MLS Manager Preview: Featuring Phil Neville, Gabriel Heinze, Jaap Stam, Caleb Porter, Gerhard Struber and Thierry Henry’s replacement

Jack Kitson by Jack Kitson / 16 April 2021, 08:40

A trio of former Manchester United players, an ex-Celtic manager, and a man who inspired Barnsley’s great escape all take to the dugout for the 2021 MLS season, which gets underway in the early hours of Saturday morning (1am, BST).

The 26th edition promises to be a cracker, especially from a managerial perspective with 27 managers from 11 different nations involved, including three Englishmen.

Below we take a look at the main managerial talking points ahead of kick-off...

Who won the MLS Cup last year?

Caleb Porter, known for his competitive spirit, once irked Pep Guardiola to such an extent that the then Bayern Munich boss refused to shake the American’s hand after a friendly in 2014. Porter responded to the snub by nominating Pep Guardiola in the ‘ice bucket challenge’.

The following year Porter won the MLS Cup for the first time with Portland Timbers, a feat he repeated in 2020 with Columbus Crew.

Like everywhere else in football, last season was an unprecedented one in the MLS. Full of interruptions and cancelled matches due to the pandemic, there was a four-month shutdown then a five-week summer tournament - won by Giovanni Savarese’s Portland Timbers - but it was Crew who eventually came out on top in the MLS Cup following a 3-0 triumph over 2019 victors Seattle Sounders in front of 1,500 socially distanced supporters.

"This was going to be our year, our day and our trophy,” Porter said after lifting the trophy.

Who are the managerial favourites in 2021?

The aforementioned Porter and his Crew - including Bradley Wright-Phillips - are nestled amongst the early cluster of favourites for glory this time around. If successful, the 6/1 shot will become only the third manager to win three MLS Cups - Bruce Arena has five - and the first to win back-to-back titles since Arena achieved this feat in 2011 and 2012.

Bob Bradley may send shivers down the spine of many a Swansea supporter following his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 11-match stint back in 2016, however the 63-year-old’s reputation and resume is viewed far more positively back in his homeland.

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Phil Neville has joined David Beckham in the states

The former United States coach, a three-time MLS Coach of the Year who won the cup in 1998, has been in charge of Los Angeles FC - a club part-owned by Will Ferrell - since 2017 and won the Supporters' Shield (regular season) two years ago. 

Bradley has a strong squad at his disposal - featuring arguably the league’s best player in Carlos Vela - who are many people’s favourites (5/1) to win gold. One thing is for sure, there will be goals...at both ends of the pitch.

If it’s consistency you’re after then last year’s runners-up, Seatlle Sanders, represent a decent best-priced bet at 10/1 with Bet365. Boss Brian Schmetzer has led his troops to four MLS Cup finals in five seasons, winning twice, while he’s also won the Western Conference on four occasions during this spell.

Chris Armas’ Toronto FC can also be backed at 8/1, while Ronny Deila’s New York City, Óscar Pareja’s Orlando City, and Jim Curtin’s 2020 Supporters’ Shield winners, Philadelphia Union, are each priced at 12/1.

New England Revolution, managed by the iconic Bruce Arena, are also worth a look out at 20/1.

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Top-10 in the betting for MLS Cup glory (Bet Victor)

Is there any English interest?

Three Englishmen feature in the new edition of the MLS; two league stalwarts and a fresh face on the stateside scene.

The latter is of course Phil Neville, the former England women’s manager who has jetted over to Florida to join his old Man Utd teammate David Beckham; co-owner of 25/1 shots Inter Miami.

Neville will be working with the likes of Gonzalo Higuaín, Blaise Matuidi, Ryan Shawcross, and Lewis Morgan - Kieran Gibbs will join in the summer - and will be tasked with rejuvenating the club following a rather deflating 2020 campaign. 

"Everyone I speak to from the club says Phil Neville is very detail-oriented, organised, and has very good people skills,” Miami Herald sports reporter Michelle Kaufmann told Sky Sports. “He is getting to know each player individually, and they seem to be responding. Neville speaks some Spanish too, which helps.”

Check him out in action below.

Adrian Heath, a former English title and FA Cup winner at Everton under Howard Kendall, has buckets of managerial experience in America, where he’s managed since 2008. The former Burnley and Sheffield Utd boss started off at Austin Aztex, then Orlando City, while he’s been at Minnesota United (25/1) since 2017.

Former Wycombe player Gary Smith, who coached for the club, has previously scouted for Arsenal and worked at Watford. Smith’s managerial career began at Colorado Rapids, where he won the 2010 MLS Cup - he remains the only Englishman to do so - then after a stint at Stevenage where he reached the League One play-offs, he briefly took charge of the Atlanta Silverbachs, followed by Nashville who are 50/1 outsiders for MLS Cup glory.

Any other familiar names?

There’s plenty.

Over in Atlanta United we have the former Man Utd and Real Madrid defender Gabriel Heinze - a disciple of Marcelo Bielsa - who represents yet another exciting managerial talent from Argentina. Expect a future return to England should he impress in his new post.

At the helm of FC Cincinnati is another ex-Red Devils defender, Jaap Stam, who previously managed Reading and Feyenoord. He endured a tough start last season, finishing bottom of the barrel but after making a raft of changes an exciting campaign could be on the cards for Stam’s men, providing he can fit the pieces together. Keep an eye on young Brazilian starlet Brenner.

American managerial legend Bruce Arena knows the league better than any boss with his tally of five MLS Cups a record. He’s been in charge of the New England Revolution since 2019 and reached the Eastern Conference Final last season, where his side lost to eventual champions Columbus Crew.

There’s interest for Celtic fans - who are still awaiting the appointment of a new manager - at New York City FC, whose incumbent is former Hoops boss Ronny Deila. Similarly, Barnsley supporters will also be paying attention to the Big Apple scene, with their ex-relegation-saving-boss Gerhard Struber in charge of New York Red Bulls.

Venezuelan Giovanni Savarese, manager of Portland Timbers, scored 14 goals for Swansea in the early noughties and also had a brief stint playing for Millwall. Former Lazio star Matias Almeyda at the San Jose Earthquakes and FC Base’s old title winning coach Raphael Wicky, who is the manager of Chicago Fire.

Who replaced Thierry Henry?

In February, surprise news broke that Thierry Henry had decided to step down from his position in charge of Montreal Impact, whom he’d managed since November 2019. 

The Frenchman, who had been hotly linked with the Bournemouth job, cited the need to be closer to his family who are based in London. During his spell, Henry led his side into the MLS playoffs and into the quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Champions League.

Henry’s assistant and fellow countryman Wilfried Nancy was promoted from within and named manager ahead of the new campaign. Since joining the club in 2011, he’s worked his way up through the youth set-up and will now look to make an impact in the top job.

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