The Targetman: Deck The Halls With Potential MLS Coaches

Foreign coaches, like Walter Zenga, are on many observers' minds this holiday season. Do any of them have the gifts required to win in MLS?
By Greg Lalas

At what point does the search for a new coach become desperate? This is the question rattling around my head, considering the fact that the New York Red Bulls, the Chicago Fire, and DC United—three of MLS's most important markets—are all still without coaches right now.

Consider: The combine is in just two weeks and a day. The draft is less than a month away. Teams will start reporting in around six weeks. And the first game is about three months from now.

If I were New York, Chicago, or DC, I'd start possibly, kinda, sorta, maybe considering to become desperate soon. Especially, if I were contemplating a foreign coach.

The rhetoric passing for wisdom on the street these days believes that the ideal coach is a foreigner (international reputation, ties to potential acquisitions) who also has MLS experience (understands the league's labyrinthine rules, can work with American players).

Enter Walter Zenga.

The 49-year-old Zenga, who was canned by Serie A side Palermo last month, has recently been mentioned as a good candidate for the open position at the New York Red Bulls. Various reports out of Italy say the Spider-man is interested (though he has not made a single direct comment on it), while a few U.S.-based sites say the Red Bulls have not talked to him (according to those most credible of sources: "sources").

Hard to argue with Zenga's resume: a long, distinguished playing career; several trophies while managing Steaua Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade; a semi-decent track record as a manager in Serie A; and MLS experience as both a player and a coach of the New England Revolution. Based on that, he's a no-brainer for a job somewhere in MLS. (Full disclosure: Zenga and I were Revolution teammates in 1997.)

But would it work? After all, things have changed in MLS since he left in 1999 (though not as much as some people seem to think), and Zenga has always been a bit of a fiery personality. He has worn out his welcome rather quickly at every managerial post he's held, never lasting more than two years in one place. One can only imagine that he would be even more difficult under MLS's constraints.

Or maybe not. Perhaps the barriers that MLS coaches have to overcome—at least relative to their European counterparts—would make things easier for an impetuous character like Zenga. In Italy, it could be that the former Inter Milan goalkeeper ran riot so often because he expected Inter-level competitiveness and professionalism from his employers and players. In MLS, he can't have those expectations, so he'd be forced to figure out a way to build a team within parameters he knows, right from the start, that he can do nothing about. Maybe he's a raw talent who only succeeds when forced into at least some strict guidelines.

And Zenga is not alone in this. Popular names include Jurgen Klinsmann (despite his lack of any MLS experience, the German certainly knows the American player) and former Mexico and Los Angeles Galaxy goalkeeper Jorge Campos. But there are several other candidates out there who might fit the MLS bill, some of them readily available (read: unemployed), some requiring coaxing (read: $$$).

Hugo Sanchez. I’ve written elsewhere about Hugol's possible candidacy for an MLS gig, and I stick by my assessment that the former Dallas Burn striker could be successful in the league. Yes, he's arrogant and tactically suspect, but the recently-sacked Almeria manager has also shown flashes of leadership and talent, particularly when he won two championships with Pumas earlier this decade. I'd think Chicago would be a good fit, considering the former Mexico técnico’s relationship with Cuauhtémoc Blanco would certainly help bring the Mexican international back to the Windy City after the World Cup.

Roberto Donadoni. The onetime Italy manager spent two seasons with the MetroStars back in 1996-97. They weren't great years on the backside of his illustrious career, but they gave him a taste of MLS's unique challenges and keys to success. After two decent stints with Livorno, a disappointing run with Italy at the 2008 Euros, and a miserable seven months at Napoli, the former Milan midfielder could use a change. And he's just the type of levelheaded, serious man the Red Bulls could use.

Leonel Alvarez. The former Dallas Burn and New England Revolution midfielder is currently helming his childhood club, Independiente Medellin. Last week, they won the Copa Mustang (Colombia's championship) in just Alvarez's second full year. The 44-year-old was the consummate pro when he was in MLS, always prepared, always steady, and I can only imagine he would be the same if he returned. Wouldn't DC United's South American contingent enjoy playing for someone like Alvarez? And how could Alvarez enhance that corps?

Other outside-the-box foreigners include former San Jose defender Mauricio Wright, who has turned Costa Rican side Brujas into perennial contenders, and former Revolution striker Giuseppe Galderisi, who has coached a few teams in Italy's lower divisions.

Whether any of these guys would have success would depend on a lot of things, including how much support and patience they are given by their bosses and how quickly they can adapt to the different environment that MLS offers. But then again, you'd say the same thing if any of them took over an EPL team. Coaching is coaching.

Greg Lalas is the Features Editor of Targetman is a regular feature.

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