The very mention of his name still makes fans cringe: Juan Carlos Osorio.
On one hand, he guided Chicago and New York, the two clubs he coached in Major League Soccer, to some of their greatest glories. On the other hand, his exit from both was less than graceful.
They called him meticulous and mercurial. They called him obsessed and singularly driven. He was Latin-born, American-educated and European-schooled. And it made for a complicated man than many still don’t understand to this day, even three years after he departed MLS.
“It’s a little like the rap on Bora Milutinovic,” recalls John Guppy, the man who originally brought Osorio to Chicago back in 2007. “Sometimes you think, ‘Maybe he’s a complete fraud,’ and you feel completely conned; or, ‘Maybe I just don’t get it and I’m an idiot.’ You never felt like you knew the man.”
And ahead of Saturday’s big matchup between the New York Red Bulls and the Chicago Fire (3:30 pm ET, NBC, live chat on MLSsoccer.com), “JCO” still is as polarizing a figure as ever, especially to the players he coached. And to a large degree, he’s still an enigma.
The best way to look back on him is perhaps to break him down into some of the things we know he was. For that, we’ll reference John le Carré’s 1974 classic novel (and 2011 movie adaptation), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
It’s the most obvious rap on the Colombian: He simply could not stop shifting his lineups and formations from game to game. Sometimes it worked. When he took over for Dave Sarachan in Chicago midway through the 2007 season, he took an underachieving established roster of professionals and shook it to its core.
Osorio shuffled around a last-place team and got them performing immediately by refusing to commit to one lineup. Through 15 regular-season games, he used the same starting XI in back-to-back games just once.
And it worked. The Fire made the playoffs and bowed out in the Eastern Conference Championship.
“We were a good team to start with,” recalls current Fire midfielder Logan Pause, who played no less than three positions that season. “Yes, he used the players’ abilities to shift us around into different positions and formations. When you see that working, it creates a sense of belief.”
In New York, it was more of the same. In 2008, his first season with the Red Bulls, he used the same lineup in consecutive matches just three times and not once utilized the same formation in back-to-back games.
And that, according to some players, often undermined their trust in him.
“It definitely creates one kind of atmosphere when you don’t know if you’re going to play,” remembers former defender Chris Leitch, “which I guess makes things good in keeping you on your toes. At the same time, you want to play a little bit. We never knew where we stood.”
The lightning-in-a-bottle Osorio caught during his three months in Chicago continued, though, as the Red Bulls stunned MLS by qualifying for the playoffs on the last day of the season and then advanced all the way to MLS Cup, where they lost to Columbus.
The following season, the change finally caught up to Osorio. He sent 17 players packing and brought in another 20, constantly looking for the right formula. By mid-August, New York slumped to a 2-16-4 record and suffered an embarrassing elimination in the CONCACAF Champions League play-in round to Trinidadian minnows W Connection. And that’s when JCO’s time in MLS was up.
Osorio’s freakish preparation skills were legendary. He devoured videotape with intensity that would make Bob Bradley blush and broke down opponents ad nausea. In fact, that was another of the biggest knocks on him: Perhaps he focused too much on the next opponent and not enough on the order of his own house.
But not everyone resented it. Former Fire defender C.J. Brown remembers being awestruck by Osorio’s mad scientist prep work the week before Chicago took on Toronto FC in late July of 2007. The expansion Reds had owned the Fire up to that point, pummeling them 3-1 for their first-ever victory and then stunning them two months later in Bridgeview with a late equalizer by Maurice Edu.
“It had been embarrassing,” remembers Brown, now an assistant coach at Real Salt Lake. “That week [before the third matchup], he broke down the video piece by piece and showed us exactly how to play them. In training that week, we did every move he showed us, down to every detail.”
And again, it worked. Brown and the backline put the clamps on, Calen Carr had a goal and an assist and the Cuauhtémoc Blanco-led Fire crushed TFC 3-0.
Did Osorio have a life outside soccer? He had his family, and it was obvious he was devoted to them. In fact, he said, that was a main factor in his desire to leave Chicago for New York, where he and his wife lived for more than a decade and where Osorio worked as an assistant coach for the MetroStars before moving to Manchester City.
But his life was his football. He devoted hours to it. “Intense” is the word you repeatedly hear from his former players, who describe a steely man who lived and breathed the game and, outside of it, not much else.
“He worked ridiculously long hours,” remembers Leitch, who is now the head of the San Jose Earthquakes Academy. “I was routinely one of one last guys out of the facility and he was always still there. When I came in early on Monday morning, he was always there. He never switched off.”
His obsession, and possible paranoia about opponents cracking his code, stretched to unusual lengths. With his first postseason looming in Chicago, he took the step of cracking down on television cameras during Fire practices, something not necessarily unusual but certainly a different tack than the one used by his affable predecessor, Sarachan.
So devoted was Osorio that he would walk to the sidelines and instruct cameramen to crank their cameras to the East, so instead of footage for the evening news, they caught an unflattering glimpse of an underpass on Harlem Avenue.
Osorio’s legacy in New York may be a conflicted one. On one hand, fans loathe him for his unending tendency to mess with success. On the other, as former Red Bulls technical director Jeff Agoos points out, “He’s still the only person who’s ever won a major trophy at that organization,” thanks to the Red Bulls’ victory in, ironically, the 2008 Western Conference Championship.
But in Chicago, he’ll forever be known as the guy who packed up and left town not long after he got there. Osorio’s behind-the-scenes courtship with the Red Bulls ostensibly occurred while he was leading the Fire back into the playoffs.
The fallout was ugly and the bitter taste still lingers.
“You hire a coach with a longer perspective in mind,” laments Guppy, who now runs a marketing agency in Chicago. “I went through the process of hiring him, then he turned around and put himself right back into the marketplace. It didn’t leave a good taste in my mouth.”
The Fire even considered lodging tampering charges on the Red Bulls with the league office, and relations between the organizations were frosty for a time. It didn’t help that Wilman Conde, the Colombian defender Osorio brought to Chicago after their years together back at Millonarios, initially refused to continue to play for the Fire until he was dealt to New York to rejoin him.
For some, however, there’s still a feeling of what-if.
“He seemed to be that type of guy who was always looking for a better opportunity,” says Brown, “and maybe not realizing Chicago could have been one of his better opportunities. I was disappointed when he left. He had his reasons, and I never questioned them. But if he had stuck around, we had a good chance to accomplish some things.”
JCO hasn’t lasted long anywhere since. After leaving New York in 2009, he returned to his native Colombia and led Once Caldas to a league title. Then he nearly took over as Honduran national team coach until contractual issues got in the way. Then reports surfaced that he would return to MLS to take over at Chivas USA, but those never bore fruit. Then came a disastrous four-month stint in Mexico at Puebla. Since May, he's been back in Colombia at the helm of Atlético Nacional.
But the man still remains an enigma. Maybe we’ll see him again in MLS some day, maybe we won’t. Some of his legacy lives on in Conde, who finally got his wish and found his way to New York after crossing paths with his old coach in both Colombia and Mexico.
“Now, only God, life and soccer know if I will be ever able to work with him again,” Conde told FutbolMLS.com’s Tiro Libre podcast. “We always leave that door open since I know what kind of person and coach he is.”
He may be the only one.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.