Sham: Curious moves in La-La land

When the history of Major League Soccer's ninth season is written, there will be no shortage of memorable stories. The Burn's Jason Kreis becoming the league's all-time career goal scoring leader. The introduction of Freddy Adu. U.S. international Tony Sanneh's return coinciding with Columbus' remarkable late-season surge. Eddie Gaven. Eddie Johnson. Who-knows-what to come in the playoffs.

I just hope the official historians don't overlook perhaps the silliest public quote ever uttered by an American professional team's general manager.

It's already easy to forget it, since the Los Angeles Galaxy have clinched a playoff spot. Who knows? The Galaxy may get on an October run and win MLS Cup.

Doug Hamilton ought to hope so.

Hamilton is the Galaxy's GM. He had a first-place team in mid-August when he decided to fire head coach Sigi Schmid, less than two years after Schmid guided the Galaxy to their only MLS Cup title.

Now, a general manager usually doesn't need a reason to make a coaching change. Usually they're made when the team isn't doing so well, and if the boss is getting any questions at all, it's along the lines of "Why aren't you changing coaches?"

But the horse leading the race rarely finds itself with a new jockey somewhere been post time and the back stretch. When that does happen, the jockey-switcher may expect to be greeted by the occasional raised eyebrow.

And here is where Doug Hamilton made what should be a lasting contribution to MLS journalism annals.

The Galaxy were in first place when the switch was made on August 16, two points ahead of Kansas City for best in MLS. That clearly wasn't good enough. It seems they weren't winning pretty. (At press time, by the way, the Galaxy stood second in the West, five points shy of the Wizards.)

"This marketplace has the savviest, most demanding fans in the U.S.," Hamilton said that day, "and we must provide them with a more entertaining and attractive product on the field."

Huh. And here we thought just wining was enough.

The fact is, the silly quote was just a smokescreen. Everyone who closely follows MLS knew then and knows now that Hamilton simply coveted Steve Sampson to be his coach, and that Sampson, if left on the market, was about to be gobbled up by the 2005 expansion team in Salt Lake City. So Hamilton created a vacancy.

There is precedent for such maneuvers. The earliest in this memory occurred 32 years ago. Baseball's Washington Senators had become the Texas Rangers a year earlier. Ted Williams had his fill as manager and was replaced by Whitey Herzog, who was given a young team, a long contract and a mandate to build slowly from within.

After one year on the job, Herzog was fired when the Yankees also dismissed skipper Billy Martin. Rangers owner Bob Short had the nerve to admit at a press conference, "I'd fire my grandmother for a chance to hire Billy Martin."

The Sigi Schmid incident in L.A. would only have been interesting had it not been for Hamilton's quote, which begged the question whether other GMs would also start using style points in considering whether or not to make coaching changes and whom to hire if they did.

Fortunately, the short answer appears to be, "Not likely."

Dallas Burn general manager Greg Elliott has been involved in replacing coaches twice, in Dallas and San Jose. Elliott, who has already publicly cast his lot for '05 with manager Colin Clarke, indicates that the next time he hires a coach, he'll use the same criteria he has before.

"There's a different way our league has of acquiring players compared to the rest of the world," Elliott points out. "In the leagues around the world, player acquisition is mostly commerce-based. In MLS, it's done centrally, as we all know. Our player pool is not just international players, it's the U.S. colleges, and players who are being recycled through the league. A successful coach in our league absolutely must know that player pool. He must also have an understanding of the salary cap limits. Someone who doesn't know those things has no chance."

Elliott, like most general managers around the league, is uncomfortable even being asked about the Galaxy situation, but he will observe, "Circumstances are different from market to market. You've got to look at the chemistry on your team. My reaction was simply that their expectations are no different than ours, or anyone else's. We'd all like to win 4-0 all the time. So I found it a little peculiar."

As an aside to Burn fans, that doesn't mean Elliott wants a dull winning team if he can have an exciting winning team. The operative word is winning.

"Results are important to us," he says. "The aesthetics can be for down the road."

Still, a bit of advice: If the owner or GM has a coaching favorite who's on the market, everyone better be on their toes. That means you, too, Grandma.

Brad Sham is in his seventh season doing play-by-play for Dallas Burn television broadcasts.

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