How to Learn
There are several excellent arguments toward thinking it is too early to really evaluate Tom Soehn's performance this year, and I am sympathetic to all of them. I urge you to read those comments, but I also want to make clear why I don't think it is too early to seriously evaluate Tom Soehn's performance in a way that I wouldn't have one year ago. And again, let me re-affirm that I am not calling for Tom Soehn to be fired, but rather saying it's not too early to think about how to evaluate his performances.
Let's start with sample size, the issue I think most of you take issue with. As one anonymous commenter vividly put it: "...you don't start icing the cake and then complaining about the taste when it's only been in the bleedin' oven for five minutes." That's a fair argument. I would counter, however, that it is somewhat silly to consider 2008 and 2007 to be completely discrete elements. In 2007, Tom Soehn was a new head coach with a team he inherited, and I was more than a little willing to extend a learning curve excuse to him. In 2008, the team is much more one that he has designed (in coordination with Kasper and Payne). And while it's tempting to say that 2008 is a discrete instance, I prefer to analyze coaching (as opposed to the team as a whole) as a continuation of 2007.
My largest concern is this - To the extent Tom Soehn changes tactics, it is as a response to immediate events before. That he is willing to change is to his credit, he shows more flexibility that Piotr Nowak did during Nowak's tenure at United. But I also think he inherited a mind-set from Nowak that I find troubling. I think Nowak all too frequently would search for a system that would function as a pass-key to the season, and then try to ride it as long as possible. Soehn is better, but I think he suffers from a milder form of the same misapprehension. Soehn is willing to change his line-ups and formations in response to recent events, but if those changes work he assumes that they will continue to work even in disparate situations. And that's the problem. It may be illusory, but I think it bears thinking about.
For instance, there were two significant points of inflection to the 2007 season. The first was after a similar string of disappointments, which caused the change from a three to a four man backline. The second occurred shortly before the away game at New England, when United juggled its defensive personnel. In both cases, Tom Soehn accurately identified a problem, and took moves to fix it. And in both cases, the moves were correct, and things improved. The problem was that improvement seemed to be a validation of a newly established Status Quo, and things wouldn't change until the system broke down. Which isn't, in my mind, what I want from my manager.
First, let's argue a fundamental point which is I think both obvious, and yet the ramifications seem to be rarely played out: A System is NOT a Formation. The best manager understand that there is a way they would like their team to play, call that the system if you will, but they adapt personnel, tactics, and formations to events on the field proactively to achieve that goal. In short, I think there's a similar way Arsene Wegner wants Arsenal to play every game, but he'll change his formation and tactics and players to maximize the opportunity to gain the advantages he needs to play that way. The system is a goal, not a starting point.
Now, in MLS, given the salary cap restrictions, deploying specialized personnel may not be as much of an option in other leagues, but tactics and formations can be adjusted proactively. And Tom Soehn has, I think, too often believed that the system is a starting point, rather than something to be established anew each game. We will play the 3-5-2 until it doesn't work. Then we play the 4-4-2 until that fails. Then we play the 3-4-3 in a circumstance where it works well (Pachuca 2nd leg, when goals were in demand and our starting XI minus Ben Olsen was out there) and then we played it again against RSL, with a different line-up, situation, and set of demands. This is, in many ways, a continuation of what we saw in 2007, especially at the end of the season.
Now, I think there are exceptions to this rule: I think we saw two different starting strategies against Harbour View, the result of gameplanning for those games. But I don't see much evidence of a managerial decision to adapt to the game in Kansas City, or in Salt Lake. Or in the first leg against Chicago last year. And that's my concern.
Again, anyone calling for Tom Soehn to be fired now is premature. But I don't think it is overreacting to be looking closely, very closely, at his performance over the next few matches.
Labels: Tom Soehn