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Where do The Best MLS Managers Come From?

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MLS: Houston Dynamo at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

A few days ago I put out a tweet.

It got 0 response. So I spent a lot of time pouring over spreadsheets and now I will subject you all to my findings.

Methodology

I looked at the points per game (Via Transfermarkt) of every manager who has managed in MLS since the Whitecaps entered the league. I then compared their points per game in MLS to their points per game in every league they managed at least 10 regular season games in. Obviously this is a bit of crude way of measuring success. Expectations are different on different teams. Most leagues don’t have the same level of parity as MLS. In some circumstances 1.3 points per game might be really impressive. There is also the matter of luck. For example; a couple weeks ago John Hackworth was rumoured to be in the running for the head coaching job of a struggling MLS team (ultimately he took a front office job with soon to be expansion side St. Louis). His previous MLS job was with the Philadelphia Union. Hackworth must have crossed an evil spirit or something because his record was terrible even though his team was pretty consistently out-chancing the opposition. But gathering underlying data and financial information for so many leagues just isn’t practical for me (a recent university graduate with a budget of $0 CDN). So this was the best I could do. Here are my findings.

MLS is a Trap!

Managers beware! Coaching in MLS is really hard. Only one league with more than three managers who had worked in both it and MLS saw an average rise in the number of points its managers picked up (Ligue 1 of France). Everybody else did worse! MLS teams who hire managers from abroad tend to go for glitzy hires. That means managers of big clubs in Europe or South America. Lots of these guys have come to MLS and struggled with a league where the playing field is a lot more even.

MLS Lifers Doing Alright

There were 22 managers in the sample who had only ever managed at the professional level in MLS. They averaged 1.36 points per game, about a 46 point pace over the course of a whole season. This would put a team right around the fringes of the playoffs most years. In fairness to the lifers; They are being hindered a bit by guys who got their first managerial job in MLS, immediately sucked, and never got another head coaching job again. But overall it makes sense that this would be what you get from MLS lifers. Somebody who immediately gets owned isn’t going to have lots of other teams lining up to hire him. Those who consistently finish slightly above average are likely to stay in the league but not all that likely to catch the eye of teams in bigger leagues.

How the Most Popular Leagues Stack up

Ligue 1 (France): 102% of Points Retained

Three have been 3 MLS managers who also managed in Ligue 1. Patrick Viera was good in MLS but slightly less good in Ligue 1. Thierry Henry was terrible in Ligue 1 and slightly less terrible in MLS. Remi Garde was good in Ligue 1 and not so great in MLS, with Montreal being the latest in a line of unfortunate jobs for him. Overall though, Ligue 1 was the only league with at least 3 managers in the sample where the average points per game in MLS was higher. Interestingly the only other top five league that had managers in common with MLS was the English Premier League and Italian Serie A. Both Bob Bradley and Remi Garde (again) more than doubled their points per game in MLS after having a terrible time in England. Franke De Boer also his points per game in MLS come up 40% from his time managing in the Italian Serie A.

Norwegian Eliteserien: 96% of Points Retained

I bet you didn’t see that one coming! Bob Bradley and Ronny Deila both did better in MLS than they did in the Norwegian top flight. Mikael Stahre did terribly in MLS but he didn’t do so hot in Norway either so perhaps only the top managers in Norway can up their game in MLS.

NASL: 91% of Points Retained

That’s right folks, the third most successful source of MLS managers is a league that doesn’t even exist anymore. Well, kind of. A closer look shows that the managers who worked in both the NASL and MLS are a mixed bag. Gary Smith and Gio Savareese have both had success in MLS whereas Adrian Heath and Marc Dos Santos, one run to the MLS semi finals aside, have not. Martin Rennie had a mega impressive 1.74 points per game in NASL but only had a mediocre 1.34 with the Vancouver Whitecaps. There may be an element of survivorship bias here. Since the NASL went bust only the managers who were actually any good are still around.

Liga MX: 91% of Points Retained

Liga MX’s total is bolstered by Oscar Pareja who’s all time points per game record in MLS is better than his Liga MX record. But Matias Almeyda and Diego Alonso were only able to maintain 85% and 80% of their points per game respectively. In fairness neither has had an easy job. Alonso was hired about five minutes before the season started and then had to deal with Covid related weirdness. Meanwhile in San Jose the recruitment strategy seems to be “let’s call some guys we know.” Though on the other other hand a lot of those guys are clearly known associates of Almeyda so he has to shoulder some of the blame.

Argentinian First Division: 85% of Points Retained

Tata Martino did better in MLS than he did in Argentina but nobody else has really panned out. Gabriel Heinze didn’t let his players drink water and lost most of his games in Atlanta, Guillermo Barros Schelotto was not able to replicate his success with Boca Juniors in Los Angeles. We have already discussed Almeyda.

English Championship: 82% of Points Retained

Respect for MLS seems to generally be pretty low in the UK but when their managers come here they tend to not succeed. Gerhard Struber has so far been a lot more successful at New York Red Bulls than he was at Barnsley but just about everyone else has been a disaster. The worst offender being Jaap Stam who’s points per game almost halved (albeit he is managing F.C Cincinnati). Most of the managers who came over were not doing all that well in the Championship, they averaged 1.29 points per game there. So struggling Championship managers are unlikely to change their fortunes if they come to MLS.

USL Championship: 82% of Points Retained

I have seen a lot of people say that second division managers can’t hack it in MLS. Turns out they might have a point. There have been 14 managers who have managed in both MLS and the USL Championship but only 4 have done better in MLS than they did in USL (two of which were managing reserve teams). Everybody else has done worse, in some cases significantly worse. James O’Conner and Alan Koch were the two who adapted the worst, only maintaining 48% of their points per game from USL (though, again, one has to consider the F.C Cincinnati factor).

National Team Managers: 74% of Points Retained

This number is a little bit misleading because all of the managers who managed a national team and in MLS were in charge of a nation that is a dominant regional power. Greg Berhalter and Bruce Arena have coached the U.S, Tata Martino currently manages Mexico, and Anthony Hudson was the manager of New Zealand.

Super Club Effect:

Some of the biggest falls from grace in the sample are with managers who were managing dominant clubs/national teams and then came to MLS. Raphael Wicky, Mikael Stahre, and Phil Neville are the biggest offenders though other smaller decreases are also evident. Clearly it is important to consider to what degree a manager’s success was down to his brilliance and to what degree it caused by having all of the best players and the biggest budget. Notably managers who averaged over 2 points per game at their dominant club seemed to do better in MLS. They still had a big drop off but all of them are over the 1.5 points per game threshold in their MLS careers. 2 points per game seems to be the level of dominance at which having the best players can’t totally explain it.

Just Get Somebody Good!

All in all MLS managers of the past decade have managed in 42 different leagues (with men’s international football, women’s international football, and youth international football being treated as separate things). There are lots of cases of managers being super successful elsewhere and not being able to replicate it in MLS but almost no cases where someone struggled elsewhere and then found their groove in MLS. So far there has not been the Bradley Wright-Phillips of managers.

Remember, almost everywhere saw a drop off when their managers moved to MLS (with possible exceptions for the top five leagues in Europe, though there was too small of a sample to say definitively). To me this suggests that the manager’s overall quality is more important than the league they come from. A bad or mediocre manager in the English Championship, Liga MX, or the Argentine top flight is probably still going to be bad or mediocre in MLS. You can’t expect them to dominate the league just because of the prestige of the league they come from.

It is also worth noting that someone from the leagues where mangers have had a hard time transitioning to MLS can still be successful. You just have to be careful that you’re not getting blinkered by a huge record or the prestige of a league. You just have to evaluate how that manager did with the resources at their disposal and consider how their situation in MLS might be similar or different.