The Designated Player: Bruce Arena, Chris Klein, and the ‘D’ Word

Funny things, soccer dynasties. This week alone we were treated to another installment of Arsene Wenger’s gradual transformation into King Lear (though at least he’ll be warm on the heath in his nice big coat, and can claim legitimately not to have seen most incidents). And in MLS, the marvelous Jose Luis Sanchez Sola is hitting drop-the-mic status early in the race for the Entertaining Coach of the Year Award, with his energetic trading of anyone on the Chivas USA side who can’t show lineage back to the Olmec. Which is one way to do it.

MLS has always had an ambivalent relationship with the idea of dynasties. On the one hand the culture and practices of forced parity seem designed to curb such excesses, yet on the other there’s a continual prompting toward the type of sustained marketing and competitive successes that come from, well, dynasties. It’s a little reminiscent of the 1980s Chinese version of “permissible small-scale capitalism” — one that’s allowed to thrive at arm’s length from state intervention, but never further.

It’s a relationship that at times seems to have frustrated the man who’s usually the first name to come up in any discussion of MLS dynasties, Bruce Arena. After his former side D.C. United (coached at the time by Thomas Rongen) beat L.A. Galaxy in 1999 to win their third MLS Cup in four years, Arena, the coach for the first two of those cups, declared, “Dynasties equate to quality, not weakness. Dynasties are great. The greatest thing it does, perhaps, is make everybody else in the league get better.”

Yet by the end of 2012, Arena, after a four-year stretch in which he won another two MLS Cups and appeared in another final with the Galaxy, was more muted. He told L.A. fans not to worry and to expect “a competitive team” for 2013, and made statements to the effect that we could not have dynasties in MLS because of forced parity. Perhaps he was mindful of the example of that 1999 D.C. United side, who at that time had dominated the opening years of MLS only to fail to qualify for the playoffs in the next three years. Or perhaps Arena’s second stint of MLS coaching, following the eight years as a national team coach, had tempered his faith in what was possible in this very particular soccer nation.

So do we expect an inevitable downturn from the Galaxy now? There are plenty of knives sharpened for the champions. Certainly there’s some juggling of resources to be done by a side that had learned to maximize a particular style. As writer Jason Davis pointed out in a recent story previewing the Galaxy’s season, the loss of Beckham and, temporarily at least, Landon Donovan might not signal a collapse, but the emphasis on players like Juninho, Sarvas, and Magee shifts a lot when they are playing in a side that is no longer built around the Beckham’s ability to stretch the field with long passes or the way Donovan can free up men with his runs off the ball.

Yet as player turned VP of business operations Chris Klein told me recently, “I’m not sure what Bruce would say, but we’re definitely not looking at this as a rebuilding or transitional moment just because David Beckham’s leaving. We feel that at the minimum going forward next season we’ll have the two best designated players in the league in Robbie [Keane] and Landon. We have the best young defender in Major League Soccer in Omar Gonzalez. We have one of the best young players who we’re re-signing in Juninho, so the base is here for us to continue to move forward.”

Klein was equally bullish at the rally two days after the MLS Cup that served as a victory lap and a farewell to Beckham. As the speeches and celebrations continued, I found myself repeatedly taking the rare opportunity to look up and down the line at this cross section of a successful modern soccer club, and to think again about what we might mean by an MLS dynasty.

It’s become one of the stock phrases of modern soccer gratitude that “not just the players and the coaching staff, but the entire organization deserve the credit.” Too often, such credit actually obscures the contribution of support staff by the indefinite nature of the praise, and in turn the role of a club’s working culture and off-field development becomes a rather vague discussion. And that’s a shame — particularly in a league like MLS, where forced competitive parity arguably puts more onus on the incremental advantages eked out by an “entire organization” than in other leagues and sports.

So a few weeks after the MLS Cup celebration I caught up separately with Bruce Arena and Chris Klein. I asked Arena what edge the Galaxy managed to consistently give themselves, allowing for the restrictions of forced parity. The first thing Arena said is actually an example that critics bring up to explain the Galaxy’s state of exception when it comes to a level playing field:

“One glaring area that everyone in the league would argue that gives us an advantage is, we use three designated players — that’s an on-the-field advantage. And there’s no question about that. If you do that, there’s no guarantees, but in theory you’d have perhaps an edge in talent on the field.”

He doesn’t mention New York by name, but the Galaxy are hardly alone in using the DP rule to its full extent, and have thus far been the most successful exponents of it by a distance.

They also have cash resources that are the envy of other teams. When I call Jason Davis to follow up on his analysis of the 2013 squad, he praises the job that Arena has done but claims that “arguably someone like Peter Vermes at Sporting Kansas City has a harder job given what he has to operate with.”

Yet when Arena arrived at the Galaxy, the scenario was one of special weapons and no tactics, with the club in chaos and woefully out of balance on and off the field following the difficult early days of the Beckham era. So club president Tim Leiweke’s 2008 decision to reassert control by giving Arena a mandate not only as head coach but as general manager laid the foundation for what might now be the rather quieter version of a dynasty — an organization geared toward long-term continuity rather than the short-term spin cycles of MLS-prompted first-team turnover.

Arena: “I think what helps us make all this stuff work is our organization off the field. Right now we have Chris Klein, he’s the president of our business operations. He understands, obviously, what I’m doing, what our needs are, and he supports that into ownership. In our academy level we have Jovan Kirovski, with great experience, heading up that area. Our coaching staff is experienced and supportive, our medical staff is among the best in the league. So every area off the field that helps utilize all of our resources and supports our first team is in place, and I think the success of our team is not only the team on the field, it’s the team off the field.”

Significantly, Klein and Kirovski both played under Arena, as did Pat Noonan (assistant coach) and Curt Onalfo (the reserve-team head coach, who played under Arena in his college days at the University of Virginia). And of course there’s Arena’s longtime assistant Dave Sarachan, who’s also been with him since his Virginia days.

It’s not unusual for a coach to surround himself with staff he trusts, though Arena’s level of control is fairly unique in MLS. Arguably, if you have the right person for the job, like Arena, using a European-style managerial role provides an edge in that it clarifies certain areas of recruitment that might otherwise be complicated by conflicting visions of a coach and technical director or general manager. Arena is not opposed to that assessment:

“The way that we divide up the responsibilities is that the technical area I’m responsible for and the business area Chris Klein is. However, our responsibilities overlap in both areas and we understand that, but Tim has basically given me the charge to rebuild our team, and as much as I work with Chris Klein and we support each other, it’s the same with Tim Leiweke and myself, because Tim gets one area that he loves in terms of participating on the technical side — he is actively involved in the recruiting and assigning of our designated players.”

Klein is an interesting member of that triumvirate. In some ways he matches the profile of an Arena protégé as an experienced long-term professional, yet he was largely groomed by Leiweke, who noted his potential when Klein participated in the negotiations for the last collective bargaining agreement as part of the Players Union.

“Tim Leiweke came to me and we started discussing ways that I could get involved in the Galaxy and AEG when I was finished playing,” Klein says. “A lot of those discussions were based on getting me the experience that I needed.”

MLS Players Union chief Bob Foose says he has fond memories of Klein’s time in the union. “We kid him about going over to the dark side [management], but his absolute integrity is a real plus for the league.”

So did the union man feel any sense of conflict in going over to management?

“Ha … Not really. When I was playing I always had a love for the business side of the game and business in general. I got all my licensing to be a financial adviser, I was on the executive board of our players union, I was always looking for opportunities to stay involved in the game but stay involved in things that were off the field from a business standpoint … The realities of our league is that the vast majority of our players cannot retire and take a year, two years, three years, and figure out exactly what they want to do with their life.”

Klein figured out what he wanted to do, and it sees him sitting alongside Arena at Galaxy management meetings and gaining his AEG experience by representing their 49 percent interest on the board of the Swedish team Hammarby.

Stability will be key this season for the Galaxy, too. Despite Klein’s and Arena’s assertions that the champions are not about to start a transitional period, the two have been in lockstep over the offseason about the strategy to prepare the club’s defense of their title and, perhaps just as crucially, make a better tilt at the Champions League than last season’s quarterfinal exit against Toronto. So after Arena complained about a postseason touring schedule that meant for him “the 2011 season never ended” until the Galaxy’s midseason revival in summer 2012, plans for a postseason tour this year were quietly dropped. As the VP leading the Galaxy’s business development, Klein could be forgiven for having been more adamant about the bottom line over such a tour, coming at the moment the man most associated with the rise of the Galaxy as a globally recognized brand was about to leave, but his answer is one of soccer pragmatism first:

“Our window for doing a postseason tour grows shorter and shorter as our league’s schedule gets longer and longer. We had opportunities to look at a postseason tour this year, but in the end looking at the rest that our players need, basically going two years almost nonstop, with Landon going on loan, Robbie being on loan, we made an internal decision not to do it this year.”

It’s possible that Galaxy history taught Klein to pick his battles. As a player he had a front-row seat when the front office, represented by Alexi Lalas, and then coach Ruud Gullit infamously clashed over the issue of friendlies (after which both were fired and Arena was hired). But there’s no such obvious dissent between Klein and Arena. “In my role now it’s a constant thing where we have to balance what’s right for the team and what’s right for us from a financial and marketing perspective,” Klein says. “And that’s where Bruce Arena has done a tremendous job, because he gets it.”

Klein is excited about the future, too:

“Everybody talks about the fact that we have had … David Beckham, Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, but I think as an organization we’re equally as excited by the players that we’re starting to develop like Jack McBean, Jose Villarreal, Oscar Sorto — players that grew up within 10 to 15 minutes of the Home Depot Center, that grew up watching the Galaxy and are now playing for the Galaxy.”

Kids born into the league?

“Absolutely. That’s important … You now have young kids that grow up loving the Galaxy and to then be able to have the opportunity to possibly put the Galaxy shirt on and train at the Home Depot Center … it takes it to a different level.”

Some of those kids may have been at the championship rally last December. If they were, they’d have seen Klein sitting down first in that long row of Galaxy personnel. Arena followed him, sitting with that familiar tilted head and enigmatic smile that appears half serenity, half hauteur. Around them the players and staff of the Galaxy filed into view one by one. It was an image that was perhaps all the more striking in that it drifted into a cumulative focus. Suddenly there they all were — the championship-winning Galaxy and all who made them. Compared to the forced jollity of an open-top bus celebration, it was rather modest for all the choreographed cheering, and in its own way rather affecting. To see an entire successful organization seated in a row, without an obvious suggestion of hierarchy, is quite something. And this was not just any organization, but the latest to have flirted with the “D” word. And whatever this season brings on the field, nobody’s talking about eras ending off it.

Graham Parker (@kidweil) leads the U.S. and MLS soccer coverage for the Guardian. He also writes for Howler.

Filed Under: MLS