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The MLS Wrap: Nelsen's firing could, and should, halt league trend of hiring inexperienced coaches

Ryan Nelsen's firing as coach of Toronto FC just might lead to the halting of a recent trend of hiring completely inexperienced coaches in Major League Soccer. At least it should.

Call it the curse of Jason Kreis.

No, the former Real Salt Lake boss wasn’t the first young ex-player in MLS handed a head coaching job despite zero coaching experience on any level. Nor was he the first inexperienced coach to go on to lead his team to an MLS Cup title. (in both instances, Peter Nowak was the first after leading D.C. United to the 2004 crown.)

What Kreis has the distinction of doing is inspiring owners and general managers across MLS to believe they too could be made to look like geniuses by identifying the next great young MLS coach by simply being the people smart enough to give them a chance.

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Kreis, with the help of general manager Garth Lagerway, helped transform a once-awful RSL side not only into a champion in 2009, but to a model club and consistent winner playing an attractive style of soccer. He did so after retiring as a player to take the RSL head coaching job. He didn’t stop to gain some coaching experience as an assistant, or with a lower level team. Kreis went straight from the field to the sideline, and developed into one of the best coaches in MLS.

What Kreis’ success at RSL has done is help spark a flurry of coaching hires of inexperienced former players, from Jay Heaps in New England to Ben Olsen at D.C. United, to Mike Petke with the New York Red Bulls, Carl Robinson with Vancouver and Pablo Mastroeni with the Colorado Rapids.
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Also on that list was Ryan Nelsen, who was fired as coach of Toronto FC on Sunday, after a little more than a season and a half in charge. Nelsen went directly from playing professionally in England to toeing the sidelines at Toronto. The move seemed a peculiar one, even given the league’s track record of such appointments, but then-TFC president Kevin Payne had a hunch, and how could you argue with the same man who once gave Bruce Arena his first pro job (and also hired Nowak to coach D.C. United in 2004)?

Few could argue with Nelsen’s track record as a leader during his playing career, but it was easy to question his appointment at the time of his hiring, especially when he built a coaching staff with no tangible professional experience underneath him. Inexperienced coaches who had been able to succeed up to that point had the benefit of strong assistants, whether Tom Soehn as Nowak’s assistant at D.C. United or Robin Fraser as Kreis’ assistant at Real Salt Lake.

Without that support system, Nelsen struggled in 2013, but was kept on for another season amid the promise of a stronger team being put together in 2014. TFC management came through with those roster reinforcements, building Nelsen one of the more talented teams in the league. Unfortunately for TFC, Nelsen quite frankly didn’t have the coaching chops to make the most of his improved roster, and it showed in results that were never overwhelming, even when the team was at full strength.

Will Nelsen’s failing in Toronto make MLS owners and GMs slow down the recent trend of hiring coaches with little experience? Not necessarily, and not with the likes of Olsen, Heaps and Petke continuing to hold their own on the sidelines. Perhaps decision-makers will look at teams like Vancouver and Colorado, and take note of the growing pains those teams are going through while at the helm of young coaches.

The thing with young coaches is, unless you have yourself a strong team with a veteran presence and solid locker room, it is tough to ask a novice coach to come in and build a winner. Growing pains are inevitable, and any team handing its squad to a rookie coach has to be willing to give that coach time to develop. Otherwise it was pretty pointless to go with a young coach in the first place.

D.C. United is reaping the rewards of being patient with Olsen, even after the team endured a putrid 2013 season. Now, D.C. is in first place in the East and looking every bit like a title contender. New England gave Heaps time as well, and last season enjoyed a breakthrough. Petke didn’t need time to enjoy success with the Red Bulls, winning a Supporters' Shield in his first season, but his second season in charge has not gone quite as well, leading you to wonder just how much patience the club will have given what the team is spending on a stacked, but aging roster.

In an ideal world, coaching prospects would be given some time to gain experience, either as assistant coaches, or in lower divisions such as college or USL Pro. When you look at someone like Pablo Mastroeni, who has the makings of a potentially good coach but who is struggling through a disappointing first season in Colorado, you can’t help but think he would have been better served gaining experience before being thrown into a first-team job.

You need only look across the pond to Europe to find a perfect example of a brilliant young coaching mind benefiting from that kind of grooming. Pep Guardiola won every trophy possible during his time as Barcelona coach, and was lauded as a success story of a young and inexperienced coach. But it was that time he put in coaching the Barcelona B team that helped him figure things out about coaching and learn about himself, not just as a coach, but as a leader of men.

MLS teams would be wise to consider that example, and instead of trying to uncover the next coaching sensation, they should be trying to groom coaching prospects and help give them the tools to potentially find success once they are handed the reins of a professional team.

GOAL USA’s MLS WEEKLY AWARDS

Player of the Week: Gyasi Zardes. The young LA Galaxy striker added two more goals to his season tally of 12, and continues to enjoy a breakout season that could see him earn a U.S. national team call-up sooner than later.

Rookie of the Week: Tommy Thompson. The San Jose midfielder continues to impress since breaking through into the Earthquakes' playing rotation, and was a key factor in their 1-1 tie with Real Salt Lake.

Team of the Week: LA Galaxy. Won two matches by a combined score of 7-1, including an impressive victory against a tough D.C. United team.

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