Spare a thought for David Moyes.
Manchester United are all but guaranteed to wrap up their worst season in a quarter-century. They’re a lock to finish outside the top three for the first time in the Premier League era. And for the first time in a decade, they will end the season without a single major trophy.
By the time May rolls around, Moyes – a man even Brian McBride, Tim Howard and Landon Donovan credit for helping their careers – may well be out of a job.
Such are the perils of succeeding perhaps the greatest manager in the history of professional sports on any continent.
Two years ago, I waxed in this very space about the itchy trigger-finger mentality at big clubs that eventually led to the ouster of André Villas-Boas at Chelsea. That was a case of a club failing to find a suitable successor to its own iconic coach, José Mourinho.
We know how that one ended, as the first of the EPL’s nouveau riche superclubs went back to the well for The Special One last summer. And now Chelsea are close to winning a fifth league title and are back in the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League.
What’s being overlooked as the vultures descend on Moyes for a variety of reasons – some of which are warranted – is a simple fact: Not a single manager in the history of Manchester United has won a trophy in his first season in charge. Nor his second. Including Sir Alex Ferguson, who handpicked his countryman as his successor. So maybe Moyes deserves a small break.
This happens throughout professional sports all over the world. You never want to be the guy who succeeds a legend and who is expected to maintain a level of greatness.
Here in Major League Soccer, there is no comparison. Ferguson’s reign at Old Trafford was so long and so rare, it began a decade before a single ball was kicked in MLS, and only ended last spring: a stunning run of 27 glory-filled seasons that included 13 EPL titles, two European Cups, five FA Cups and four League Cups. And those are just two-dozen of his 38 total trophies.
In a way, that’s refreshing: No club in MLS has ever had to deal with a departing legend quite to that degree simply because the league doesn’t yet have that kind of longevity. But several MLS clubs have become so wholly identifiable with one single personality that eventually, they’ll have to confront their own line of succession.
The difference on these shores is that almost every successful club with a long-tenured head coach seems to be grooming an understudy in house to the point where the club philosophy won’t change much.
Consider the LA Galaxy. One day, Bruce Arena will decide he’s had enough roaming the sidelines. The three-time MLS Coach of the Year just signed a multi-year extension in February that will keep him at StubHub Center for the foreseeable future.
But it’s easy to see a scenario in which he’ll retreat back upstairs some day and retain only his GM position. And it’s probably a safe bet that club would keep the gig in the family, perhaps giving right-hand man Dave Sarachan or LA Galaxy II head coach Curt Onalfo the gig.
Same probably goes for Houston, where Dominic Kinnear is now the longest-tenured coach in the history of the league. Dom’s not going anywhere anytime soon, but it’s also a safe bet that Steve Ralston and Wade Barrett are being groomed for bigger things (if another team doesn’t snatch them first).
(Seattle might be the exception, where Sigi Schmid’s past glories haven’t been enough to appease the impatient Sounders faithful, who are starving for silverware. There’s no doubt they’d cry for a big-name replacement. Schmid is truly the Arsène Wenger figure of MLS.)
There’s also a solid list of former assistant coaches who took over the lead role once an outsized personality left: Mark Watson for Frank Yallop in San Jose; Mike Petke for Hans Backe in New York; John Hackworth for Peter Nowak in Philly; Oscar Pareja for Schellas Hyndman at FC Dallas.
But in all those cases, the new guy has changed his predecessor’s style of play and put his own stamp on the team – not unlike what Moyes has done at Old Trafford. And the results have been equally mixed.
Yet there’s something to be said for continuity. There’s one place in MLS this season where a legend has left, only to be replaced by an assistant who barely changed a thing: Real Salt Lake.
Jeff Cassar has done very little tinkering at all at Rio Tinto Stadium since iconic boss Jason Kreis departed for New York City FC. (In fact, there are more new faces on the coaching staff than there are on the field.)
Cassar, RSL’s former RSL goalkeeper coach, has kept the same formation, the same starting lineup and the same preparation. Five weeks into the young season, there’s really no surprise in seeing last season’s MLS Cup runners-up again near the top of the table.
Obviously this is apples and oranges. Manchester United existed for 126 years before a single person was hired in Salt Lake City. They are the highest-valued sports team on the planet, constantly in the spotlight and under arguably the weightiest expectations in world sports. And with those kinds of expectations, maybe finding a successor in-house was never really an option for Ferguson & Co.
But maybe it should've been. You don’t have to look to the rest of the world’s superclubs to find an example of how to pass the torch and hope the flame still burns.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.