Martin Vasquez has built his reputation on hard work and loyalty. Whether it’s been as an assistant coach at the college level with Cal Poly Pomona or on the biggest of big stages with Bayern Munich, his approach has been the same: Keep your head up, treat everyone with respect and be humble.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know when to emotionally detach himself. Now Chivas USA’s head coach, Vasquez says he’ll be watching for sure when Bayern take on Inter Milan on Saturday in the UEFA Champions League final.
Why wouldn’t he? The German powerhouse still boasts many of the same players he coached himself while working as an assistant to Jürgen Klinsmann during the 2008-09 season. But if you ask him if he feels a special kinship to the club, he comes close to breaking that even tone.
“The experience was incredible,” he told MLSsoccer.com this week. “I can’t be negative about the club with an incredible opportunity like the one I had. I’ll be watching [Saturday]. If they’re the best team, good for them.”
That’s about as close to the line as Vasquez comes regarding the Bavarian giants. That’s just how he operates. But it’s unlikely he won’t feel a little regret while watching the team he once coached in the biggest game on the world’s club calendar.
As Klinsmann’s right-hand man, Vasquez had a front-row seat to the biggest leap of faith in the history of a 110-year-old institution: Re-imagine it from top to bottom, commit fully to the unorthodox system fashioned by a polarizing former player and hope that the end result was a new-age, evolved powerhouse.
It was the greatest adventure of Vasquez’s coaching career. And ultimately, the greatest disaster. When it came down to it, Bayern didn’t have the patience for an adjustment period. Klinsmann raised too many eyebrows with the way he changed the club culture, from the Buddha statues in the re-designed training center, to intense yoga sessions and a touchy-feely approach characteristic of his adopted home of Southern California.
“Jürgen’s style was going after teams in games,” explained Vasquez, “always with one thing in mind: to score goals. Defensively, we had a disciplined group, but we wanted the team to always take the initiative, to play a fast, aggressive game. For us, it worked.”
Well, in the beginning it worked. Bayern played some spectacular soccer along the way. They had an 11-game unbeaten streak in league play heading into the winter break. In the Champions League group stage, their 12 goals and +8 goal differential was second only to Barcelona. In the round of 16, they walloped Sporting Lisbon by an aggregate of 12-1.
Then it all fell apart. Bayern were routed by eventual champions Barça in the quarterfinals, fading in the Bundesliga race and quickly on the way to a trophy-less finish. The club had enough, and sent Klinsmann and his staff packing with a month left in the season.
Vasquez, of course, landed on his feet. He was named head coach last December at Chivas USA, the club where had had been an assistant for several years. Bayern went back to their past, too, installing a more traditional system under Louis van Gaal.
And perhaps most disappointingly—at least from where Vasquez is sitting—van Gaal’s retrofitting worked. Bayern have recovered from a slow start to the season and have ridden a hot streak (and Arjen Robben’s hot foot) to their first Champions League final in nine years.
With a win on Saturday at Madrid’s Estadio Bernabéu, Bayern could also do something they’ve never done: win the treble of European Cup, Bundesliga title and German Cup.
Have things really changed that much?
“Their tactics are very simple,” said Vasquez. “They defend with a block of six. I feel that their back line is solid, and they have an exceptional keeper. But they have relied, mostly, to win games on individual play, and the rest of the team has responded.”
If there are any regrets, Vasquez said, it’s that he and Klinsmann never enjoyed a fully fit Franck Ribéry, and never had all their stars—including Miroslav Klose and the now-departed Luca Toni—all firing at the same time.
Of course, they never had the added benefit of Robben, either. Arguably the most mercurial talent in the world, the Dutchman has been the ultimate difference-maker this season, admits Vasquez.
“When he’s hot, they rely on him,” he said. “He’s special. He’ll find a way to score, whether it’s running at people, or shooting from far out.”
And Vasquez believes Bayern can do the ultimate: top José Mourinho’s tactically sound Inter side in a battle of two teams whose fundamentals are solid, yet have the horses to capitalize on moments of brilliance. They have the momentum, he said, and now they have the self-belief that they can pull out a result, even when the odds are stacked against him.
The only shame is that Vasquez won’t be there if Bayern collect winners medals. But really, there’s no sad ending to this story. Vasquez has translated much of what he learned under Klinsmann (“like taking a Ph.D.,” he said at his introductory press conference at Chivas USA). The remade Goats play attractive, attacking soccer (when it works), but find themselves vulnerable in the back (when it doesn’t).
In many ways, it echoes the challenges Vasquez faced at Bayern. But one thing that’s clear is that he isn’t interested in looking back. He’ll be a neutral for Saturday’s final. But what about his former boss, who played for both teams during his career? Who will Klinsi be cheering for?
“That’s a good question,” Vasquez laughed. “I’ll have to ask him. Probably Inter.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.