Assembling and Retaining a Good Team in MLS

The 1998 Chicago Fire MLS Cup and US Open Cup championship team included many talented hard working players with good character including Piotr Nowak, Frank Klopas, Lubos Kubik, Chris Armas, Diego Gutierrez, CJ Brown and Jesse Marsch.

The 1998 Chicago Fire MLS Cup and US Open Cup championship team included many talented hard working players with good character including Piotr Nowak, Frank Klopas, Lubos Kubik, Chris Armas, Diego Gutierrez, CJ Brown and Jesse Marsch.

Last week we discussed the keys to assembling and retaining good personnel for a successful front office.  This week, we will take a similar look at building and retaining a successful team in Major League Soccer on the field.

MLS’ strict salary budgets, weighted lotteries, drafts and allocations have made it a very difficult league to stay near the top or the bottom of the standings for long stretches.  Incompetent, lazy or ignorant decision making can certainly make the latter an exception to the rule, but staying on top requires the right combination of several factors including a little bit of luck.

This column will focus on retaining a strong core, but I do want to mention a few keys to assembling a strong team in the first place.  As in the construction of a front office, the key to assembling a good soccer team is to surround yourself with talented, hard working people with good character.  Include players you have worked with personally or are recommended by people you know and trust.

Experience Mix – While the senior living 2009 Los Angeles Galaxy is doing its best to prove me wrong, I believe that a successful MLS team needs to have a balance of young and veteran players.

Once assembled, retaining a good roster is just as important as putting the roster together in the first place. The following are ways to retain a good roster:

Fair Compensation – It is very important to reward young players who outperform their initial contracts with offers for a new contract at a higher salary in exchange for an extended commitment to the team.  It sounds simple, but too many teams take advantage of young players who outperform their low end contracts, refuse to renegotiate and then lose them on a free transfer once the options run out in four years.

Rewarding these players not only retains the services of your most talented young players, it also sends the right message to their teammates and players throughout the League that yours is a team that treats players well.

After the Fire  won MLS Cup and the US Open Cup as an expansion team in 1998, we were faced with the decision to either exercise all the options and bring most of the same players back at 3% increases. . .or we could extend the contracts while rewarding many of the young players who outperformed their meager contracts like Chris Armas, CJ Brown, Diego Gutierrez, Zach Thornton and Jesse Marsch.  By taking care of this young core of the team, we kept them together, allowed them to grow together and compete for and win championships for the next eight seasons.  It meant that under the strict salary budget, we couldn’t afford to keep some of the older players like Francis Okaroh, Lubos Kubik, Frank Klopas, Roman Kosecki or Jerzy Podbrozny more than one or two more seasons, but the future was in the young core.

When running a team, it’s not always easy to even know what it is the club is doing that’s working to retain players.  So I thought I’d ask one of the veterans of those Fire years.  Here is a first person account from Diego Gutierrez, one of the players who experienced the process first hand as an expansion pick by the Fire from Kansas City in 1998:

I remember the early Fire years as some of the best in my career.  It is important for the coaching staff as well as the management team to create an atmosphere where players not only feel part of things, but also feel like they are part of something special.  That was the case with our Fire teams of ’98, ’99, 2000, and 2001.  Those teams had a number of guys who had come together and had morphed into a band of brothers, a group that would win together and lose together.  We knew about each other’s business, as much as it is healthy of course.  We knew about each other’s families, our aches, our pains and our joys.  If there was a birthday, a wedding, a loss of a loved one… our locker-room was special…We shared much more than just a place to play.  We brought our families together, and we all became identified by the crest.

Retired Chicago Fire veteran Diego Gutierrez says It is important for the coaching staff as well as the management team to create an atmosphere where players not only feel part of things, but also feel like they are part of something special.

Retired Chicago Fire veteran Diego Gutierrez says "It is important for the coaching staff as well as the management team to create an atmosphere where players not only feel part of things, but also feel like they are part of something special."

All of this was tremendously important when it came time to do new deals.  If somebody had a great contract, we got happy for them.  We just knew that by helping the team succeed and succeed collectively, in the end our individual turns would come.  I had the opportunity to make a couple of jumps and explore Europe in the prime of my career… but I have to tell you… I was happy that my young family was content and thriving under the circumstances at that time.  Money was important, but not as important as my wife’s happiness and the tranquility of playing in the place that I loved.  There are many reasons for players to want to test the market (mainly financial), but in reality if you are happy, if you are developing and growing as a player and you have no issues with what you take home, well, it’s tough to argue with that.

In time my turn came, I got my bigger contracts, but I feel like I had the best of everything.  I remained with a group of guys that I loved, we won constantly, and I absolutely loved going to work.  That is the way it is supposed to be.  Peter and Bob created a working environment where honesty and sincerity were paramount, they were the foundation of everything we did.  It kept the place sacred, it kept doubt from ever penetrating anything we did.  If a guy was frustrated with playing time, we talked it over, put it on the table and dealt with it.  As a player, you can’t ask for more.  If your coach and your President/GM are bringing in the right people, they are honest with you and you know where you stand, there are no obstacles for you to go out and do your best.  I think it is safe to say that you play your best when you have peace of mind.  By our results, I think you can judge we were all pretty much at peace.  But if you let those frustrations and doubts into the dressing room that’s when issues start appearing and the whole thing starts to crack.

 US National Team Coach Bob Bradley's communication skills are an important part of the success he's enjoyed throughout his coaching career.

US National Team Coach Bob Bradley's communication skills are an important part of the success he's enjoyed throughout his coaching career.

Diego’s comments are very generous to me as the training environment was certainly much more Bob Bradley’s doing than mine.  Here are some of the things Bob did well that helped us keep our core together:

Regular CommunicationBob Bradley is a great example of the importance of effective communication with both a team and with individual players.  He is very clear in his messaging and makes certain every person involved with the team knows their role within the team including trainers, doctors, administrators and equipment managers. Bob speaks with individual players regularly to give them a chance to understand what they need to do to contribute to the team and to improve. He does the same to the group as a whole, so everyone is on the same page.  He keeps any team issues in house and creates an all for one mentality.

Reward Players For Success – Players who work hard in training during the week and are successful in training need to be rewarded with increased roles on game day.  Besides being a good indicator of helping out the team when it matters, rewarding good training efforts sends the right message to the rest of the team that they must prove themselves every day.

Respect All Players – Favoritism to certain players or using certain players as whipping boys does nothing to build team chemistry and can easily fracture the delicate balance of a team.

Transparency, Trust and Responsibility – Those same concepts that are critical to building a team culture in a front office are critical to building a good environment for the on field team as well.

The Importance of Keeping the Core

The most successful teams are those that keep the core of the team around for long stretches.  A consistent roster maintains the culture and of course creates connections on the field.  Several teams come to mind: DC United, New England, Houston/San Jose, Columbus and Chicago.  Not coincidentally, these same five teams are the top five teams in MLS regular season points both the last five years and the last seven years.

Here’s a chart of the top five team’s point totals the last five seasons:

CHICAGO COLUMBUS HOUSTON/SJ NEW ENGLAND DC
2005 49 38 64 59 54
2006 47 33 46 48 55
2007 40 37 52 50 55
2008 46 57 51 43 37
2009 41 46 43 37 36
5 yr totals 223 211 256 237 237

Here’s a list of the coaches (in bold) and players they’ve been able to retain for the last five seasons (and four of last five years in italics):

CHICAGO COLUMBUS HOUSTON/SJ NEW ENGLAND DC
Hamlett
Warzycha
Kinnear
Nicol
Soehn
Shore Lapper
Ching Mariner Simpson
Rolfe Hajduk Davis Ralston Moreno
Mapp Marshall Clark Twellman Simms
Segares Hesmer Mulrooney Joseph Namoff
Pause Oughton Waibel Heaps Olsen
Brown Garey Barrett Reiss Burch
Carr Gaven Mullan Larentowicz Gomez
Thorrington Onstad McTavish
Robinson
Robinson Quaranta

Holden
Cochran

Each of the five most successful teams has retained at least one member of its coaching staff and a core of at least six players over the last four years.  On the other hand, none of the five worst performing non-expansion MLS teams has retained a single coach or more than five players for each of the last five seasons.  Here is the current list of the four and five year coaches and players with the five worst performing non-expansion teams:

NEW YORK DALLAS LOS ANGELES KANSAS CITY COLORADO
Williams
Sala Donovan Arnuad Mastroeni
Mendes McCarty
Gordon Conrad Clark
Stammler Hartman Peterson
Wolyniec Jewsbury
Wolff
Watson

The theory that teams that are able to retain their coaches and core players are the ones that succeed can, of course, be explained away by saying that it is the success itself that causes the teams to retain their coaches and players, and teams that aren’t successful to fire their coaches and get rid of their players.  There is certainly much truth to that, but the above charts also make one think that even the worst teams would benefit by being more patient with their better players and coaches.

An example is the 2005 MetroStars who elected to give up on Bob Bradley in his third year as MetroStars Head Coach.  More patience might have given them the following as a base to build on in 2006 and beyond:

MetroStars
Bob Bradley
Jeff Parke
Eddie Gaven
Ante Razov
Mike Magee
Amado Guevara
Carlos Mendes
Tim Ward
Seth Stammler
Michael Bradley

Instead, a couple years later, the likes of Bob Bradley, Eddie Gaven, Ante Razov, Michael Bradley, Amado Guevara and Tim Ward became names like Mo Johnston, Dane Richards, Dema Kovalenko, Danny O’Rourke,  Edson Buddle and Chris Henderson.  And then a couple years later, all of those players except Richards were replaced by other names.  Marvelle Wynne and Jozy Altidore were added as draft picks, but of course later Jozy and Michael were sold to European clubs and Marvelle was traded to Toronto.  A case can be made that the new players individually were or were not better than those they replaced, but I believe the turnover itself prevents the team from building cohesion as a unit.

Would New York have added to their trophy case in 2006 through 2008 if they had held on to Bob Bradley, Eddie Gaven, Tim Ward, Ante Razov and Amado Guevara and added Wynne, Altidore, Juan Pablo Angel and others?  In theory they would also have included Seth Stammler, Carlos Mendes, Mike Magee and Jeff Parke.  Ante and Amado are obviously past their prime now, but in 2006 and 2007 they could still be impact players.  I’m certainly biased, because of my friendship with Bob, but it really seems that a little patience would’ve been rewarded in that case and I suspect in others as well.

I think the main lesson is the importance of retaining the core of your team and many of the points above can help a team achieve that.

Peter Wilt writes weekly for Pitch Invasion


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