A pattern has emerged in recent years: Head coaches and chief soccer officers with MLS experience seem to dominate the trophy case and standings with regularity, even as the league evolves and grows to a place of attracting highly-regarded international candidates.
But is that trend an instance of correlation or causation?
In the San Jose Earthquakes' search for a new CSO in the wake of the club parting ways for Jesse Fioranelli – who did not have previous MLS experience and led the team to a 41-67-28 regular-season record – they believe it's causation. The Italian general manager was let go on June 29, nearly a month ago.
“We have a really specific profile: Someone with deep experience of Major League Soccer," chief operating officer Jared Shawlee told media Tuesday. "They don’t necessarily need to be employed by a club right now, but they do need to have a background of success and high-level of knowledge within the league.”
Shawlee stressed the candidates don't necessarily have to be domestic, just boast an extensive familiarity (and success) in MLS.
The topic has come under the microscope in recent years as the league's growth and commensurate jobs become more attractive to candidates from abroad, yet almost all of MLS' previous trophy-winners have been led by domestic CSOs and head coaches.
In 2020, of the 19 coaches and sporting directors from the Supporters' Shield race's top 10 spots, only two — Philadelphia Union sporting director Ernst Tanner and New York City FC head coach Ronny Deila — were hired from abroad with no more than a year of previous MLS experience.
Perhaps the most notable recent exception is Tanner, the Union's German CSO who has maximized the club's resources, won a Supporters' Shield and helped funnel market-defining deals that sent homegrowns Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie to Europe. Though that comes with qualifiers, as Tanner's right-hand man, Chris Albright, is a highly respected sporting executive with deep experience across MLS. Even Tanner familiarized himself with the league somewhat during his time at RB Salzburg, making multiple trips to visit sister club New York Red Bulls during his time with the Austrian powerhouse.
Orlando City SC's Brazillian-born Luiz Muzzi has helped bring the team to new heights since arriving in Florida, though he first spent years with FC Dallas. Portland Timbers' longtime and well-respected CSO Gavin Wilkinson, a former New Zealand international in his playing days, spent five years playing for the Timbers at the end of his career and then another few years coaching them in USL before they made the jump to MLS.
“The data all points to the most successful chief soccer officer roles around the league, have been those who have a background in MLS and experience with the player pool," Shawlee said. "Ten of the last 11 MLS Cup championships were led by people with prior experience in the league. That’s a direction for success in the league and that makes sense. With complications of roster build, the way players are bought and sold, you have to have familiarity with those mechanisms to compete at the highest level.”
San Jose hope to have the search concluded and a candidate hired soon, with September identified as their goal.
“We are moving towards a shortlist of four to five people," Shawlee said. "The goal is to bring the shortlist in-market in August then have a decision in place by September. We believe it’s important to make this decision sooner than later, both for the full-time person to work with the current roster and still but also prepare for the winter window.”
The club won't use a hiring firm as they did last time, though they've brought on a consulting firm, Sportsology, to help the process. While Oakland Athletics (MLB) executive Billy Beane won't have an active role in the search, the club will consult him as well. Beane has been an advisor to numerous soccer clubs and has expressed passion for the sport.
For now, with about a week left in the Secondary Transfer Window, the Quakes won't necessarily sit idly. Technical director Chris Leitch has full autonomy to make moves this summer.
A longtime Quakes member in various capacities, Leitch's final three seasons of his playing career were in San Jose before he took over the academy in 2012, then was named technical director in 2015 and head coach during the 2017 season before returning to the front office. And he is also on the club's shortlist, Shawlee noted multiple times.
"I can’t say enough personally about Chris," Shawlee said. "He’s proven it with us, both in the academy and with Reno. He has all the respect in the world from everyone in the organization."
Head coach Matias Almeyda remains part of the club's future plans as well.
The Argentine is under contract through 2022 and Shawlee said he's not aware of any talks regarding a contract extension just yet, though cautioned that there could have been discussions between Almeyda and ownership that would be between them.
“We believe Matias is one of the top coaches in the league, he has the support of the club," Shawlee said. "In partnership with Chris, they can bring us back into contention for the playoffs this season.”
Shawlee didn't undersell the importance of this hire, calling this their "top objective" as they chart lofty aspirations for years to follow.
“The Quakes are a sleeping giant in MLS," Shawlee said. "We’re a big-market team and we have the ambition to reach that status. Our chief soccer officer will have the support necessary to achieve those goals.”