Determining the surest path to Major League Soccer success is tricky business; A league in ongoing evolution makes it so.
It’s like raising children. What works in creating the most precious little kindergartener won’t work as that kid turns 11 or 12. What compels best behavior for pre-teens probably won’t do the job when they start driving.
So it is with MLS. The growth curve will eventually level out, and it has probably already begun doing so. And yet, it’s still tricky business for now, because what worked in 2005 isn’t what works in 2015. When we cut down to the bone of Ws and Ls here, we’re mostly talking about three areas of evolution: what kind of player cuts it in MLS, how rosters are constructed and what kind of manager tends to be most effective.
Tuesday, the Chicago Fire hired Veljko Paunovic, the man who worked wonders with the Serbian under-20s, which recently lofted FIFA’s Under-20 World Cup trophy at the expense of more celebrated sides. Well done, sir!
Paunovic does have experience in MLS, although only the proverbial cup of coffee. He made 17 appearances for the Philadelphia Union in 2011. The Union’s was the last of 11 uniforms Paunovic wore over 18 professional years.
The Yugoslavian-born former midfielder, now 38, certainly isn’t the highest profile of recent managerial hires. That goes to Patrick Vieira, the towering figure who presided regally over Arsenal’s midfield for some fantastic teams around old Highbury.
Vieira finished at Manchester City, where club leaders recognized his abilities and wisely folded the Frenchman into their youth development efforts. Earlier this month, the City Football Group named Vieira to replace Jason Kreis at New York City FC.
The initial reaction on these recent hires – and, admittedly, my reaction – was that some lessons need re-learning. Again and again, it seems. In this case, that the best chance at MLS managerial achievement means handing the whistle and chalkboard to someone whose teeth were cut in the league, or those who have invested significant time here, at least.
It’s that elemental familiarity that matters, finding someone who won’t be undone by the cold water plunge of the league’s unique quirks and peculiarities, not to mention a salary structure and set of player acquisition mechanisms that is completely, well, foreign to most foreigners.