Greg Vanney - crouching on sideline - Toronto FC

Teams are trickling in for preseason. By March 1, all 27 will be together. On April 17, Major League Soccer will be back. Today is Feb. 25 and the countdown clock reads 51 days. If I could close my eyes tonight and wake up on the morning of April 17, I might just do it. 


I’m sure 27 coaching staffs around the league don’t exactly share that make-the-days-melt-off-the-calendar-as-fast-as-humanly-possible sentiment. They’re building, and building takes time, especially in the challenging conditions we’re all facing. 


That goes double for the 2021 crop of new faces in the MLS managerial ranks. They need every second they can get with their assistants and players. I’m counting seven first-year coaches, including Gerhard Struber at New York Red Bulls even though he was on the bench for the club’s Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs match (asterisk below).


Who’s got the most difficult job? Who is feeling the weight of expectations from the jump? Let’s take a closer look at the 2021 new crop of managers as the work begins in camps across the United States and Canada. I’ve got these ordered, roughly, by my own personal pressure gauge, from least to most.


7. Josh Wolff – Austin FC


What’s the job?


Start from scratch and set the tone. Prove your résumé as an assistant coach carries over to the head job.


Biggest Question


From his coaching influences and interviews over the past year-and-a-half, we know how Wolff wants to play. Austin’s squad, on paper, is solid to potentially very good. The biggest question for Wolff is pretty simple. Will “on paper” translate to “on the field?” Can a first-time head coach make what’s in his mind’s eye a reality?


I think their floor is playoff competitive. I don’t see FC Cincinnati 2019 or Minnesota United 2017 in this group. They’ve got too much depth and MLS experience to crater. A Nashville SC 2020 season is well within reach. So how could Wolff raise the ceiling to LAFC 2018 or Atlanta United 2017 levels? The obvious Josef-and-Miggy answer is to get Best XI output from his Designated Players (Cecilio Dominguez and Tomas Pochettino) and help Reyna best understand where that third DP slot can be used in the summer.

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Josh Wolff was last a US men's national team assistant coach | Austin FC


What is a good season?


It sounds nebulous, but Austin FC’s expansion season will be a success if it ends with the club and the supporters believing that 2022 will be even better. Yes, “playoffs period” is the easy and right practical answer, but I think this is more about a feeling than anything else. It’s about optimism. It’s about sustainable growth. It’s about ending the season feeling like 2021 was wonderful, but just the start.


Where does the pressure come from?


Unless Austin are awful, I’m not sure there will be much, if any, pressure. Wolff was handpicked by ownership, with whom he goes way back from their time in Columbus. He was hired months before sporting director Claudio Reyna. As long as the team is competitive and shows progress, I can’t imagine Wolff will be anywhere near a hot seat.


6. Hernan Losada – D.C. United


What’s the job?


Transition from the Ben Olsen era, emotionally and tactically. Get more from a roster that underperformed in 2020.


Biggest Question


What group of players best fits Losada’s vision? Does that look like the 3-5-2 he preferred in Belgium or something else entirely?


You can listen to our interview with Losada on Extratime for a primer on the way he sees the game. The Argentine claims the Bielsa school as an inspiration, among many others, and says he saw too much passive play from D.C. on tape. “I would like to start with playing as vertical as possible,” he told MLSsoccer.com’s own Charlie Boehm when he was hired.


So who fits that vision, in what position and who is the odd man out? Is Julian Gressel a wing back, central midfielder or right winger? What about Russell Canouse? What role best suits Edison Flores? Can the style shift turn Ola Kamara from spectator to goalscorer? Can homegrowns like Moses Nyeman, Griffin Yow and Kevin Paredes push their way on the field?


The parts aren’t changing. It’s Losada’s job to coax more out of them.

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What is a good season?


Buy-in. Losada says that he’s a player’s coach, and he’ll need the squad to unite behind his direct approach quickly to get results.


And while it’s a transition year, results can’t be dismissed. There’s enough talent in this team to comfortably say anything but a playoff berth is a failure. If D.C. are a playoff team that looks more comfortable in their new approach every week, 2021 will be a big success.


Where does the pressure come from?


The future.


Losada’s leash will be long and rightfully so. D.C. made an ambitious hire to change the way they approach the game as a club. A little patience was part of the deal, though his track record at Beerschot shows he can get the most from his group in a short time period.


5. Gerhard Struber – New York Red Bulls*


What’s the job?


Bring the press back in a major way and develop a young roster.


Biggest Question


How long will it take for Stuber’s press to take hold? 


It didn’t take long at Barnsley, who were seven points from safety when the Austrian was hired. The Championship side stayed up on Struber’s watch, but he’ll be asked to do more with the Red Bulls. There won’t be an existential threat, but the challenge – get top-half results with less talent than most opponents – will be the same.


That’s where the great equalizer, the strategic swarm of the high press, comes in. Can Struber and his players disrupt their opponents enough (and capitalize on those mistakes without All-Star attacking talent) to challenge for trophies? Rinse and repeat, decent regular season, another playoff berth and early exit? Could the group take a step back and perhaps even miss the playoffs for the first time since 2009? 


All possible, if not plausible, and to be determined. He appears to be anointed by the Red Bull managerial conveyor belt, so this year is also a test for Struber. His first-team career is still quite young, so he’ll be learning on the job.

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Gerhard Struber enters his first full season as RBNY head coach | Reuters/Action Images


What is a good season?


An improvement on 2019 and 2020, both sixth-place finishes. 


The collective commitment to the press is the story of the season, making quiet stars out of Florian Valot and Brian White/Tom Barlow. So is the revival of the talent pipeline. If reports are correct, Caden Clark heads off to Leipzig in 2022 full of confidence, Bento Estrela shows a first-team flash or two and Struber finds a couple gems from Kevin Thelwell’s U-23-focused work in the transfer market.


Where does the pressure come from?


The fanbase. Where else?


Struber is a Red Bull guy. The mothership believes in him, and it seems he’s being groomed (like Jesse Marsch before him) for a, let’s just take a wild guess here, job in Salzburg. The Red Bulls are quietly rebuilding and 2021 is likely to be a work in progress. Will the supporters be on board if neither the roster nor the results improve?


4. Gabriel Heinze – Atlanta United


What’s the job?


Make Atlanta United exciting again.


Biggest Question


Heinze’s record as a manager speaks for itself. That he chose Atlanta is a coup for the club and MLS. Assuming the Lautaro Giannetti deal gets done with Velez – I trust Felipe Cardenas of The Athletic when he says just paperwork stands in the way – then there aren’t any daunting roster holes.


However, there are two questions that could completely change the course of the Five Stripes’ season and the job Heinze is being asked to do. First and foremost, will Josef Martinez be Josef Martinez? If the sneer is back and Josef is even 90 percent of the absolute terror he was until the knee injury, then Heinze’s job gets much, much easier.


Second, can he get the most out of Ezequiel Barco? You can lay some of the blame at Frank de Boer’s feet. You can lay some of the blame at Barco’s feet. Heinze’s job is to get everyone to forget how forgettable Barco’s time in Atlanta has been relative to expectations and transfer fee. The player turns 22 in March. This is a big year in his career, and it’s Heinze’s job to make it a good one.

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Gabriel Heinze was last at Velez Sarsfield | Atlanta United


What is a good season?


Become contenders again, in every competition they enter. This is Atlanta United we’re talking about … cue groans from the crowd. The last manager was an undisputed disappointment despite winning two trophies. Heinze doesn’t have to win a trophy in 2021, but it won’t be a successful season if it’s not even possible.


Where does the pressure come from?


The past.


Heinze deserves time to unite the group around his ideas, but the Five Stripes short and immediate history of success suggests patience is overrated. With this roster and this coach, why can’t Atlanta be competitive right now? Why can’t the fanbase dream about lifting trophies again, ideally this year? There aren’t any excuses for anything less than a massive improvement from 2020. 


There’s also the fact that Heinze is still trophy-less as a manager. Can he add “champion” to his resume at the club that expects high-flying results?


3. Greg Vanney – LA Galaxy


What’s the job?


Set the path and take tangible steps toward a return to the MLS elite.


Biggest Question


Does Chicharito still have it? Vanney can’t answer that question personally, but he can put his star in the best position to be successful.


The big question, as I see it, is whether or not Vanney and his staff can create a framework for Chicharito, Cristian Pavon (should he return) and Sebastian Lletget to be their best selves. Depth is an issue, pretty much everywhere. Center back has been a question mark for a while now. Goalkeeper is up for grabs. There are a lot of unknowns.

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What is a good season?


Chicharito scores at least 15 goals. The Pavon deal gets done and he recovers from double-ankle surgery to make the Best XI. Lletget chases a double-double season. Jonathan dos Santos stays healthy for a full season. Okay, 75 percent of the season. Julian Araujo makes the leap and Efrain Alvarez makes at least 17 starts. The Galaxy are a playoff team and win or split the season series with LAFC. 


I bet Vanney would take that right now, no questions asked.


Where does the pressure come from?


The stars above the crest, the investment in Chicharito (and, I assume, Cristian Pavon) and Vanney’s personal history with the Galaxy.


This is a long-term rehabilitation project that demands short-term results. Vanney must balance the future he wants to build with the reality that anything short of winning is a failure in LA. It’s a tough balance, but that’s the project that brought him back to the club where he began his professional playing career. Big clubs must do both. 


2. Chris Armas – Toronto FC


What’s the job?


Keep the championship window open …


Biggest Question


… under extremely difficult circumstances. The big, obvious, unavoidable question is logistical. Toronto FC may not have home-field advantage. They will experience conditions, should cross-border challenges persist, that only fellow Canadian clubs CF Montréal and Vancouver can understand. Armas must account for those challenges without allowing them to become excuses.


As far as the roster goes, Jozy Altidore’s future is the biggest question. Here’s Armas from a week ago:

I had to read that twice. Jozy Altidore, at age 31 with a long history of muscle injuries, “can’t wait to do the pressing.” Are we talking vintage Red Bulls pressing or some sort of fusion with the way Toronto played under Vanney? I can’t wait to see how the entire squad reacts to the tactical shift and whether their bodies can withstand the demands. That might be the biggest question of all.


What is a good season?


First of all, at least one trophy. 


I am talking, at bare minimum, about the Canadian Championship, which opens up a CCL place, where anything can happen. From there, a good season is simply about keeping the championship dream alive throughout: CanChamp to CCL to the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup.


Another treble is not in the offing, but when the championship window is open, you’ve got to occupy a position to climb through. It’s Armas’ job to keep Toronto FC within reach of silverware.

Where does the pressure come from?


First, championship expectations. 


Tough break that the CanChamp will be Armas’ first game in charge. That’s a high-stakes, must-win game off the bat. Lose and the CCL dream will be dead at the hands of a CPL side (Forge FC) and the season will be off to a bitter start. Given the age of their stars and squad, Toronto aren’t a team that can shrug that off. They’re built to win now. They need to win. Armas needs to win.


Second, pressure naturally comes with the way things ended with RBNY. 


Armas felt he got a raw deal, that the work he did in New York simply wasn’t appreciated enough. He made that case on Extratime, while also laying out his plans for this Toronto team. He might be right about how it ended in New York, but he doesn’t arrive in Toronto with the benefit of the doubt. Unfairly or not, he must prove himself all over again.


1. Phil Neville – Inter Miami


What’s the job?


Hit the reset button and build a new sporting culture … but also win, and win quickly.


It’s Chris Henderson’s job to deliver Neville talent to do all of the above, and Gregore is the sort of heady move the new manager has to appreciate. Captain of Bahia in his prime and a fully vetted, long-term target. Dynamic defensive midfielder that complements Blaise Matuidi and Rodolfo Pizarro. Gregore is a piece that ties together a team that never looked cohesive during their expansion season.


What does cohesive look like for Inter Miami anyway? What does the club aspire to be, in purely soccer terms? It’s Neville’s job to mold the culture that will create that identity and make it come to life every single day … while, again, winning in extremely challenging circumstances in his first season as a club manager and in a league with which he has no first-hand experience.


Sounds like a tough gig to me.


Biggest Question


The front six feels settled and fairly obvious, but the back four remains a mystery.


What is the pairing in central defense? The past two years have been an injury nightmare for Ryan Shawcross. Nicolas Figal split time between right back and center back. Aime Mabika was a SuperDraft pick. Christian Makoun barely played in 2020. Jairo Quinteros is still on loan at Bolivar. It seems like Leandro Gonzalez Pirez is the starting point, but it’s murky from there, especially if Figal is going to play right back.


If Figal plays centrally, Dylan Nealis at right back?  At left back, Brek Shea? Maybe Patrick Seagrist? Does any of this even matter if Gonzalo Higuain doesn’t deliver much, much more than he did in 2020? 

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Phil Neville last managed the England women's national team | Inter Miami CF


What is a good season?


Miami didn’t sign Higuain to rebuild. Playoffs are the bare minimum, and even that standard cost Diego Alonso his job. This project demands excitement. It demands results. It demands marquee moments. It demands something so special that people, in Miami and around the world, take notice.


In soulless corporate terms, Inter Miami want to be a “premium soccer product.” So far, they’ve got the trappings (high-wattage home, star players and news-making ownership), but none of the substance (trophies, aspirational style of play and an enduring standard of excellence). This year is about bringing substance (and thereby stability) to South Florida.


Where does the pressure come from?


Everywhere, and not just on Neville.


Internal expectations. Clearly, given the wholesale changes after just one year, 2020 was nowhere near good enough for this ownership group. David Beckham and the Mas brothers aren’t playing around. Beckham went out and hired a head coach he trusts and who understands that wavelength. Nobody is going to be patient about losing.


Outside expectations. Inter Miami did a lot of talking, but they didn’t back up their talk in Year 1. There was bound to be some schadenfreude, from other clubs, opposing fans and the media, both in the US and abroad. Perhaps most importantly, Miami supporters didn’t exactly get what they were promised in 2020. It’s hard to build a fanbase if you don’t win. The stakes extend off the field.


Neville’s job is to win now and, if at all possible, win pretty.

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