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Friday, October 23, 2020

Forget Jill Ellis & John Harkes, D.C. United Should Hire A Latino Manager

All of the early names emerging in D.C. United’s search to replace Ben Olsen as its next full time manager, according to a report this week from The Athletic, are well qualified by general standards.

But not all coaching vacancies are equal. And for club supposedly desperate to return to its early glory amid a soccer market that is one of the nation’s best, neither Jill Ellis, John Harkes, David Wagner and Jason Kreis have qualifications that would be wise to consider essential: A connection to the Latin American game, and a command of the Spanish Language.

While all the recent tributes to the outgoing Olsen as the living embodiment of the club’s accomplishment and character over 25 years are well meaning, they also border on a whitewashing of the team’s history.

Yes, the fiery midfielder from Central Pennsylvania was a critical player for a successful team, and a critical manager during an era when survival looked uncertain. But any objective look at D.C. would view the club’s early success as one rooted first and foremost in an embrace of Latin players and Latin fan culture.

With all due respect to Americans Olsen, Harkes, Eddie Pope and Tony Sanneh, the three most important players in team history are all South American: Bolivians Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno, and Argentine Christian Gomez. The men who produced the two best single-season goal scoring seasons in club history are also Latinos: El Salvador’s Raul Diaz Arce and Brazil’s Luciano Emilio.

And back in the early days of MLS when D.C. fans set the early standard for support, one of the largest and most affluent Latino communities in the country was the catalyst. Its most well-known supporters group, La Barra Brava, derives its name and sound directly from the famous “hinchas” of the Estadio Centenario, La Bombonera and elsewhere. Their “Vamos United” song, a derivation on a widely adopted melody that originated in stadiums in Peru, is so ubiquitous that the club reference it in official marketing materials.

Despite all this, and despite an increasing reliance on players from all corners of Latin America throughout MLS, D.C. has never employed a Latin head coach, or even one who could communicate to those players or those fans fluently in their native language. Even the ranks of Spanish speaking assistants over the years is small. Technically, player-coach Federico Higuain fit the bill when he was traded to Miami earlier this week. So does Emilio, now an assistant at D.C.’s USL operation, Loudoun United. And Olsen to his credit noticeably had diversified his staff in recent years. But they were still exceptions rather than a rule.

And if there’s a systemic place D.C. has fallen short during the tenures of club GM Dave Kasper since 2007 and Olsen since 2010, it may be getting the most out of their attacking South American imports.

Kasper was heavily involved in acquiring Gomez, who propelled the club’s 2004 MLS Cup run and went on to be one of four D.C. players to win MLS MVP, and signing Emilio also came under his watch.

But since then, he brought in current River Plate manager and former Argentina national team midfielder Marcelo Gallardo, who failed to live up to his billing in 2008. Securing Brazilian Raphael Texeira to a Young Designated Player contract was one of the mistakes that led to D.C.’s worst-ever season in 2013. Costa Rican striker Jose Guillermo Ortiz was one and done in 2017. Highly touted Boca Juniors product Argentine Luciano Acosta had an MVP-caliber season next to Wayne Rooney in 2018, but his four-year legacy is one of perplexing inconsistency. And current Peruvian playmaker Edison Flores — the most expensive signing in club history — is still finding his feet in what is admittedly an unfair season to gauge success, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and his own nasty facial injury.

The track record is better among Latin attackers that already had MLS experience prior to their D.C. arrival, with Fabian Espindola, Jairo Arrieta, Alvaro Saborio and current midfielder Yamil Asad among the positive contributors. And that suggests maybe the pattern 0wes not so much to coaching but scouting and talent acquisition. Even so, it’s impossible to say having a qualified Latin American — or at least native Spanish speaker — in charge of the squad couldn’t help address it.

Off the the field, such a hire could also help rebuild a relationship with a fanbase that has expressed doubts over the team’s direction in recent years, even after finally opening Audi Field in 2018. There were expected complaints of some being priced out of a glitzier and more intimate venue than was RFK Stadium, and more acute anger at the short-lived decision to make all its local broadcasts available only via streaming service FloSports in 2019.

As the Washington Post’s Steven Goff wrote earlier this week, the club has never hired a manager outside the circle of American soccer and MLS, and until recently there was a tendency to believe foreign managers had trouble adjusting to the league’s quirks. That is changing in a drastic way of late, however. Argentina’s Tata Martino led Atlanta United to MLS Cup in 2018 to complete his two years in charge. His fellow countryman Matias Almeyda has indisputably improved the San Jose Earthquakes, even if their roster remains ill-equipped to do more than challenge for one of the Western Conference’s playoff places. Spaniard Domenec Torrent finished second in 2019 Coach of the Year voting in his only season in charge of New York City FC. And Colombian Oscar Pareja has Orlando City SC on the verge of their first playoff appearance this season, albeit as considerably more of MLS insider from his playing and previous coaching days in the league.

D.C. United want to embrace their past history. But they also need to compete in the league as it exists presently. And they want to do so that away that embraces a club identity that has the history and richness of few others in the 25-year-old league. Hiring a qualified Latin American manager and leaning into their Spanish speaking ethos should be where they start.

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