How Hot Is Steve Nicol's Seat? The History of Last Place Managers in MLS

SEATTLE - JUNE 05: Head coach Steve Nicol of the New England Revolution (R) and head coach Sigi Schmid of the Seattle Sounders FC watch play on June 5, 2010 at Qwest Field in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Here's a little non-Sounders content that piqued my curiosity. Thanks to two consecutive wins by the Vancouver Whitecaps, for the first time in a very long time they're no longer at the bottom of the MLS table. Instead they've leapfrogged the New England Revolution, who are suffering what is probably the worst season in their occasionally proud history. And it comes a year after a woeful 13th place finish in 2010.

That can't help but put Steve Nicol's job in question. That's a development of some interest to the general MLS world because — with nearly ten seasons at the helm of the Revolution — Nicol is by far the longest tenured coach in the league, both currently and all time. There have been more MLS seasons with him at the helm in New England than there have existed without him. So on the one hand he's absolutely a fixture in New England. He's never won a big prize (a Supporters Shield or an MLS Cup) but he won a US Open Cup in 2007, the SuperLiga in 2008, and been runner up for a Shield or Cup 5 times.

And yet my impression is that managers don't often survive finishing in last place in the league. I wanted to test that impression, so I went back and did the research. Come on a journey with me through a history of abject MLS failure...

  • 2010 - DC United - DC finished 6 points back of their closest competition with a goal differential of -26 — nearly twice as bad as the second worst in the league. Curt Onalfo, who had been hired before the season after being fired by the Kansas City Wizards, was fired in early August and Ben Olsen was named interim manager.
  • 2009 - New York Red Bulls - After making the MLS Cup final in 2008 and losing to Sigi Schmid's Columbus Crew, the Red Bulls faced Sigi in their very next match: the inaugural game of the expansion Seattle Sounders FC. They lost that match heavily and seemed to never recover, finishing 9 points behind the second-to-last team. Manager Juan Carlos Osorio was fired in August after winning only 2 matches and Richie Williams was named interim manager.
  • 2008 - San Jose Earthquakes - This was a close call, with San Jose only beating out the LA Galaxy for bottom of the standings in a head-to-head tiebreaker. LA's Ruud Gullit left during the season, but the Quakes retained Frank Yallop, who was in his first season after being fired from. . the LA Galaxy.
  • 2007 - Toronto FC - This year was another close race, with expansion Toronto just beating out third-year Real Salt Lake for worst record. Mo Johnston was weirdly allowed to retain the title of manager after the season even though he was moved to the front office and John Carver coached the team. I think that counts as fired. He didn't do much better in the front office.
  • 2006 - Columbus Crew - The Crew struggled under new head coach Sigi Schmid, but he was understandably retained given that it was his first season and he'd won an MLS Cup and Supporters Shield in 2002.
  • 2005 - Chivas USA - Chivas and expansion mate Real Salt Lake were way behind the rest of the pack in the standings, with the Goats winning out in the race to the bottom by winning only 4 matches all season. Thomas Rongen was fired from coaching duties ten games into the season and after that season went back to coaching the US U-20 team (from which he was fired this season after failing to make the U-20 World Cup).
  • 2004 - Chicago Fire - The Fire won out in the race for worst on a tiebreaker over the Revolution. Head coach Dave Sarachan was retained and it wasn't even his first season. But he had just been named Coach of the Year after winning the Supporters Shield in 2003.
  • 2003 - Dallas Burn - The Burn finished way, way back of the pack and head coach Mike Jeffries was fired in September to be replaced by assistant Colin Clarke (now coach of Terry Boss' Puerto Rico national team).
  • 2002 - DC United - United's second appearance on this list, but this time head coach (and current incomparable GolTV announcer) Ray Hudson was retained after his first season with the club.
  • 2001 - Tampa Bay Mutiny - The Mutiny — one of the original MLS franchises — languished through a 4-win season to earn a -36 goal differential and finish in the bottom. Alfonso Mondelo was fired during the season and replaced by Perry Van DerBeck. After the season the entire Mutiny franchise was fired when they were contracted out of MLS.
  • 2000 - San Jose Earthquakes - This is kinda the Quakes' second appearance on the list, although this version is the original franchise which became the Houston Dynamo. They finished a point behind DC United and onetime US national team coach Lothar Osiander was fired after the season to be replaced by Frank Yallop for his first stint with an Earthquakes team.
  • 1999 - MetroStars - Despite an abject history of futility, this is the only season the New York/New Jersey MetroStar Red Bulls would finish bottom of the table, but they did it in style with a historically bad 15 points in 32 games played. Another onetime US national team head coach Bora Milutinovic was fired after his second season, and he went on to continue his Sven Goran Erikson-like career of coaching national teams around the globe.
  • 1998 - New England Revolution - This is the only previous appearance for the Revolution on this list, so it may be of special interest to Nicol. It's the second appearance for Thomas Rongen, who was fired after the season to move on to DC United. You can check a couple of paragraphs up to see how that turned out.
  • 1997 - San Jose Clash - San Jose again! This time it was as the Clash with their awesome scorpion logo. Sadly, the awesomeness of the scorpion could not save them from a bottom of the table finish. Head coach Laurie Calloway, who managed the Seattle Sounders in their final NASL season, was fired halfway through the season (after player Eric Wynalda paid for an airplane banner demanding Calloway's ouster). He's now coach of the Des Moines Menace.
  • 1996 - Colorado Rapids - The Rapids forever hold the distinction of being the first worst team. Bob Houghton — who's coached nearly 20 different teams in his career — lasted one season in his only stint coaching an American team and was fired after the season and replaced by Mooch Myernick.

So there you have it. In the 15 seasons of Major League Soccer, the coach of the team in last place was fired either during or after the season in all but four seasons. Every one of those four had won either an MLS Cup or Supporters Shield previously in MLS and three of them (Sigi Schmid, Ray Hudson, and Frank Yallop) were in their first season with a new club — Dave Sarachan of the Fire was in his second year, having won MLS Coach of the Year the previous season.

If the Vancouver Whitecaps revert to form and finish at the bottom, that tradition will already be maintained. Head coach Teitur Thordarson was (controversially) replaced halfway through the season by Tom Soehn. But if New England does finish last this season and Steve Nicol is retained, he will be treading new ground in MLS. Though he's a had a long history of success with the club, he's never won major hardware and he's now had two consecutive bad seasons — an accomplishment no other manager in league history has survived.

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