Selecting an MLS Head Coach: An Insider’s View
I’ve only selected two more Major League Soccer head coaches in my life than most of this column’s readers have, so please take this coach hiring how-to column with a shaker full of sodium chloride. I generally believe that coaches should be given the benefit of time as stability is a huge benefit to a team and change in leadership usually creates instability for a period of time and that’s part of the reason the Fire only had two head coaches in my eight years. The Fire are now on the verge of naming their third new head coach in the past three years.
Both of my choices had considerable success, especially in their first seasons. Bob Bradley made the playoffs and won both MLS Cup and the US Open Cup for the expansion Chicago Fire in 1998. His successor, Dave Sarachan, was arguably even more successful by capturing the Fire’s only Supporters Shield as well as the US Open Cup and Eastern Conference regular season and playoff championship.
While the circumstances were very different in the two cases, the process was similar.
As soon as my hiring as Chicago MLS’ first general manager was made public in June of 1997, resumes began filling my mail box and interested coaches or F.O.C. (Friends of Coaches) began calling me. There were only ten First Division professional soccer coaching jobs in the United States and very few opened up. MLS expansion to Miami and Chicago created two of the League’s first openings and since it was expansion, the situation enticingly allowed a coach to create a team from scratch.
Miami struck earlier than Chicago in naming its team and unveiling its colors and logo, but they delayed in naming a general manager, which in turn slowed their coaching search. I actually hired future Fire Assistant and Head Coach Denis Hamlett prior to hiring our Head Coach. I made it clear to Denis and the coaching candidates that Denis had no promises to be retained and it would be up to the head coach whether or not Denis would be part of the coaching staff.
The candidates literally came from everywhere: U.S. colleges, an existing MLS head coach, a former MLS coach (the list of former MLS coaches was pretty short at that point), former national team coaches from the United States (2) and abroad, A-League coaches, indoor coaches and even a former African World Cup player.
I created a system that tried to rank each of the candidates in a dozen or so categories such as experience in professional soccer, organizational skills, tactical philosophy, familiarity with American players, knowledge of MLS rules, motivational ability, international contacts, language skills, public speaking ability, marketing value and affordability.
While this system was intended to provide specific metrics to guide my decision, it was rather arbitrary and subjective. It did help me clarify the many qualities needed to be a successful Head Coach in MLS and forced me to consider each aspect of each candidate. Affordability wasn’t a huge issue in either of my hires as the salary range leaguewide was relatively compact at the time (about $80k to $200k the first time and $100k to $250k the second time). Recent escalation of coaches salaries in MLS now makes affordability a serious consideration for many teams.
I spent much of July, August and September visiting MLS teams and attending games to learn best practices from the existing teams. The tour allowed me to meet with candidates in several of the cities and get opinions from those who had been around the League from the beginning.
The final three candidates included two I had never met and former U.S. National Team Head Coach Bob Gansler, who I was acquainted with through my Milwaukee indoor soccer days. Fernando Clavijo, who Sunil Gulati recommended I consider and Bob Bradley, who agent Ron Waxman first recommended, were the other candidates who stood above the large group of interested coaches.
I formally interviewed only half a dozen candidates. The discussions were more theoretical than the interviews five years later, because the Chicago team only existed conceptually. I’ve conducted hundreds of job interviews in my life and I usually know within a few minutes whether or not I plan to hire the candidate. The rest of the interview is generally more for courtesy or future reference. In this case, I did know right away that I wanted to hire Bob…I just wasn’t sure he would take the job.
All three finalists had strong positives, but Bob was clearly my choice from our first meeting at Bennigan’s…or was it TGIFriday’s, in suburban Virginia near Redskins Park. While I certainly asked many questions and dug into his brain, the meeting at Houlihan’s….or maybe Ruby Tuesday’s…seemed to be as much an interview of me as it was of him. Bob was in a good situation working as Bruce Arena’s trusted assistant. They were building what they thought could be a dynasty. Bob had already been passed over twice for his hometown NY/NJ MetroStars head coaching position and he was itching to build something of his own. But first he needed the confidence that he would have the tools and support…or at least not have the impediments, to build a team the right way, hence the steady stream of inquiries at the Chili’s…or was it Applebee’s?
Thankfully I gave him the answers he needed to hear and we were able to move on to the next step, which was a forum with Phil Anschutz, the owner of the newly named Chicago Fire. Phil wanted to meet Clavijo, the other finalist as well. The meetings in the Anaconda Building in downtown Denver were reminiscent of my job interview with Phil just a few months earlier. He chewed on a cigar and fired away with questions from his chair while the candidate, Bob Sanderman and I filled the couch and another stuffed chair in the ante room outside the oil and fiber optic baron’s comfortable office.
Fernando went first and the meeting went well enough. Bob followed and the match was self-evident. Phil had two daughters who attended Princeton where Bob matriculated and coached. Plus, Bob was…well, Bob was Bob. Thankfully, Phil agreed with my choice, Bob felt good about the situation and an incredible five-year run was underway.
It was almost exactly five years later when Bob called me with news that I had heard may be coming. His hometown MetroStars had seen the error of their ways and he was interested in returning home. He was under contract for another year, but we both knew that I wouldn’t stand in his way. We discussed the pluses and minuses of leaving the Fire…we discussed the pluses and minuses of staying with the Fire. He agreed to think about everything we discussed before making a final decision, but we both knew he was leaving.
While I didn’t want to hinder his move, I had a responsibility to the Fire and he was still under contract, after all. In the lobby of the Official MLS Cup hotel in Providence, RI, MetroStars GM Nick Sakiewicz and I agreed to settlement terms. The Fire received a draft pick and 2002 Rookie of the Year Rodrigo Faria. When I got on the bus to head to the stadium, there was a seat open next to Bob. It was awkward. He told me I robbed them. I told him I’d still rather have him than the pick and player.
So there began my second hiring process. In truth, it began a week or two before when I agreed to let Bob go. The hotel lobby deal was simply the wrapping on the MetroStars early 2002 Christmas gift. I used the weeks beforehand to field inquiries on the newly opened position. I’m not sure why, because I would never want to follow Bob, but the opening generated considerable interest. Two former European players of the year, including one who was a former World Player of the Year, a former US National Team Captain and the usual list of former national team coaches, former MLS coaches (which was a much larger pool this time around), MLS assistants (including all three Fire assistants), college coaches and A-League coaches.
The final three candidates this time were Dallas Burn Head Coach Mike Jeffries, Milwaukee Wave and US National Futsal Head Coach Keith Tozer and US National Team Assistant Dave Sarachan. Besides coming off a sub .500 season in 2002, we were also on track to be more than a million dollars over the 2003 salary budget, so the selected candidate would have his hands full. This time I was able to have very specific conversations regarding players and rebuilding the team. Most times when a coaching change is made, an organization is looking at changing the team’s culture. In this case, however, I was very concerned about maintaining the culture of the team that Bob had worked so hard at creating.
While I think Keith would have been successful with the Fire, because his skills and philosophy translate from indoor to outdoor soccer, I wasn’t brave enough to make that decision, which would’ve been perceived as extremely risky. I consulted with the Fire’s team leaders and outside soccer leaders that I respect during the process to make sure I was considering all aspects of the decision.
Mike Jeffries was an attractive candidate to me as he was very familiar with the Fire’s team and culture having spent 1998-2000 as Bob’s top assistant. He is very knowledgeable and he had coached the Dallas Burn to two straight playoff spots as well. Mike was still under contract to the Dallas Burn, however, and Dave’s easy going personality seemed to be desirable for that group of players.
In the end, I believed Dave was best suited at the time to lead the team and carry on the Fire’s culture. He had worked with Bruce Arena for many years and with Bruce and Bob with the 1996 US Olympic team. His MLS experience with DC United gave him a good understanding of what I believed was the right way to work MLS rules. Coming off the 2002 World Cup success in Korea, where he served as Bruce’s assistant, Dave was liked and respected by the national team players and I believed that was important to acquiring and retaining top American players.
It’s impossible to prove the negative, so we’ll never know how the Fire would have been different if Bob Gansler or Fernando Clavijo were hired in 1997 or Mike Jeffries or Keith Tozer in 2002. But we do know that those important decisions led to a good number of trophies for the Men in Red. Whoever the next Fire chief is, I’ll be supporting them as much as ever. Go Fire!!