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MLS finals 2023
Article

MLS Cup Final Reactions: Cherundolo and Nancy Should be Candidates for Europe

This past month’s MLS cup final was not only an excellent showcase of the talent that plays in the MLS, but also the talent that coaches these players. The MLS is a young league relative to the global soccer landscape, but the league has progressed substantially since David Beckham arrived in 2007 and the MLS has developed into a valuable producer of talent for European clubs in recent years; in 2007, MLS clubs only sold 3 players to European clubs, while in 2022 MLS clubs sent 27 players to a wide range of European clubs, including Arsenal, Chelsea, Eintracht Frankfurt, Wolfsburg, and Augsburg to name a few. Yet, not many career MLS coaches have made the transition to Europe. Jesse Marsch serves as a notable example, but even he was part of a multi-club system with Red Bull that provided a natural path to a European job not present to most MLS coaches.

Contribution by Peter Smith & Steven Houston

As the league continues to become more sophisticated and prestigious, it is only logical that European clubs will see the MLS as an untapped well of coaching talent, as has been the case with the playing talent. Steve Cherundolo and Wilfried Nancy, the coaches of this season’s MLS cup finalists, are two of the highest rated coaches in Sportology Group’s proprietary head coach rating system and their recent meeting in the 2023 MLS Cup Final offers the perfect opportunity to highlight why we believe the pair should be attractive candidates to a number of European clubs. 

Steve Cherundolo

Steve Cherundolo, in charge of LAFC, is currently in his first major professional head coaching job. He had a successful playing career, making 87 appearances for the USMNT and 423 for German club Hannover 96. He began his coaching career immediately after retirement, starting as an assistant coach at Hannover before taking on similar roles at Stuttgart and the USMNT. He took over as head coach of LAFC before the 2022 season, replacing the highly-accomplished Bob Bradley.

Cherundolo experienced immediate success at LAFC, finishing with the best regular season record in the MLS and winning the MLS cup in his first season. He took over a team that averaged 1.32 point per match and a per-90 goal difference of 0.06 and led them to massive improvements in performance, finishing the 2022 season with 1.97 points per match and a per-90 goal differential of 0.82. He was certainly aided in this improvement by the additions of accomplished European veterans in Giorigio Chiellini and Gareth Bale, but it also takes a talented man-manager to fit these players into the team as quickly and seamlessly as Cherundolo did. The team was not as dominant in 2023 as the season before, but nonetheless still advanced to the finals of the MLS Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League, making the season far from a disappointment.

LAFC

Season

PPM

GD per 90

xGD per 90

2021

1.32

+0.06

+0.62

2022

1.97

+0.82

+0.81

2023

1.53

+0.44

+0.52

Cherundolo is a tactically flexible manager, willing to change his style of play and strategy depending on the personnel available to him and the strengths of the opposition. He places a tactical emphasis on pressing high and with intensity to create attacking opportunities close to the opponents goal; LAFC won more tackles in 2023 than any other MLS team. Cherundolo is by no means wedded to this hectic style of play though. For example, in the 2023 MLS Western Conference finals victory over the Houston Dynamo he employed a defensive, counter attacking style of play to great effect, finishing the match with only 30.9% of the ball but with LAFC taking almost twice as many shots as the Dynamo in their 2-0 win. Star forward Carlos Vela highlighted Cherundolo’s pragmatism, saying that “with Steve, we adapt or judge the team depending on the moment so we can be a great team even when we’re not having a good day with the ball.”

Cherundolo has done well generating consistent buy-in from his players, with LAFC midfielder Ilie Snachez commenting prior to the 2022 MLS cup final that “this is [Cherundolo’s] team. This team has his identity, Everything that we do and can achieve, it’s because of him.” Commanding this level of respect and admiration from his team in just his first season as a professional coach speaks volumes about his man management abilities. It must be noted that Cherundolo has benefitted from being at a high spending club, having the league’s 3rd highest wage bill in 2022 and 9th highest in 2023. Moreover, his squads have been on the older and more experienced side, having an average age of 27.3 over his two seasons in charge of LAFC. Yet, while Cherundolo was certainly given a strong hand to work with at LAFC, that does not mean maximizing the team’s potential was an easy task, as evidenced by LAFC’s failure to qualify for the playoffs in 2021 despite having the 5th highest wage bill in the league.

In addition to his success at LAFC, Cherundolo’s unique background makes him a particularly intriguing candidate for Bundesliga clubs. He speaks German fluently and has a deep understanding of the culture from his decades living and playing there (he is nicknamed the “Mayor of Hannover” after all). For coaches taking jobs abroad, especially native English speakers, the language and cultural barriers can often cause coaches to struggle to have the same impact and influence as at their previous clubs and make them an easy scapegoat for problems. Additionally, per the Athletic, Cherundolo values the opinions of the data and analytics team and enjoys working collaboratively with his director of football and the scouting team when it comes to targeting players in the transfer market. He is a low-ego manager, as evidenced by his decision to bring in the more experienced Marc dos Santos as an assistant when other first time head coaches may have been concerned about bringing in someone with MLS head coaching experience.

Wilfried Nancy

Wilfried Nancy currently manages the Columbus Crew, and took quite a different path to Cherundolo to reach to this stage of his career. Nancy was born and raised in France before moving to Canada with nothing more than a backpack to start his coaching career almost two decades ago. He experienced limited success as a player, never playing at a fully professional level. Early in his career he worked as a coach in the Montréal academy for 5 seasons, then spent another 5 seasons as an assistant with the senior team before being named Montréal’s head coach prior to the 2021 season, inheriting a less-than-ideal situation from former manager Thierry Henry.

Nancy took over a team that finished in the bottom half of the MLS the season before, averaging only 1.13 points per match and a per-90 goal differential of -0.43. Nancy had an immediate impact, raising the teams points per match to 1.35 in his first season and a gd/90 of +0.06. His second season in charge ushered in further improvements, with Montréal averaging 1.91 points per match in 2022 and a per-90 goal differential of +0.38 as they finished with the third best regular season record in the MLS.

CF Montréal

Season

PPM

GD per 90

xGD per 90

Possession

2020

1.13

-0.43

-0.46

48.0%

2021

1.35

+0.06

+0.12

52.4%

2022

1.91

+0.38

+0.54

54.9%

Nancy’s tenure at Montréal is made even more impressive by the financial constraints he worked under. Montréal had only the 18th highest player wage bill in the MLS in 2022, with the gap between the 15th and 18th highest spending teams larger than the gap between 18th and the lowest spender. He has excelled at player development, with the club selling Alistair Johnston to Celtic, Djordje Mihalovic to AZ Alkmaar, and Ismael Kone to Watford for a combined sum of around $20 million. Johnston has candidly spoken about the impact of Nancy on his development, speaking about a “rewiring” he went through when he first began working with Nancy.

Nancy left Montréal for the Columbus Crew prior to the 2023 season, a move to a higher profile club with more financial resources than Montréal but still not one of the marquee franchises in the MLS; per Forbes, the Crew are only the 15th highest valued franchise in the MLS while CF Montréal rank 27th by franchise value. As with Montréal, Nancy instantaneously improved the Crew, increasing the team’s points per match by +0.33 and their per 90 goal differential by +0.48 en route to winning the MLS cup. Nancy demonstrated the ability to maximize star level talents, as club record signing Cucho Hernandez averaged 1.02 expected goals + assists per 90 in the MLS in 2023, almost double the production he averaged the year prior when he arrived in Columbus as a summer signing from Watford. Nancy also successfully adapted following the departure of star playmaker Lucas Zelarayan midway through the 2023 season, with the Crew suffering no decline in performance after losing such an instrumental player.

Columbus Crew

Season

PPM

GD per 90

xGD per 90

Possession

2022

1.35

+0.14

-0.06

52.5%

2023

1.68

+0.62

+0.48

57.1%


Nancy has a distinctive tactical style that emphasises controlling possession and moving the ball around so as to disorganize the opposition and exploit the space an opportunities that arise from it. He places a major emphasis on switching the point of attack and maximizing width. Nancy sees soccer akin to a game of chess, baiting the opposition into traps with patient possession that allows for advantageous attacking situations. In both his tenures at Montréal and now the Crew, Nancy affected change by instituting his attacking philosophy as evidenced by his team’s season to season increases in possession percentage. In Nancy’s first season with the Crew the team led the MLS in goals scored, expected goals, and possession. He has proven capable of succeeding with younger teams, managing the 4th youngest squad in the MLS in 2021 and the 7th youngest in both 2022 and 2023.

Nancy is well liked by his players, with many members from his Montréal and Columbus squads quick to highlight the influential role of Nancy in their progress as players and the success of the team. His players are appreciative of the way Nancy presents clearly defined expectations and roles for each player, which has helped drive a “we, not me” culture at both Montréal and Columbus.In discussing the teams successful approach to the MLS cup finals, Crew captain Darlington Nagbe told reporters, “That’s what Wilfried does, knowing the tactical side of the game and planning and everything like that. Making sure he’s managing guys in the right mind frame to go out there and compete every single time.” Patrick Schulte, who Nancy elevated from the second team to the starting goalkeeper job in his first full season of first-team soccer, commented that “everyone bought into what [Nancy] was preaching. This locker room is all one: From the guys who weren’t on the roster to the guys who start. We’re all one.”

Nancy is a natural fit for clubs in France and Belgium given his inherent understanding of the language and culture. His proven track record of player development and outperforming budget expectations are particularly attractive to teams outside of the upper echelon of these leagues, although his top-level success should also make him an appealing option to the more traditional powers.

Conclusion

Cherundolo and Nancy had very different paths to reach this stage of their careers, but they share certain key qualities that should make them attractive to European sides. Both have demonstrated the ability to significantly improve the team they inherit and in addition, they both are fluent in languages other than English and have experience living in other countries. While the Premier League has managers from a wide range of nationalities that is not the case on the continent; All 20 La Liga managers come from a Spanish speaking country while only two Serie A managers are not of Italian heritage, with both speaking fluent Italian. Notably, there is not a single English manager in charge of a first division club in Spain, Italy, Germany, France, Portugal, or Belgium. The lack of language or cultural barriers for Cherundolo and Nancy in making the transition to some of these leagues is a key advantage that should not be overlooked

At Sportsology Group, we are continuously monitoring the performance of coaches to ensure we are always as knowledgeable as possible when assisting our clients with head coach searches. Cherundolo and Nancy are two coaches that have long stood out to us based upon their quantitative profiles. Neither manager has very many years of experience as a head coach, but in their short time leading MLS sides they have made dramatic impacts on their team’s success and established the kind of rapport with their players that enables them to successfully implement their playing philosophies. Both have achieved ultimate success in the MLS and European clubs would be wise to keep tabs on their performance and potential interest in making the transition to test themselves on the other side of the Atlantic.

Peter

By Peter Smith

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