There have been plenty of surprises from New York City FC this year. The team that missed the playoffs by 12 points in 2015 is currently second in the East and a legitimate contender for the Supporters Shield. Frank Lampard has scored nine goals in 11 starts to drag his name out of the “worst DP signing of all time” conversation. Andrea Pirlo is looking a lot more like the Italian legend version of himself instead of the physically overmatched 36-year-old we saw last year. But the biggest surprise is the man who’s orchestrated the turnaround. First-year coach Patrick Vieira has molded NYCFC into an exciting, proactive, and, most importantly, good team. And he’s done it in the face of very long odds.
Foreign coaches don’t work in MLS. That’s been a near-universal truth since the beginning of the league. Gary Smith remains the only “true” foreign coach to win MLS Cup, hoisting the trophy with the Colorado Rapids at the end of the 2010 season. Before we get into how remarkable Vieira’s success has been, it’s important to take a minute and define what a “foreign” coach is in MLS. There have been very successful foreign-born coaches throughout league history. German-born Sigi Schmid has three shields, two MLS Cups and a record 228 regular-season wins to his name. Piotr Nowak led D.C. United to the title in 2004. Steve Nicol got to four MLS Cup Finals with the New England Revolution. Canadian Frank Yallop lays claim to two Cups and a memorable Supporters Shield in 2012. But all five of those examples have one very important thing in common: extensive backgrounds in American soccer before landing their MLS gigs. Nowak and Yallop both played several years in MLS before moving on to coaching. Schmid grew up in the US and cut his teeth coaching at the college level. Of those we've mentioned, Nicol has the least amount of experience with American soccer, but even he played two years with the A-League’s Boston Bulldogs and managed the Revs on an interim basis before taking over permanently.
The idea behind this criteria is all five coaches had a chance to experience and learn the American system; the intricacies, nuances and occasional ridiculousness that comes with coaching in MLS. Player acquisition in MLS is like nowhere else in the world and understanding the league’s very unique and equally complex rulebook has repeatedly been the biggest hurdle for foreign managers. How else do we explain the charred, barren wasteland that is all other foreign MLS coaches?
Using this criteria, we can narrow down to 38 different MLS coaching opportunities for foreigners (note: some of these are the same coach with a different team each time). Of those 38 opportunities, 20 times the coach failed to last more than a year. Only eight lasted more than two seasons. Even among those who did make it to a second year, the picture still remains fairly bleak with spectacular failures such as Ruud Gullit and Hans Backe on the list.
All that background makes Vieira’s accomplishments this season even more impressive. While the former Arsenal man doesn’t have the same American soccer background as his successful predecessors, his success is no fluke. Vieira has excelled in two key areas of MLS coaching: the draft and the development of young talent. Many a foreign coach required a crash course on the annual Superdraft and even then there’s no guarantee the new guy will “get it” (cough…Hans Backe…cough). No such issues for Vieira and co. who knocked it out of the park by swinging a draft-day trade to get Jack Harrison from the Chicago Fire. Harrison has been a difference maker since day one and his continued development is a testament to Vieira’s ability to nurture young talent.
On a team using all three DP slots like NYCFC, a manager has to get everything he can out of the fringe players on the roster, the guys making league minimum and rookie salaries. Vieira’s done just that. Aside from the aforementioned Harrison, Vieira’s coaxed six goals and five assists out of Khiry Shelton, Steven Mendoza and Tony Taylor. He’s gotten quality minutes out of young midfielder Federico Bravo. Ronald Matarrita has developed into a first-choice left back. Tommy McNamara has only gotten better under Vieira’s tutelage. Vieira’s success in blending high-profile, European vets with talented, but unproven youngsters mirrors the formula that Bruce Arena has used to win three MLS Cups in Los Angeles.
From the beginning of Vieira’s tenure, it’s been no secret the Manchester City brass see this as an opportunity to continue his development as a manager. I’m sure Vieira wants to coach in Europe at some point in his career and that opportunity is certainly closer after his impressive first season in charge of a club. Vieira may end up only lasting a year in New York. But it won’t be because he couldn’t figure out MLS.