The Instability of Being an MLS Coach

Only 7 of MLS’ 20 coaches were with their club in 2013
by Ray Marcham   |   Friday, January 09, 2015

Major League Soccer (MLS) 2012 Season Preview

There are not too many jobs more precarious than being a Major League Soccer head coach.

Mike Petke is the latest example of that.

The New York Red Bulls fired Petke, who had only been on the job for two years and had led the Red Bulls to the Supporters Shield in 2013, on Wednesday. Ali Curtis, New York’s new Sporting Director, then hired Jesse Marsch, who coached Montréal in 2012 before being fired himself, as Petke’s replacement.

Marsch joins a not-so-exclusive group with his new job. He is one of 13 head coaches who will have been in charge of their current club for less than two years, an incredible amount of turnover. Marsch will also be one of four coaches starting the 2015 season with new clubs, joining Dominic Kinnear at San Jose, Owen Coyle in Houston and Jason Kreis with New York City FC (though Kreis was hired by NYCFC after the 2013 season).

The list of coaches who have lasted longer than two years are usually connected by one thing: success. The three coaches who have the longest tenures in MLS are Bruce Arena in Los Angeles (hired in 2008), Sigi Schmid in Seattle (since 2009, the Sounders’ only HC) and Kansas City’s Peter Vermes (took over in 2009). All three built teams that, once they hit stride, have become powers in the league and have the trophies to show for it. Arena has won five trophies with LA (including three MLS Cups), while Schmid has also won 5 trophies in Seattle (including four US Open Cups). Vermes has an MLS Cup and a US Open Cup, both since the club renamed itself Sporting Kansas City.

It doesn’t seem like New England’s Jay Heaps, DC United’s Ben Olsen and Portland’s Caleb Porter should be among the “deans” of MLS coaches, but there they are. Olsen took over DC United in 2010, Heaps became the Revs’ head coach for the 2012 season and the Timbers hired Porter in 2013, making them veterans of the MLS roller coaster. Their tenures can truly be called roller coasters, with each having major high points and very low points while they have been in charge. Olsen has a first-place conference finish and a US Open Cup with DCU, Heaps has an MLS Cup Final appearance with the Revolution and Porter got the Timbers into first in the conference.

All three have also missed the playoffs, including a horrid 3-win season for Olsen and DC United in 2013 (the same year the won the USOC). Heaps started his run at New England with a 9-win season in 2012 and Porter grew increasingly frustrated as the Timbers came up short for the playoffs in 2014. But all three have front offices that have stood behind their team-building efforts and won’t see a hot seat anytime soon, unless a horrid start to the season happens.

Orlando City may have the most unique coaching situation in the league. Adrian Heath has actually been with the organization since 2008, when he became head coach of the Austin Aztex. After playing in the old USL 1st Division in 2009 and the USSF D-2 Pro League in 2010, the Aztex moved to Orlando for the 2011 USL Pro season, with Heath staying on as head coach. He had great success in USL Pro, winning three regular season titles and two postseason crowns with Orlando City. The pressure to succeed in MLS, especially with a new stadium coming and a superstar in Kaká, will test his skill as a coach.

So, seven clubs have coaching stability and likely will keep their coaches for the foreseeable future. But things can go crazy very quickly, as the firing of Petke on Wednesday showed. He led the Red Bulls to their first Supporters Shield in 2013 and their first conference final appearance in six years in 2014. But Curtis wanted his own coach, so Petke got fired and Marsch, who hasn’t coached since he left Montréal after the 2012 season, is now in charge at Red Bull Arena. But the pressure he’ll face, not just from the new boys at NYCFC but also from home supporters who loved Petke, will be immense.

Of the three other new coaches, each has a different storyline that may give them a short honeymoon of sorts. Kinnear is going home to San Jose, Houston will allow Coyle time to adjust to MLS and Kreis will be dealing with a new team and the whirlwind that is the Frank Lampard situation.

Nine clubs will have coaches who will either enter their second full season (Chicago, Columbus, Colorado, Dallas, Montréal, Real Salt Lake, Vancouver) or their first full season after being a mid-season replacement (Philadelphia, Toronto). Of those, the Crew’s Gregg Berhalter, FC Dallas’ Óscar Pareja and RSL’s Jeff Cassar are likely the safest in their positions. The others will be trying to show improvement with their clubs, and quickly. If not, they could be gone in an instant.

Being a head coach in any sport is tough, and long tenures are increasingly becoming rare. Surviving as a head coach in MLS is becoming harder to do, but those who have, like Arena, Schmid and Vermes, haven’t been afraid to shake things up as needed in order to get better, and have the support to do what it takes. However, it is a results-based business, and if results start to fade, then their seats become as hot as those struggling to rebuild their clubs.

But even those who weren’t though to be in trouble can get sacked. Ask Mike Petke.


Washington State
Club Domestic:
Portland Timbers
Club Foreign:
Cascadia native and a fan for as long as he can remember, Ray was brought up on the old NASL. Learned to love MLS. Wanted to play like Clive Charles. Then like Tony Adams. Only dreams, of course.