Wednesday, July 26, 2006

In Limbo: Arena, Gansler, and the Future of MLS

With Bob Gansler's dismissal from Kansas City and New York Red Bull's hiring of former Men's National Team coach Bruce Arena, a passing era of MLS both died and was reborn in a matter of a few days. Gansler's firing, particularly to those of us who don't actively follow the Kansas City Wizards, came as a shock, even if Arena's hiring by Red Bull did not. What ramifications, if any, do these moves have on MLS? Particularly, what does it mean that Arena was given general manager duties as well as head coaching responsibility?

Gansler, who had been the longest serving head coach in MLS history, had by last season certainly exhausted his time with the franchise. After failing to make the playoffs in 2005 in a system where eight of MLS' ten teams advance, some fans in Kansas City and across the league felt it was time for Gansler and the Wizards to move on. While Gansler was unfairly nicknamed "Bunker Bob" in reference to his 2000 MLS Cup winning team's defense-first strategy, the truth was that he was a smart coach with an eye for talent who guided a team with limited resources to two MLS Cup appearances and one win. Somewhere along the line though, Gansler lost his team. No more was this evident to the Kansas City front office though then this season. After getting off to a hot start, keeping pace with D.C. United in second place in the East, Kansas City began a perpetual freefall in the standings from which they are yet to recover.

While the firing of Gansler may signal an end of defensively-oriented but at times daring soccer in Kansas City, it also may signal the end of cosy coaching positions. When this season began, Gansler probably would have been among the least likely coaches to be fired by midseason. With his many years in Kansas City and with a Wizards front office that seemed more committed to selling the franchise than on-the-pitch results, Gansler's job appeared secure as any. For an ownership group as committed to conservative stability as the Hunt Sports Group, the firing is a pleasant surprise. That they will not begin an active search for a new coach, nor allow interim coach Brian Bliss to make changes to the assistant staff, seems more in keeping with their ownership history.

All of this is in stark contrast with New York Red Bulls. The Red Bull organization, as we all surely remember, entered the league with deep pockets and lots of promise. As crowds dwindled and as the team lost game after game, Red Bull seemed about as active as AEG, the club's former owners. Rumors of a Ronaldo-to-Red Bull move briefly breathed some life into the team's skeptical fan base. But New York's no stranger to star transfers. With Youri Djorkaeff AWOL, coach Mo Johnston fired, and the team continuing to struggle, the franchise was looking at its most dismal season in years. It was going to take more than a big player signing to prove Red Bull's committment to the franchise, the fans, and the New York soccer community.

New York, may I introduce your new head coach, Bruce Arena? Arena, no doubt itching to prove his World Cup critics wrong, reclaim his reputation, and turn around the sorriest franchise in the history of MLS (apologies to the two-year-old Real Salt Lake, you're not there yet), took up the Red Bull challenge as many MLS fans expected him to.

It's difficult to say whether Bruce's ego is as strong as ever or still a little bruised after the U.S.' disastrous early World Cup exit, but it's that pesky ego that no doubt made him take the job. Arena could have certainly taken any number of comfortable positions within the U.S. Soccer Federation, but he chose to take MLS' toughest coaching job, a job that has humbled some of world soccer's finest, including Carlos Alberto Parriera (former Brasilian national team coach) and Carlos Queiroz (former head coach of Real Madrid). That this decision came in light of Arena's comments that America's youngest players need to go overseas is ironic, but not surprising. The league needs Arena and vice versa.

That Arena was given general managing duties in addition to his head coaching responsibilities isn't much of a surprise. While Red Bull doubtless has its share of business and marketing people, it doesn't have anyone to soccer-smart enough to make MLS player moves. How exactly Arena is going to use this power remains to be seen, but it will be interesting to watch how this affects the current MLS structure in the coming years. Currently, it remains to be seen whether the corporate type can be effective as general manager and president of an MLS club. This model hasn't exactly worked according to plan in Chicago, where the team, thanks to John Guppy's front office leadership, has stagnated on and off the pitch, failing to draw the kinds of crowds in their new stadium that they drew for the 2003 playoffs in Soldier Field. This ongoing tension between the corporate and soccer interests in MLS will have a big outcome on the direction the league heads in the next five years. Arena is a big, big experiment.

Comments on "In Limbo: Arena, Gansler, and the Future of MLS"


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (10:13 AM, July 27, 2006) : 

arena has something that previous metros coaches haven't - an owner that cares about the team. i bet kluge and subotnick, the first owners, couldn't even name 5 players on the team. then came aeg, who only cared about building a stadium so they could stage a few concerts. red bull clearly wants to win and they spend the money to do so.


Blogger D said ... (11:30 AM, July 27, 2006) : 

Tim -- So glad to see you're gonna be here with Ice. A formidable combination.


Blogger Tim Froh said ... (11:42 AM, July 27, 2006) : 

Yeah, it's a once-a-week deal.

It'll be interested to see how committed Red Bull really is. As I mentioned in the article, hiring Arena was a good message to send to your fanbase, but if crowd sizes stay the same, will they hit the panic button? That's my question.

Oh, and I'm well aware of AEG's massive suckitude (if you followed my old blog, you'd know I'm a die-hard San Jose Earthquakes fan so there's no love lost between myself and AEG).


Blogger Mike H said ... (1:05 PM, July 27, 2006) : 

Tim, the Gansler firing was interesting, as you point out. When I first heard about it, and the non-search for a new coach, I thought that a new owner might be coming soon, but now I'm not so sure.

For the Bruce, he does have some support from the owners as Red Bull need to make the team into something (how does it look for an energy drinks team to suck?). If they give Arena a year and smart backing, 2008 might be a big one for the team.

One small correction. You said KC didn't make the 2005 playoffs in a system where 8 of 10 teams make it. Last year, there were 12 teams. Still, it is harder to not make the playoffs then to make it and KC did not make it.


Blogger scaryice said ... (3:26 PM, July 27, 2006) : 

After the endless runs of Tim Hankinson (COL) and Thomas Rongen (DC), I'm glad there's less hesistation to make a change.

Of course, Ellinger is as safe as ever. Hopefully DC crushes them on Saturday.


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