some serious help if they are going to edge over the cutoff line on the final day of the regular season.
Some of that continued lack of success is to be expected. There's a reason why the previous coaches ended up on the unemployment line, after all, and it can take longer than a single campaign to meaningfully impact a club's culture. Pressing the result button is to accept some amount of growing pains.
The trend also points to what might be considered a more intriguing shift: the decentralization of power away from a single figurehead. Time was, changing the head coach was enough to pivot the direction of the entire organization. But with the increased importance of general managers, and front offices more generally, it has become more complicated -- and more multitiered -- to build a consistent winner than ever.
"In the good old days, you maybe didn't have the organizational depth that you have now," Real Salt Lake general manager Craig Waibel told ESPN FC in a phone interview. "I think what's most overlooked in MLS is the staffing."
The front office and coaching staffs are the most forward facing, but they're not all that Waibel is referencing. Even small-market Salt Lake, for example, has 12 folks on its performance and medical staff alone.
"These little factors," Waibel said, "these little positions that make a 3- to 5-percent difference, they add up, more than ever in the last three to five years. ... It's no longer a league where you just hire the head coach, and that's that. It's all about how all of those little puzzle pieces come together."
There are a handful of exceptions -- most notably at Sporting Kansas City -- but overall, the teams with a wider range of strong voices and robust support staffs are reaping greater rewards. It's no coincidence that the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC, two organizations widely respected from top to bottom, reached each of the past two MLS Cup finals.
Strength in numbers
The last half decade is referenced often by league insiders as an especially transformative one. MLS still lags far behind the world's biggest leagues in terms of ambition and investment, but somewhere around 2015, it turned a corner around which commissioner Don Garber's grandiose claims no longer felt entirely farcical.
Dragged forward by successful expansion clubs Toronto and Seattle -- and, later, Atlanta United and LAFC -- somewhere along the line MLS stopped worrying about mere survival and shifted its focus to actually building for the future. That has been reflected in the greater resources available to its teams, which has manifested itself in higher quality of play.
"The biggest influence is finance, point blank," Waibel said.
Three years ago, Real Salt Lake's team payroll was less than $3.9 million. Today? It has more than doubled, to just shy of $9 million in guaranteed compensation. The makeup of the roster has changed, too, from predominantly North, Central and South American to one dotted with Europeans, as well. RSL's highest earners are Damir Kreilach and Albert Rusnak, from Croatia and Slovakia, respectively.
The sentiment of increased finances transforming front offices is reflected by Mike Burns, who would know. The New England Revolution general manager played for the team starting way back in the league's inaugural season of 1996 and has been in the club's front office since 2005.
When he started out as New England's director of soccer, he handled everything from handing out per diems to players to coordinating flights and buses for away matches. Now, even in an organization as spendthrift as the Revs, those tasks have been disseminated, allowing Burns to focus fully on his GM role: heading up the scouting department, negotiating contracts, and hiring and working with the coaching staff.
It's hard to imagine how he'd manage otherwise. With the increase in spending has come a proliferation of roster regulations: Targeted and General Allocation Money, discovery rights, and an additional number of Designated Player spots.
"In our league, we probably have more rules and regulations than in any league in the world," Burns said, and a major part of his job is translating this arcane rule book for the benefit of head coach Brad Friedel and the rest of the organization.
With the increase in spending has also come an increase in scouting. Targeted Allocation Money is explicitly designed to encourage teams to bring in talent further afield, casting a wider net in order to do so.
"Three, four years ago, as a smaller-market club, we might have been scouting for just two or three Designated Players," Waibel said. "Now, we're scouting all over the world for specific positions rather than just for Designated Players."
Each of these aforementioned roles -- coach, general manager, scout -- requires subtly different skill sets. Waibel likens the differentiation as a set of checks and balances.
"It's so difficult for somebody to do all of these jobs," Waibel said. "And I say that while saying that Peter [Vermes] is currently doing a hell of a job."
Going it alone
Not every franchise, as Waibel alluded to, has followed the trend of decentralization. Peter Vermes of Sporting KC, whose team enters the final weekend tops in the Western Conference, as well as Gregg Berhalter of Columbus, whose Crew is also on track to qualify for the postseason, are proof that a club can still succeed with a lone, strong leader calling the shots.
"They want to do everything, which works for them," Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer said. "They can handle the workload."
Few can, and one gets the sense that Vermes and Berhalter are part of a dying breed. The rest of the league is heading in the opposite direction. As MLS continues to improve, and the pressure continues to increase, too much will be at stake to concentrate all of that power in once place.
You might think that coaches would balk at the lack of control, but Schmetzer considers it ultimately as a good thing. Perhaps he is unique in his desire for work-life balance -- he prizes his evenings at home watching Jeopardy! with his wife too much to live at the office -- but he is frank about the limits of his own capabilities.
"I don't have the mental capacity to do both jobs," Schmetzer said. "For me, I think it's best for the organization to be good at one singular task than to be not as good at three or four. ... There is just so much work that goes into running a professional sports franchise these days, that I don't know how a single figurehead can do it."
The lack of a quick fix may be disheartening for the teams that will miss the 2018 MLS Cup playoffs, the New Englands and Colorados and San Joses of the world. It will take multiple solutions to turn things around, more than the mere swapping out of coaches.
Conversely, of the clubs that do make deep runs, knowing how many little things went right can make their achievements seem even more remarkable -- all of the pieces filling together just so in order to create a coherent whole.