Word to MLS suits, one more time: It's always about the players

Chicago Fire manager Carlos de los Cobos, one of two MLS coaches kicked to the curb this week.

MLS coaches keep telling us, it’s about the players. And yet, too many people out there don’t get it, forever convinced that formations, tactics and some kind of motivational fairy dust can compensate for a flawed roster. That includes a portion of the supporters, some media members and way too many MLS executives (who really ought to know better).

Yes, every once in a while a coach comes along who can build a nice little house from scrap lumber. But not often.

Jason Kreis says it took a few months, but he got it sorted out; he determined he was naïve in believing he could do more with less. He figured out that success at his craft started with gathering up the right supplies.

Schellas Hyndman needed more than a year to get the type players he wanted, and then his restoration project at Pizza Hut Park was off and flying. He told reporters over and over at last year's MLS Cup, as they asked how he did it, "It was just getting the right players in here."

Bruce Arena has always said it’s about the players. For more than 15 years he's been saying it.

Clearly, once managers have the right men, they still have to be the man with a plan. Coaching from there is about people management, about arranging the formations and tactics that summon the best from individuals and the group, about creating environments that foster success. But it starts with the players. The roster is ground zero.

This is on my mind because we just had the first two MLS sackings. One was pitifully predictable. One was altogether shocking.

In Chicago, Carlos de los Cobos never got it. He never laid solid grasp on understanding the kind of player it took in MLS.  So the personnel door revolved at Toyota Park while he imprudently shifted tactics and adjusted the roles, sometimes willy-nilly. It was Juan Carlos Osorio all over again. (Well, JCO in New York, not JCO in Chicago, where he actually had some success.) Whenever I see coaches moving players here and there and never settling on a way forward, I always think they are barking up the wrong tree. And I just turn the hour glass over, because I know they aren’t long for the MLS world.

Quick confession: I have a good relationship with quite a few MLS coaches. I never really even tried with de los Cobos. Not that I ever had anything against him – I just didn’t see the point. I never imagined him as someone that would stick around for a while.

Vancouver was different. Coach Teitur Thordarson was committed to his tactics. In all honesty, I thought his team looked fairly well organized. I certainly didn’t mind a slow-growth mantra. On the other hand, I didn’t really see understand the personnel selection strategy.

From the very start, there just wasn’t enough quality. Or quantity, which was particularly strange. There weren’t even enough players on the roster to begin a proper training camp last winter. And by first kick in MLS, there were still too many roster spots taken by tier II players, many of them holdovers from the Whitecaps days in USL.

In Chicago, I got the feeling that de los Cobos had more control over personnel. In Vancouver, I really have no idea. How much of the personnel mix was selected by Thordarson, and how much was technical director Tom Soehn?

I do know this: the situation in Vancouver already looks too much like the early days in Toronto. The team from BMO Field always looked like a drunk on the way home at 2 a.m.:  you know, swerving all over the road, never quite sure which turn to make. They never settled on a prevailing philosophy and so they languished, year after wasted year.

The suits in Vancouver picked Thordarson. Presumably, they all agreed on a philosophy of slow growth, which is why they selected a “project” in overall top MLS draft pick Omar Salgado. Fair enough. But stick with it already!

Firing coaches when the personnel mix isn’t right is just a fool’s errand. It’s about the players. It’s always about finding the right players.

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