Take It From the Champions

Insider Frank MacDonald takes a look at building an MLS franchise, taking a que from reigning MLS Champions, the Houston Dynamo

As general manager, Adrian Hanauer has the task of building MLS Seattle’s team from square one. But because Hanauer is also an adept poker player, he’s not going to give away much information before he makes his move.

No doubt, Hanauer and technical director Chris Henderson are already crafting a plan of how to construct that first roster, at least in theory. So, questions could be posed and perhaps some cryptic answers received.

Then again, maybe those same questions could be answered in straighttalk by a couple of guys with ties to Seattle. Not just any guys, but two linchpins to arguably the most successful MLS franchise in existence.

Houston’s Brian Ching and Craig Waibel cut their teeth with the Sounders and have since gone on to win a total of four MLS titles, including back-to-back cups for the Dynamo. Bottom line: They know what works and what doesn’t.

So, what would they be thinking if they were in Hanauer’s boots?

“It’s difficult to start a new franchise now,” admits Ching, the forward from Gonzaga who has since established himself with the national team. “It’s difficult in this league to get good players on your team right away.”

The Right Mix

Many will recall that Real Salt Lake sought to build upon proven all-stars in their inaugural season of 2005. Perhaps it looked good on paper, but they’ve been at the bottom of the West for the past two years and won only 21 times.

The RSL plan may have been motivated by a need to move tickets. Eddie Pope had won crowns with D.C. United. Jason Kreis arrived as the league’s career scoring king.

“In America you need to win today,” says Waibel, a Washington alum who won his first MLS Cup with the Galaxy in 2002. “Fans don’t want to buy into a long-term building process right off the top.”

That said, both Ching and Waibel agree that it takes a delicate touch to develop the correct chemistry. For the Dynamo, it’s been all about balance and continuity, youth and experience.

Waibel says it’s no coincidence that Houston and New England routinely make it to the final game. There is minimal turnover of the rosters and coaching staff, allowing for players to develop an understanding of the tactics and one another.

Developing A Core

“From my experience, I believe that’s it’s the unity and loyalty the players feel from their coaches and their clubs, that’s what makes these two clubs so successful,” Waibel says Revs and Dynamo. “Neither has a designated player. Both abide by the salary cap. These two locker rooms don’t have the ego and circus shows going on elsewhere. Our management keeps distractions such as that out of the way.”

Ching sees it the same way. “We’ve bought into the team, and it’s not about the individual honors,” he says. “They also keep everybody happy in the way they manage the team. If you look at the team, we don’t have superstars that stand out.”

Or, in other words, they wouldn’t dream of dealing Dwayne De Rosario for David Beckham, or any other DP for that matter. Morale means everything.

“Dominic (Kinnear, Dynamo coach) tries to pay everybody around the same, and there are no guys making a whole lot of money,” notes Ching. “That helps keep players happy, and they’ve been able to keep a core group of guys together for 7-8 years and that’s part of creating a winning team.”

The Dynamo’s first two years in Houston have been hugely successful, yet the franchise’s success dates back to the San Jose days. Yes, it helped to sign Landon Donovan in ’01, but perhaps even more important was the hiring of Frank Yallop as coach. The Earthquakes won two titles in his first three seasons, and the core of that group remains.

The fact that Seattle can promote Sounders players to the MLS team could prove to be a boon.

Says Ching: “I think Seattle has the unique advantage in that they have a good core of A-League players, guys who have been around and successful in the A-League. If you mix those guys in with some veterans of the MLS and some younger talent, then they’ll be a step ahead of other expansion franchises such as Toronto, San Jose, Chivas and Salt Lake.”

True Experience

San Jose’s new team, again with Yallop at the helm, is being built around some unsung veterans. As Waibel points out, there’s a difference between a player experienced in the ways of MLS as opposed to coming from abroad. After all, find another league where 4-hour flights crisscrossing multiple time zones is part of the routine.

“I would begin by investing in about four MLS veterans because you’ll need them to help the 2-4 veterans who come from outside the league,” Waibel says. “You have to learn how to take care of your body in a schedule that’s 10 months long with intense travel.”

His recipe continues. “Next, you look for 2-3 promising young players who can play, then you fill in where it’s needed. You start investing in some developmental kids for future. Then get some guys who aren’t going to cost a lot of money, who can give you 7-8 games a year, when those veterans need a rest. You need your veterans, that longevity, for steering the 21-22-year-old players who will ultimately be your team.”

Clear in thought, Waibel seems destined for a career in coaching, if not management. Getting the right mix in Seattle or any other city takes time an requires a keen sense when to make moves, when to hold.

“You have to be careful about who you bring into a locker room,” says Waibel, “and who you keep around.”

And exactly what kind of guy would be ideal?

“Well, if I was a GM starting a team from scratch, let’s see,” Waibel playfully muses. “First, I guess I’d pick me up and move me home.”