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How big of an impact do MLS coaches have?

When MLS Cup kicks off on Saturday at Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles, two very different managers will be patrolling the touchlines.

Jim Curtin, head coach of the Philadelphia Union, is a Major League Soccer lifer. He played for the Chicago Fire and Chivas USA before joining the Union’s nascent academy in 2010, getting a promotion to first-team assistant two years later, then becoming permanent head coach in November 2014.

On the other side is Steve Cherundolo, longtime right-back for the U.S. men’s national team and a man nicknamed “The Mayor of Hannover” for his 16-year playing career at the German club. Following his retirement in 2014, he joined as an assistant in the team’s coaching ranks, spending five seasons there before stints with VfB Stuttgart, the U.S., Germany‘s U15 side and the USL’s Las Vegas Lights. In January, he took over at LAFC, replacing Bob Bradley, and won the Supporters’ Shield in his first season.

Two different paths yielding the same result: a chance at MLS Cup 2022. Fans of the teams must be pleased with the performances, but do the men in charge of MLS teams matter? How much impact does a head coach really have?

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The first thing to note is that the answer to that question is really difficult to reach. Soccer is an extraordinarily complex and random game with nearly infinite variables. Extracting the value of a manager from all that noise represents an exercise in near futility, but some experts have tried — with interesting results.

The general findings reveal that most managers do not make much of a difference, with a small percentage producing consistently above-average results and a small percentage leading to net-negative. And then there’s the wonderfully titled paper, “The Survival of Mediocre Superstars in the Labor Market,” in the November 2022 issue of “The Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization.”

Thomas Peeters, Stefan Szymanski and Marko Terviö report the following: We argue that liquidity-constrained firms face strong incentives to hire experienced, but low-ability workers instead of novice workers with higher upside potential. Using four decades of high-frequency information on worker performance in a “superstar” labor market allows us to estimate the revealed ability of experienced workers at the time they are hired by a new firm. More than one fifth of these hires are “substandard” in that the revealed ability of the hired experienced worker lies below the mean ability of recent novices.

Translation: Teams are more likely to hire experienced, bad coaches than they are to choose an inexperienced manager with great potential.

In general, clubs are risk-averse, ownership opting for the known-known than the unknown-unknown, even when the known-known will produce worse results. When it comes to hiring, stability is greater than variance — that said, MLS is a strange league with esoteric rules and idiosyncratic regulations, and there’s a sense that having prior coaching experience in the league leads to success. But Twenty First Group, a soccer consultancy, looked into this narrative and found it wasn’t true.

“Having prior MLS experience as a head coach is not a predictor of your ability to have success as an MLS coach and your next tenure,” AJ Swoboda, managing director of the Americas, said. There’s no statistical relationship between a good stretch managing one MLS team, followed by positive results at the next job.

Twenty First Group looked into another area and made a revealing discovery: coaches with previous MLS experience had shorter tenures in their next MLS job than managers with no previous MLS experience. To Swoboda, that indicates that many mangers who are new to the league are being hired to oversee a project rather than simply filing a spot at the top of the coaching tree. There’s potentially value in that type of hire.

“The value of the coach hire isn’t necessarily their tactical genius, but more how do they integrate into the broader strategy and direction of the club itself,” he said. “I would posit that the strength of a coach can materially change the outlook of a season, but a coach alone isn’t going to make all the impact. It’s more of an opportunity for a club to make the most of all of their other investments.”

This can be especially true in MLS, a growing league where teams do not have long traditions and trajectories can change quickly with a few smart hires. Just look at how FC Cincinnati transformed from a moribund franchise to one with exciting promise in the course of a single season after new head coach Pat Noonan and general manager Chris Albright arrived.

“Teams used to hire a manager on their own, but now you hire a team,” Szymanski, co-author the “Survival of Mediocre Superstars” paper, said. “And the question is what’s going into that team? There’s an awful lot, of course. They are bringing data analysis, fitness techniques, and the application of more scientific methods to prepare in teams. That’s where I think some of the teams have done well.”

The ultimate truth? Managers matter, but mostly at the margins.

At halftime of the Eastern Conference final, Curtin made a surprising decision. He took off captain Alejandro Bedoya, the Union’s do-everything, try-hard, emotional leader, replacing him with 19-year-old Jack McGlynn. Initially, it appeared as though the move backfired when New York City FC‘s Maxi Moralez laced home the opener in the 57th minute. But Philly slowly regained the initiative with McGlynn playing a key role — two shot-creating actions, one goal creating-action and three progressive passes, all tied for second-highest in the game, despite appearing for only 45 minutes — as the Union waltzed to a 3-1 victory. A bold managerial choice paid off with a trip to MLS Cup.

Coaching in MLS and elsewhere in soccer might not make a huge difference, but all things being equal, you’d still rather have the reigning Coach of the Year on your touchline.

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EltasZone Sportswriters, Sports Analysts, Opinion columnists, editorials and op-eds. Analysis from The Zone Team
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