Whether it is the latest German car or an Italian tailored suit, there’s often a natural tendency to equate anything ‘European’ with refined excellence. When it comes to soccer, the thinking is largely the same: that the best is found in Europe.
And it’s a difficult claim to deny.
The best leagues, players and coaches are all in Europe. European managers are the most sought after. No continent knows more about the game, the vast majority of the game’s tactical revolutions have occurred there, and just about everyone wants to play like Barcelona.
Even as spectacular a player as Santos forward Neymar may be, until he develops in Europe and proves himself there, all his goals and dazzle in Brazil’s Serie A will never suffice to convince anyone – other than the always exaggerating Pele – that he is the world’s best.
But for Major League Soccer, just about anything foreign will do. It only took a week or two for forward Federico Higuain, the once largely unknown and inconsequential brother of Real Madrid star Gonzalo Higuain, to transform Columbus’ somewhat dire attack into a genuine force to be reckoned with.
More and more, MLS’ teams’ eight tradable international spots are becoming very hot commodities.
The Montreal Impact is one team that’s very keen on acquiring foreign players. The club already has 10 international spots, which is half of the 20-man roster that falls under the salary cap.
After parting ways with Wisconsin native Jesse Marsch in late October, club president Joey Saputo is now determined to sign an experienced European coach to help bring the club to the next level.
Pursuing an established European coach would seem like a logical decision – since, as aforementioned, European coaches are the best out there – but, unfortunately it’s not as simple as that.
Foreign coaches, in general, have been extremely unsuccessful in MLS. Of the almost 40 foreign coaches that have plied their trade in MLS since the league’s inception in 1996, only three have won the MLS Cup: Thomas Rongen in 1999 with D.C United, Piotr Nowak in 2004 with D.C United, and Gary Smith in 2010 with the Colorado Rapids.
MLS might not be the best soccer league in the world, but it’s very different and unique. The league's rules and regulations and the salary cap structure are only some of the things that need learning and getting used to. There’s also been a common tendency for coaches from abroad to come to the league and completely underestimate it.
MLS is a lot tougher than people think and it’s improving ever year.
One thing that Rongen and Nowak had in common was that they already had experience in North American soccer before they started as head coaches in MLS. After his time with Ajax, Rongen spent almost 15 years playing professional soccer in the U.S. and then another 12 coaching high school, university and American soccer league teams, before joining the Tampa Bay Mutiny in MLS in 1996. Nowak played four seasons with the Chicago Fire between 1998 and 2002 before joining D.C United in 2004.
Even Smith had spent almost a year working with the Colorado Rapids before becoming the club’s head coach in November of 2008, which certainly gave the Englishman some time to acclimate. That the Rapids were patient and didn’t fire Smith after the team failed the reach the playoffs in 2009 certainly helped his cause as well, and he went on to win the MLS Cup the following year.
Of the many coaches that the Impact have considered over the last month, probably the most ideal candidate is Walter Zenga. The former Inter Milan goalkeeper has the best of both worlds: he’s played and coached for a wide variety of teams in Europe, and he also played for and was the head coach of the New England Revolution. Unfortunately for the Impact, Zenga is currently coaching in the UAE and sources say he’s not interested in the club's vacancy as he’s happy where he is.
It isn’t the first time the Impact have been turned down, but finding experienced high level European coaches that would be willing to come to MLS isn’t by any means an easy task.
Whomever the next coach turns out to be, the Impact will certainly have to make a decision before they begin preseason on Jan. 21. With the Impact likely beginning to feel a little pressed for time, the major concern is that Saputo is forced to settle on a substantially less impressive candidate, or even decide to give interim coach Mauro Biello a fulltime position, but the latter still remains unlikely.
It was only a very short time ago when designated players were deemed unnecessary for the purpose of winning MLS Cup, but with the LA Galaxy winning the last two editions courtesy of their high power offensive trio of Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and David Beckham, the general perception towards DPs has radically changed.
Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before foreign coaches begin to find consistent success in MLS. Perhaps the Impact will be the ones to really get the ball rolling.
But history is not on Saputo’s side.