by Andrea Canales
Fernando Clavijo – are you listening? Greg Andrulis? The coaching carousel of MLS may just have picked up speed. Thomas Rongen has been relieved of his coaching duties at Chivas USA – barely ten games into the season.
Rongen was given a fairly short leash on which to fail. Perhaps that’s needed. If MLS aims to ascend the ladder of leagues around the world – it must hold teams and their leaders to the unflinching standard that wins matter.
Now, it’s true that Real Salt Lake can’t seem to win on grass. The Metros can’t win on turf. However, at least that means John Ellinger and Bob Bradley have their teams winning about half the time.
But Clavijo and Andrulis are doing poorly with the talent and resources at their disposal. Colorado has an edge in every home match with their altitude advantage. Columbus plays in the league’s first ever soccer-specific stadium. Quality players line up for both squads. Yet the cohesion to bring about results is lacking.
What’s worse is that there is no indication that things are changing or that there is a clear plan for improvement in either camp. What’s even worse than that is the amount of tolerance some MLS front offices seem to have regarding a team slipping ever closer to complete disaster.
Thing is, professional sports involve people – and relationships. Sometimes it may be difficult to administer the ax to someone who may be a kind, quality soul, but just not getting the job done.
Rongen was an articulate, affable coach. Defender Ryan Suarez, like many players, felt comfortable with him and loyal to his leadership. When Chivas USA won its first (and so far, only) MLS match – Suarez dedicated his efforts to Rongen, saying:
“Give kudos to Thomas Rongen. Not once has he ever cussed us out. Not once has he taken a starter off the field and said, “You know what, you suck. You’re not going to go back in.” or anything like that. He’s been class from day one and today, we represented Thomas.”
Perhaps some kicking of lockers was needed, though. Some yelling or demoting of some kind. Chivas followed that win against Real Salt Lake with three consecutive losses. Finally, Hans Westerhof was given the helm of the team.
Already, the changes are marked – Chivas USA defended and possessed the ball better against the Kansas City Wizards, earning a point.
“I don’t know if it’s a coaching change or us just waking up and realizing that our jobs are on the line,” said midfielder Francisco Gomez.
It might be a combination of both. Players are often eager to impress a new coach – or scared to displease him.
Suarez viewed the situation as simple.
“We’re playing to save our jobs.”
It was clear that Westerhof brought a new attitude to the first practices he ran with the team.
“Hans is – no bullshit,” Suarez said. “The guy speaks in two words and that’s it. He tells you “You play here.” And you don’t ask questions. He’s very to the point. There’s no left or right with him. He’s straight down the center. So there’s a lot of pressure today. Obviously, that’s what the boys needed – someone to come in and set the ship right. The ship was a little loose. Obviously, with so many different coaches, it’s difficult to understand one way. Hans is, “My way, or you’re on the freeway, and get the hell out.”
Westerhof has not only established his authority with the team, but he has also pushed his personal philosophy of the game onto the players.
“You can’t win games solely on attack. You have to defend. He mentions all the time that the modern-day footballer is not one way,” Suarez described. “They’re both ways in terms of defending and attacking. This is the AJAX system – you don’t just stay in one spot.”
“This is Hans Westerhof – he’s going to instill the belief that this is no one man’s game. It’s an eleven man game and you have to work for your results. That’s what I like and hopefully the boys start to take in this belief. The strength that Hans brings in is very quiet. You listen to him – or he kicks you out. He’s done it already.”
Suarez definitely sounded converted. His enthusiasm carried over to his description of how the team’s play would change.
“I think we’re going to be playing a lot more direct, instead of trying to play east to west. You’re going to see a lot of north and south. You’re going to see a lot of compacting in terms of team defense. We’re actually seeing team defense now, instead of one on one individual duels – covering for one another.”
The team play would seem to be crucial – as no dependable star has emerged to carry the load at Chivas USA. Westerhof seems to have a plan for improvement, though.
“There’s going to be a lot of work ahead of us,” stated Suarez. “Hans has said it. We’re going to have to start studying other teams.”
“Before the game, [versus Kansas City] Hans asked some of the boys to name the starting line-up for Kansas City. They couldn’t name one player. Hans didn’t like that at all.”
“Now, when we train for two hours, we come straight in, eat and analyze what players play where, what their tendencies are, their strengths and weaknesses. You’re going to see Chivas USA in their locker room for twenty-four hours.”
Now, I can almost imagine Colorado and Columbus fans could now start envying Chivas USA. Both teams sit above the expansion team in the standings, but Chivas USA looks like it might have found both a plan for improvement and the right man to implement it.
Because sometimes, that’s all it takes – realizing that a coach and a team are not a good fit and moving to find a better one. A young team like Chivas USA perhaps needed more of a disciplinarian than Rongen’s personality was suited for.
“Thomas was one of the boys,” remarked Suarez. “He was the glue of this team – keeping everything positive.”
“Hans couldn’t give a shit how the locker room is. He’s going to tell you how it is. That’s who he is. He’s going to demand the respect. He’s one of those quiet guys who says a few words. You’ve got to listen. You don’t ask questions, you just do it.”
“Things are going to be strict. With Thomas, we could joke around in practice and keep it light. Let’s be honest, the Hispanics like to have a good time. We do. We enjoy life. I think it’s been too light.”
It’s possible that the answer to the coaching woes and disappointing seasons of both Columbus and Colorado may lie in former MLS coaches who are tactically sound, good with players, focused on development, but simply not a good match with their last team.
“It depends on the characteristics of your team,” revealed Suarez. “If you have a lot of anal players, you probably want a coach that’s a little loose – if you have a lot of players who are kind of loose, you want someone strict.”
But what drives front office management to simply do nothing when a team is mired in a funk? Not all are as tolerant as the Crew and the Rapids, however.
Some MLS managers may in fact be too quick to pull the trigger. Former Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid holds the distinction of being a coach fired while his team led the conference. Yet the reasoning behind the shake-up was two-fold. Compared to historical achievements, the club’s results were poor. Plus, the slippery slope of poor results had actually begun the season before, so Schmid had been given time to change things around before GM Doug Hamilton took it upon himself.
Of course, Schmid had been coaching the Galaxy for so long, perhaps a little bit of ennui had snuck in for the Los Angeles players. It’s easy to start tuning out what has been heard often.
Sometimes a new wind needs to blow in and clean house. If Chivas USA picks up sail under Westerhof – it will be a clear sign to all MLS stragglers.
Change is good.
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