Thursday, August 28, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Five Union thoughts: Coaching search, Le Toux the forward, and more

Rene Meulensteen. (Steve Bardens/Getty Images file photo)
Rene Meulensteen. (Steve Bardens/Getty Images file photo)

Philadelphia Union are unbeaten in their last five games.

Wait, what's that? Unbeaten in five? Really? 

Ok, so two of them were lower division teams, and a third was Chivas USA, who are worse than many lower division teams. But then you toss New England and Vancouver into the mix, and suddenly that's a proper streak. 

What does that say about this team? 

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  • Ask me in September. The talent level remains playoff quality - in theory. Let's see what they do against legitimate MLS competition for a while. 

    Here are five more things to say about this team. 

    Coaching carousel spins to ... Rene Meulensteen? 

    Talk about rumors all you want. If Rene Meulensteen is sitting in a stadium box with Nick Sakiewicz cheering for the Union, it's because he's a candidate to be their next manager. 

    Meulensteen is an interesting candidate, to say the least. He spent a decade-plus with Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, and he was highly regarded during his tenure there. 

    As a manager, however, Meulensteen has been star-crossed. After spending eight years coaching in Qatar, Meulensteen managed three European teams and, for one reason or another, spent no more than seven months at any of them. 

    - Brondby, 2006: He succeeded Michael Laudrup at the Danish club in 2006 but left after six months, criticizing the organization as "a very sick patient requiring immediate attention." When he left, the team was in seventh place. They had previously finished in the top two in the league every year since 1994 prior to Meulensteen's hiring, but they haven't done so since.

    - Anzhi Mahachkala, 2013: Meulensteen spent 16 days as manager after Guus Hiddink resigned last year. This happened after the briefly high-spending team's owner decided to gut the payroll.

    - Fulham, 2013-14: He got three months as manager of Fulham, winning just 4 of 17 matches before the axe came. The team was eventually relegated, and three big name managers couldn't stop it.

    Is Meulensteen a good candidate? Hard to say. He certainly is a big name. 

    But he also has no experience with the complicated MLS personnel management rules, salary budget or American youth development system. In his only off-season managing in Europe, he came under fire at Brondby for several ill-advised transfers and attempts to force out established players. That was eight years ago, but he could find it even more difficult to move players in MLS.

    His hiring would probably necessitate a parallel hiring of a traditional American-style general manager or technical director to handle player personnel. Such relationships have rarely worked out well with European managers used to enjoying full control of player acquisition through straight transfers. 

    The consideration of big European names - Fabio Cannavaro is also in the rumor mill - may placate some Union critics, but recall the cautionary tale of Ruud Gullit, unable to adapt to the intricacies of MLS. 

    Coaching carousel, part 2: Sakiewicz on American vs. foreign coaches in MLS

     Union chief executive Nick Sakiewicz offered some fantastic insight on MLS coaches during Jim Curtin's introductory press conference last month. 

    "… there's no coincidence that foreign coaches have not done well in Major League Soccer," Sakiewicz said. "I know that very well. In fact, I only think one has even won the championship: Colorado, Gary Smith. The rest of them have been Americans. There's a reason for that. And I know the reasons."

     When asked to elaborate on that, here's what Sakiewicz said:

    So you have a different culture. You obviously have a different country. You have a large amount of your players that are Americans that have come up through the college system or come up through the youth soccer system. Varying degrees of coaching along the way.

    And when they get to the top tier, Major League Soccer, they need to continue to learn, because they're not - this is a country that is still evolving, so the level of coaching in this country at the younger tier is not as seasoned as the level of coaching in Europe or South America, for example

    So the kids when they get to MLS, they need a teacher, they need a manager, they need to be taught tactics and technique even still, and how to strike the ball, and how to pass the ball, and where to pass the ball, and how to defend and how to attack. 

    And the makeup of the foreign coaches that come here – that's not the way it works in Europe or South America. When a player comes to the first team, he's expected to know tactics [and] technique and have perfected things. So many of the foreign coaches that come here don't have the patience or they get frustrated with the level of the player at the first tier.

    They also get frustrated that they just can't get the owner to open up a checkbook and write a check and dismiss an entire group of players. That's not the way we work here. So if they're not prepared for that, if they're not prepared to be teachers, even at the top tier here, they often fail. 

    And I think that's why - you know, some of the American coaches that have had success in this league know that. And they've either played in the league, they know what it takes to form an American player, even continue to form him when he's at the top tier, and that just doesn't happen in most of the leagues around the world, where players are still being formed while they're playing in the top tier.

    And I think the American guys know that. I certainly know it. And that's why coaches like Dominic Kinnear, Bruce Arena, Sigi Schmid, these guys have had great success because they understand that dynamic. 

    Does that mean Sakiewicz will hire an American coach? We'll obviously find out.

    But it's an excellent articulation of why he should.

    Take Danny Mwanga, for example. How do you think he might have done had he been traded to Salt Lake instead of Portland (then in turmoil) and gotten to play for Jason Kreis? Or Brad Davis, Kyle Beckerman and Chris Wondolowski, who have peaked at an age when most European players are on the downward slope? The players produced by America's youth system have a different development curve because of the youth and college system here. 

    Jack McInerney and Andrew Wenger: Will they always be linked?

    Jack McInerney is on fire.

    For Montreal.

    This still takes some getting used to.

    If the reigning MLS player of the week leaves for Europe in six to 18 months, then people may not look as harshly on the McInerney-Andrew Wenger trade. If McInerney stays in MLS and Wenger doesn't progress, it could go down as one of the worst trades in MLS history. 

    Wenger had an assist against New England and scored in U.S. Open Cup play. There is a lot to like about him, but unfortunately, one of them isn't his finishing ability. 

    Wenger has seemed like a player without a position since he entered the league. He played center back and striker at Duke and midfield as a younger player. It always seemed premature when Montreal deemed him a striker.

    He's not a bad player by any stretch, and it's still possible that the Union could come out better in this trade over the long term, particularly if McInerney leaves for Europe on free transfer. 

    Whoever takes over as Union manager should independently assess where Wenger belongs on the field.

    That same person should give him a jolt of confidence too, along with a lesson on dealing with the media. Yes, Mr. Wenger, the local media noticed you quietly and quickly ducking out of the locker room after games recently. Man up, answer the questions, and play your game. It's part of being a professional.

    Take a lesson from Mike Lahoud. It wasn't his fault he got traded for Danny Califf. He just came in, played his game, faced tough questions, and let the chips fall wherever they fell. Today, he is a model player for the Union.

    What got into Mike Lahoud?

    Whatever it is, it's working. The guy is playing good soccer, and the Union look better with him in the lineup. 

    Lahoud has struggled with injuries for the last year and a half, but he is healthy now and has gotten some call-ups from the Sierra Leone national team. Maybe that's all it took. When healthy, he does a lot for the Union midfield.

    Of note, one thing he does well is pick up his head in the attack and look to push the ball forward, which not all the Union midfielders do particularly well. He's a good athlete with solid range, so if you pair him with Amobi Okugo, you could have two defensive midfielders who legitimately push play forward through the center and cover a ton of area.

    Sebastien Le Toux is a forward - yes, we're still telling people this

    Every team that Sebastien Le Toux plays for tries to put him in midfield sooner or later. It was more understandable for the Union when McInerney was on fire in Le Toux's absence, but McInerney is gone. 

    So it's time for Le Toux to go back to forward again and stay there. 

    Sure, go ahead and start Le Toux on the right side of an ostensible 4-2-3-1. That's OK. Nogueira likes to range from sideline to sideline. Maidana likes to float wide but also be free to come centrally. That could give Le Toux the freedom to move centrally and make those deep runs he can make.

    Does that create chaos in the attacking third? Potentially, but not if all three of them read each other and fill different spaces on the field. 

    Le Toux scored four goals last week. He hit the post against New England on what could have been a fifth. It all looked familiar. Do you remember what Le Toux scoring streaks look like? You may be about to see another one.

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