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Coaching landscape in MLS is changing

The MLS salary cap does not apply directly to coaches, but the cost-control mind-set had kept their paychecks under control. No longer, though.

The New York Red Bulls started the ball rolling by awarding Bruce Arena a contract worth $600,000 annually with bonuses. Then, the Red Bulls were willing to give Arena a $1.2 million payoff after firing him. And that is a small price compared to Ruud Gullit's three-year, $4 million contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy, a deal which could be paying Gullit much more in off-the-books money.

No other MLS coach is close to those numbers. But that is changing.

The Houston Dynamo and New England Revolution are bound to be hearing from the agents of their coaches. Dominic Kinnear has won two successive MLS Cups with the Dynamo and is earning in the $250,000 range. Steve Nicol's contract with the Revolution is worth about $175,000 annually; after his contract expires next year, he will have earned less in seven years than what Gullit will make this season.

Kinnear and Chicago's Juan Carlos Osorio are in the top half of the coaching pay scale, and both clearly had a positive influence on their teams. They were among seven MLS coaches earning more than $200,000 annually, along with Mo Johnston (Toronto FC), Jason Kreis (Real Salt Lake) and Sigi Schmid (Columbus), and they will be joined this year by Frank Yallop ($210,000) at San Jose.

Curiously, four (Columbus, Los Angeles, RSL, Toronto) of the five teams which failed to reach the playoffs are spending the most money on coaches. Five coaches in the bottom salary tier -- Nicol, Steve Morrow (FC Dallas), Curt Onalfo (Kansas City), Preki (Chivas USA), Tom Soehn (D.C. United) -- guided their teams to the playoffs. Nicol has taken the Revolution to four MLS Cups in six years. A sixth, Fernando Clavijo (Colorado), brought his team within a game of the MLS Cup in 2005 and '06.

If these pay-performance rankings seem inverted, it is an indication many MLS teams are either unclear about their technical direction or have simply hired the wrong person. In any case, a dynamic is changing, and as expectations for coaches rise, so will their pay.

For most of the history of the MLS, coaches' salaries have been subpar compared with other top leagues. When the MLS started, many of its coaches were earning less than six figures. Most of the best collegiate coaches were reluctant to move to the MLS because they would be taking a net pay cut, plus giving up a sinecure. Now, MLS teams such as Real Salt Lake are paying assistant coaches nearly $100,000 annually.

As MLS teams' horizons widen and players become more sophisticated, the demand will increase for better coaching. And if MLS teams continue to bring in high-priced designated players, they are going to need coaches who can keep pace.

MLS teams will have to become more savvy in their hiring practices. Once a commitment is made to a coach, it must be followed up with a commensurate commitment to talent. These investments do not have to be extravagant, but the penny-pinching days are ending. Coaches who are obtaining positive results will command higher numbers than those who are not, so this means nearly every coach in the MLS will soon be in at least the $250,000 range and their assistants in the $100,000 range annually. Management will bear an extra burden, having to choose coaches wisely, because the payoff for firings is going to be significant.

Even if Houston and New England continue to be relatively miserly, but also obtain results, they will be affected by what is happening in Hollywood. The Galaxy-Gullit deal, combined with David Beckham, is bound to change the image of the league. Bargain-level coaches such as Nicol and Preki will be the model for some teams. But once those teams reach the MLS Cup and Superliga level, spending on coaches and players will have to continue to expand.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.