The four teams slugging it out in the MLS Western Conference semifinals are a testament to coaching stability.
The deciding Los Angeles-San Jose match tonight features a couple of coaches — Bruce Arena of the Galaxy and Frank Yallop of the Earthquakes — who have held those jobs since 2008.
On Thursday, when Sounders FC and Real Salt Lake resolve their series in Utah, Seattle will be led by Sigi Schmid, the club’s only coach since its 2009 expansion season, and RSL will play under Jason Kreis, who became RSL’s second head coach in 2007.
This surviving quartet of clubs also made up the top four finishers in the West during the regular season. San Jose won the Supporters Shield, while Los Angeles, Salt Lake and Seattle are the only MLS teams to have qualified for each of the past four playoffs.
Did the coaching longevity create the success, or did the success allow the coaching longevity?
“Obviously, as a coach, I’d like to think that there’s something about coaching,” Schmid said. “But for sure at the end of the day, it’s the players who play. And I think every good coach will tell you the same thing: It’s about players. It’s about selecting players. I remember when I was at UCLA, ‘The players you’re able to get at UCLA, somebody else could win with those.’ And it’s like, ‘OK, let somebody else get those players. That’s the object.’”
Real Salt Lake’s consistency extends beyond the coach’s office and into the locker room. An MLS-record 10 RSL players have been with the club for five seasons or more: goalkeepers Nick Rimando and Kyle Reynish; defenders Chris Wingert, Tony Beltran, Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave; midfielders Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales and Will Johnson; and forward Fabian Espindola.
“I think it’s critically important to have continuity,” RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey said Tuesday. “… When you’re talking about guys passing the ball around, they have to know where their teammates are going to be. And if you’re constantly introducing rashes of new players, it makes that much more challenging. For us, and the way we play, it’s very important to keep our core together.”
The Sounders have done something similar, retaining eight players who arrived with Schmid in the expansion season: Osvaldo Alonso, Brad Evans, Leo Gonzalez, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Patrick Ianni, Fredy Montero, Zach Scott and Steve Zakuani. Alonso has played every playoff minute in Sounders history.
However, sometimes there is only a thin line between stable and stale, or between experienced and old.
“We have a saying here that the players always make these decisions,” Lagerwey said. “We’ve had a very successful season this year: 57 points was our franchise record for most in a season, 17 wins was a franchise record for most wins in a season, 46 goals was a franchise record for goals in a season. Just on its face, there’s nothing wrong with our team. The question is, can we go as deep as we want to in the playoffs.”
Even if a club wants to keep a successful core together, Lagerwey cautioned that can be difficult under the league’s salary cap.
There are no guarantees with coaches, either. Schmid was fired two seasons after winning an MLS Cup at Los Angeles; and he left Columbus immediately after winning an MLS Cup in his third season there.
“You look at any dynasty and probably the manager was there a while. It’s like the chicken or the egg,” he said. “… But at the end of the day, I believe consistency allows you to build a certain model. At some point you get to a point where you say, ‘OK, maybe we need something different, we need to try something different.’”
The Sounders-RSL first kick has been pushed back half an hour to 7 p.m. Pacific time to accommodate national broadcast by NBCSN. The game will still be shown locally on KONG 6/16 and regionally on Root. … Eddie Johnson (leg) and Mauro Rosales (hamstring) each went through shortened training Tuesday at Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila. Schmid gave these injury updates: he didn’t want to overwork Johnson, who was held out of Game One; Rosales is progressing, but his availability remains uncertain; Gonzalez (hamstring) is further along in recovery than Ianni (calf).