MLS coaches savor offseason lessons from legends: "I was living in Disneyland"


Born in Mendoza, the heart of Argentina’s wine country, Real Salt Lake manager Pablo Mastroeni has had plenty of glasses of red in his life. There is one, however, that stands out in his memory.

After a December 2015 Tottenham Hotspur match in the Europa League, he sat sipping with Mauricio Pochettino and his staff, the culmination of a week studying the Argentine manager.

“We shared a glass of wine and recapped the week. It was a remarkable experience that really changed the way I thought about coaching and opened up so many possibilities I didn’t know existed,” Mastroeni recalled.

With MLS’ calendar running across different months than the European soccer schedule, these exchanges, when MLS managers visit top European clubs, take place most winters. But how much do coaches really take from observing their counterparts in Europe’s top leagues? And how do these soccer study abroads even come about?

You get what you put in

Some are formal, like Mastroeni’s visit to Arsenal (which came on the same trip as his Tottenham study). The Gunners share ownership with the Colorado Rapids, who Mastroeni was coaching at the time.

Others, like current FC Dallas manager Nico Estévez visiting fellow Spaniard Unai Emery at Aston Villa this winter, might be as simple to set up as sending a couple of texts.

In many ways, managers say, you get what you put into the interaction and, of course, benefit from any time you’re able to share ideas with a more senior coach.

“I prepare myself before I go to visit. I analyze what I like from their teams and what I want to learn. I prepare a playlist and then I ask questions,” Estévez said. “The way Aston Villa is defending is awesome,” he notes, going into a several-minute analysis of things he noticed on the tape and asked Emery about.

“One thing that I found out is how big individual training is for them,” Estévez continued. “That’s something we already do, but to see how they’ve developed that was impressive, and we got some good ideas we can implement at FC Dallas.”

Estévez also worked with Brighton & Hove Albion’s Roberto De Zerbi this offseason, leveraging a connection with the club’s Spanish goalkeeper coach to see the Italian manager's possession-dominant style up close.

One of the league’s most memorable coaching studies came years ago, when Jason Kreis was preparing to take over expansion New York City FC and spent six months at Manchester City. There, he closely observed then-Manuel Pellegrini’s Premier League champions and also worked with Patrick Vieira, who was in charge of the club’s Elite Development Squad.

Kreis, now Real Salt Lake’s director of operations & special projects, also went to FC Nürnberg thanks to a connection from Jurgen Klinsmann, as well as 1. FC Kaiserslautern and TSG Hoffenheim. In contrast with his extended Man City visit, each of those German experiences lasted just a day or two.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Kreis believes a coaching exchange is much more fruitful when there is more time.

“If you really, really want to learn and delve into the methodology of a different coach in a different club, you probably need to spend two weeks there – that isn’t to say one or two days aren’t useful,” he said. “There are things you can pick up. Just being around a different environment can kind of reinvigorate you as a leader and as a coach.”

Soaking up the details

Sometimes there are those ‘pinch-me’ moments as well, like those Mastroeni had sipping wine with Poch after a Europa League win or hearing Wenger pose philosophical questions about the game to his players and listening to the answers that bounced around the room.

“Wenger didn’t know me from anyone, so it was about taking the moments he had available – and at those clubs every game is so important,” Mastroeni said. “With Pochettino, I was able to get in and we’d have lunch every day. We sat down, talked about his game model, his methodology. I got a really intimate experience with him and his staff. I was pinching myself thinking, ‘This is where I’d like to end up.’

“I felt like, for a week, I was living in Disneyland.”

While a week embedded with a Premier League coaching staff certainly can be construed as a theme park for soccer nerds, there are some moments when coaches are reminded they’re still doing work, often before taking a break for the winter holidays.

“It’s fun, but it’s a lot of travel, a lot of meetings. The first day I got to Aston Villa, I went directly to the training facility without sleeping and had meetings with different departments since I was curious to see how they work,” Estévez said. “I think it’s worth it. I want to feel like it’s not time off, I’m still working and preparing.”

Not only do the lessons learned in interchanges often lead to better coaching and stronger teams, but the connections made can lead to bigger jobs in the future. Estévez met Gregg Berhalter when the now-US men’s national team manager was visiting Valencia, and the now-Dallas manager ended up moving to Columbus shortly after to join Berhalter’s Crew staff.

That said, the exchanges aren’t totally without risk. A coach may think he can adapt an idea or structure being used by the team he’s observing without actually being able to transplant it onto the roster he has. And sometimes there's a risk of over-confidence after not being awed by what managers in the top leagues are doing.

“Sometimes you get self-satisfaction because you go and say ‘They’re doing the exact same thing we are, so we’re doing a great job,’” Kreis said. “That’s why when I worked with Pellegrini, it probably was a little unfortunate for me because he was a very similar coach to me. So it was almost like ‘OK, I know everything because he does it and is coaching the Premier League champions!’

“That wasn’t necessarily the truth. It’s just that he was very similar to me, and I had a lot more that I needed to learn and unfortunately didn’t gain through that experience."

Paying it forward

Despite potential pitfalls, managers are continuing to learn and observe, and as MLS increases its strength as a league and gets more respect internationally, more and more coaches from abroad are phoning up current MLS managers and looking for the same kind of wisdom they received from coaches in England, Spain or Germany.

“Any time anyone calls me to observe, there’s never a time I’m not available,” Mastroeni said. “I feel like it’s a fraternity of coaches and we all want the same things. It’s so important to give back. They’re coming to learn, but it’s actually an exchange, right? It doesn’t matter what level you’re coaching, there are always ideas that work at different levels.”

Estévez, too, tries to maintain an open door to coaches from Spain and abroad, continuing to enjoy the back-and-forth he’s had in many offices or on training grounds.

“We’ve had coaches from every level. For 10 days, we had the coach of Valencia’s women’s team who is now at Alavés. I think it’s great because when they come, we ask them questions and feedback and can learn from them,” Estévez said. “I think it’s a nice way to grow the coaching community and share things.”

Armed with the knowledge they’ve gleaned and the memories of special moments, MLS coaches will go into the start of the season later this month hoping to find the right mixture of man-management and tactics that will produce the best results on the field – the types of wins where afterward you want to relax by going back over every moment with your staff, accompanied by a nice Malbec.