Technical directors are suddenly fashionable in Major League Soccer. More teams are adding the position to the budget, something that makes perfect sense going forward.
Today, six of 14 clubs employ a technical director (Chicago, New York, L.A., D.C., Kansas City, Columbus and Chicago), although that percentage is escalating quickly. Columbus recently hired Brian Bliss for that spot, days after Seattle -- a club that barely exists -- hired Chris Henderson. Columbus' hire was especially meaningful, an indication that clubs without fat war chests are now adding the post.
But what goes hand in hand with complications and added elements? Growing pains, of course.
This certainly has the potential to become a painful process.
Although clubs may vary in structuring their organizational hierarchy, a technical director will generally be positioned above the coach, reporting directly to the general manager or owner. He'll create and oversee youth programs, but also man the watchtower on first-team personnel. Not bad work, if you can get it: Pick the players, then blame the coach if the team stinks.
Seriously, mistakes inevitably will be made in creating and staffing such an important post. Surely, six clubs believe they have hired the perfect candidate already. But the math will say otherwise in two or three years, as one, two or more have been kicked to the curb, once the diverse skill set for this post has been better defined.
Consider some of the prickly situations that will emerge as clubs begin tinkering with their inner workings.
A great example could be in Houston, where GM Oliver Luck has run a spiffy business, establishing the market and luring healthy crowds. Meanwhile, Dominic Kinnear and assistant John Spencer have pulled the personnel levers. Two consecutive MLS championships speak clearly of the results.
So, does Luck begin mucking up matters by hiring a boss to oversee Kinnear? That seems foolish. But if not, will Houston risk falling behind on the youth components, which may become the sweet spot in player acquisition? That's a tough choice.
Other owners and GMs may already be kicking the tires on technical directors. But how is that going to sit with the existing coaches, who may suddenly see their livelihoods threatened and their domains encroached? Hand technical directors the keys to a soccer operation and the temptation may be overwhelming to put "their guy" in charge of the first team, someone beholden to them, someone who (literally and figuratively) speaks the same language.
Would players, suddenly caught in the crossfire of such an awkward scenario, continue to ally themselves with the existing manager or hitch up to the technical director's wagon? After all, the technical director would presumably negotiate future contracts. Show me a locker room fraught with confused loyalties, I'll show you a team going nowhere.
Along with determining who hires and fires the manager, clubs must decide individually how much weight the technical director carries in placing personnel on the first team. You know how that goes: The TD spends big lavishly on a DP, but maybe the manager wasn't totally on board. What happens when the DP goes MIA on the pitch? Who gets hung out to dry on that one?
Then again, that's been the case up to now with GMs, some of whom had no more business assessing and signing talent than funny man Stephen Colbert. (The best GMs will cop to that.)
Up to now, GMs have mostly overseen player personnel. But it's clear that bossing the day-to-day club business (with 30 or more front-office employees) while managing player acquisition and maintenance is asking too much of one person. The days are long gone when MLS shoestring budgets demanded such a multitasking duty juggler.
Of course, a technical director's post isn't all scouting and signing first-team players. This person must have a vision concerning the reserve team and the burgeoning MLS youth components. A technical director will make important decisions on youth club structure, training, philosophy and coaching choices. Pick the wrong technical director -- someone who hires ill-suited cronies or neglects the community aspect -- and the club's youth component will soon be a mess.
But that same person must absolutely assume the driver's seat on high-profile acquisitions. Before the next $800,000 Denilson fiasco, it makes sense to pony up $100,000 for a technical director who can perform a higher level of due diligence or talk down a general manager or owner smitten by a fancy trickster.
Consider more credentials that would dot the perfect résumé:
The ideal candidate must be familiar with the American athlete, the U.S. player pool, the nexus of domestic agents and the unwieldy collegiate system. Simultaneously, the ideal technical director must comfortably mingle in the choppy international soccer waters. There, among confounding layers of agents, assistants, family members and nebulously positioned middlemen, dwell predators eager to exploit the gaps.
So the smart technical director will quickly establish a trusted network of scouts and contacts in Europe and Latin America.
At the same time, the perfect candidate is a savvy businessman with a big-picture view of youth development. This person would essentially create a business model based around coaching, which sounds like some pretty tricky math.
One could argue that if owners and GMs have performed to this point, properly managing their power lists, many of the best and brightest soccer minds are already in place in MLS, manning managerial posts.
Or, is there another way of looking at it? Perhaps the country is big enough, with ample soccer minds of sufficiently disparate -- yet equally effective -- ideas to create another layer within the MLS ecosystem. There are certainly qualified men out there, like the resourceful Alfonso Mondelo or other fellows at their best when eyeballing talent, like Dave Dir or Bob Gansler.
The bottom line here: This is an important decision that every club must treat with care. Nail it, and you're a leg up moving forward. Get it wrong, and you could spend years struggling to arrest the resulting downward spiral.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.