Voices: Joseph Lowery

Curtin to Wolff: Ranking MLS’s top 5 Coach of the Year candidates

0906 Coach of the Year Candidates

There’s a crowded race for this year’s Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year award. With two teams – LAFC and the Philadelphia Union – really duking it out for the Supporters’ Shield and a number of other teams drastically improving on their 2021 campaigns, there are a handful of worthy winners.

And yet, there can only be one.

That’s why I’m walking through my top five Coach of the Year candidates today. And by “my," I really mean “the numbers” because I used numbers to help narrow down the field and finalize the order. So if you don’t like my choices or my rankings, go out and yell at numbers and not me.

Do you see how I covered my bases? Pretty good, huh?

Alright, let’s get to it.

Nico Estevez

Indulge me, for a moment, and cast your mind back to last season. Things aren’t pretty for FC Dallas. The regular season ends and they’re sitting on 33 points, 15 points below the Western Conference’s Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line and just three points from the bottom of the West. The only thing that gives Dallas fans a bit of joy is that in-state rivals Austin FC and Houston Dynamo FC are right below them in the table.

Still, things are bad for Dallas.

Over the offseason, they hire US men’s national team assistant coach Nico Estevez as their new manager. Ricardo Pepi moves to Europe in a club-record deal reportedly totaling $20 million. Paul Arriola is traded to Dallas from D.C. United, setting an intra-league trade record. Alan Velasco signs from Argentina’s Independiente on a club-record deal. Jesus Ferreira re-ups on a Young Designated Player deal.

All of a sudden, things are looking up.

With only a month left in the 2022 regular season, things are still looking up. FC Dallas are sitting third in the Western Conference table, with a +0.11 expected goal difference (xGD) per 90 minutes, according to FBref. That +0.11 figure means that Dallas are creating more chances than they’re allowing, which wasn’t the case in 2021. Last season, Dallas finished with a -0.16 xGD per 90, which put them 18th in MLS.

Playing out of Estevez’s 4-3-3 shape, FC Dallas have a clear identity. They pressure the ball more than all but five teams in the league and they put together more forward off-ball runs in possession than all but six teams in the league, per Second Spectrum. Add in a splash of Ferreira’s on-ball ability and quality play from their No. 8s and you have a strong team.

Has Dallas opening the pocketbook for deals inside and outside the league made Estevez’s life easier than some previous FC Dallas coaches? Without a doubt. But does Estevez still deserve credit for shaping this team? Absolutely.

Josh Wolff

I was all ready to put Josh Wolff at the top of this list because I think anyone who manages to find, replicate and distribute whatever magic potion Austin FC have been guzzling this year deserves to be at the top of any and all lists. But then I checked with numbers and after a short argument, we decided that fourth was a solid compromise.

Austin FC are way better this year than they were in 2021 as an expansion club. Last season, they finished second-to-last in the West with 31 points. Right now, they’re second in the West.

A huge part of their success this season boils down to their attack. Per FBref, Austin FC are sixth in the league in xG per 90 and second in the league in actual goals per 90. With Landon Donovan MLS MVP candidate Sebastian Driussi pulling the strings and Maxi Urruti, Diego Fagundez, and Ethan Finlay chipping in goals, Austin cause teams problems in possession.

I couldn’t put Austin any higher on this list, though, because they’re still dealing with some major defensive challenges. According to Second Spectrum, they give up more xG in transition this year than all but three teams.

If Wolff can stabilize his team’s defensive approach while maintaining their attacking firepower, his name will be at the top of this list next season.

Steve Cherundolo

Maybe Steve Cherundolo should be higher. After all, it’s not his fault that LAFC have one of the best squads in MLS history. It’s also not his fault that LAFC made enough moves to make your head spin during the Secondary Transfer Window.

It doesn’t feel like Steve Cherundolo’s job is to elevate that talented group, though. Instead, it feels like his job is to balance egos and maintain standards. Those are important things, but I’m not sure those things win you the Coach of the Year award (unless you’re running away with the Shield, which LAFC are not).

Either way, it’s clear that Cherundolo’s name belongs on this list. LAFC lead the league in xGD per 90 minutes with +0.74, according to FBref. That means they’re creating significantly more chances than they’re conceding on a game-by-game basis. Per Second Spectrum, LAFC average more xG per 90 than any team in the league and they allow less xG per 90 than any team in the league.

They’ve been really, really good this year and despite a recent dip in results, LAFC still have the inside track to the Shield. If Cherundolo can figure out a way to get Carlos Vela and Gareth Bale contributing to his team at the same time, plus incorporate Denis Bouanga and Cristian Tello, this award might be his.

For now, though, he’ll have to settle for the top three.

Wilfried Nancy

Kamal Miller was onto something after CF Montréal’s 4-3 win over Toronto FC on Sunday.

"We felt pretty disrespected that going into this game, all of the questions from media were asking how we were going to cope with TFC when they should have been asking how TFC is going to cope with us," the Canadian international defender said.

Toronto FC have captured plenty of attention with their pair of Italian stars, Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi. But there’s no doubt that Wilfried Nancy’s CF Montréal team is the best in Canada – and one of the best in MLS (second in the East). Let’s consult the data to back up that claim, shall we?

Per FBref, Montréal are fourth in the league in xGD per 90 with +0.43. They’re also in the top third in the league in xG per 90 and second in MLS in xG allowed per 90. Montréal don’t give up many quality chances and they create chances of their own at an above-average rate. If not for having one of the worst goalkeeping records in the league this year, Montréal would be in the Shield race.

Looking outside the numbers for a moment, another item in Nancy’s favor for the Coach of the Year race is Montréal’s lack of top-tier spending. With only one DP in their squad (midfielder Victor Wanyama), Nancy has done more with less compared to several other teams in MLS. Given how good CF Montréal have been this year, it’s fun to imagine what Nancy could do with a little more investment.

Maybe we’ll see that at some point down the road, either with Montréal or somewhere else.

Jim Curtin

Oh, come on, you knew it had to be Jim Curtin on top of this list. The Philadelphia Union are the hottest team in MLS right now (and maybe one of the hottest teams in MLS history?). They’re giving LAFC a run for the Shield while atop the East, and they’re doing it without the big-name internationals and the former European superstars.

Philly are second in the league in xGD per 90 this season, according to FBref, and are crushing the rest of the league in that metric over the last two months.

Curtin has established an incredibly strong defensive foundation out of their 4-4-2 diamond shape over the last few years. The Union have only allowed 0.66 open-play xG per 90 in 2022, according to Second Spectrum, and 16 open-play goals. Those numbers put them in fourth and first in MLS, respectively.

As this year progressed, Curtin added some dangerous attacking play to that defensive foundation. Since the middle of June, Philadelphia’s passing completion percentage has risen from 72.9% to 77.4%, per Second Spectrum. They’ve tightened up their work on the ball, they’re losing the ball less, and they’re creating more chances in the attack.

The Union are hot right now – and even if all that heat doesn’t turn into the Supporters’ Shield, Curtin should still be this year’s Coach of the Year winner. The Philadelphia Union are just that good.