Morrow a victim of unrealistic expectations
Nobody can truly say whether Steve Morrow is a good or bad coach. Was Morrow the right man for FC Dallas? Is he the right choice for any job?
Fair questions. We'll never know. Not about the FC Dallas part, anyway.
Fire a manager with a .500 record, who took charge just 18 months ago, focused on building around youth? Are expectations truly that out of whack at Pizza Hut Park? What is this, the Los Angeles Galaxy?
This is not to defend Morrow. He made some mistakes, as any coach does. But the reactionary termination raises more questions than it answers about Red Stripes upper management. Clubs that plot a sure course and doggedly walk the line eventually reap benefits. The rest wander erratically, altering course like stray mutts, rarely lifting cups.
Morrow's hiring and firing were approved by the same Hunt Sports Group bosses who are decent men, but who frequently get it wrong: the Southlake bust; miscast GM Greg Elliott; pushing the nickname "Hoops" (still not catching on in Dallas); Shaka Hislop's ridiculously askew salary; a recent fiasco with their overmatched field complex.
And what about the designated-player signing of Denilson? Morrow was never an advocate, but Denilson clamored expensively aboard when starstruck ownership became infatuated with the Brazilian. Hitchcock then naively oversold the ineffective Brazilian trickster, who was never going to move the attendance needle, despite the GM's promises.
In the end, Morrow (who insisted on the one-year Denilson escape clause) was left to sop up the mess, and what a kettle of burned beans it was. The Denilson debacle -- considering expectations, promises and money spent versus deliverables -- was arguably the worst personnel blunder in league history.
What about suggestions that Morrow had "lost the locker room"? (A nebulous catch-all that sportswriters sometimes employ in the absence of more precise analysis.) That was one reporter's assertion, based on an anonymous source, a claim lacking credibility. Players denied it, and even Hitchcock said none of them suggested Morrow's ouster.
Rather, this looks like a knee-jerk move by a GM feeling increasingly unsure of his own employment. And he probably should. Hitchcock is in the third year of a three-year plan that is tanking miserably. He sold himself to HSG by promising sellouts: five in 2006, 10 the next year and 15 this season.
Yet attendance plods along, averaging 15,472 "tickets distributed." Season tickets, about 3,500, actually fell this year. They had to pull out extra stops to sell out Sunday's David Beckham appearance.
Hitchcock was vague on explanations for Tuesday's surprise dismissal, mentioning desire for stronger leadership and a team heading in "the wrong direction." When pressed to elaborate, he noted a middling home mark under Morrow.
"I'm a firm believer we need to make sure this is truly a home-field advantage, and we need the team to respond and reward the fans for coming out," he said.
Fair enough. But Morrow's home record was 8-7-4 -- hardly glorious, but not awful. It did provide a convenient excuse for a GM straining to deliver on unrealistic promises. When foraging for arguments to send up the food chain, Hitchcock can lament the difficulty in pushing tickets for a mediocre home side. While it's commendable to look out for supporters, it's a spurious argument.
FC Dallas remains overly tethered to domestic soccer's old marketing models, the tired pursuit of suburban families. Problem is, too many of those customers care only marginally about W's and L's. They're pretty happy with a couple of visits a year, so long as they can get in and out of concession lines in timely fashion (which they can't at Pizza Hut Park), and so long as the club has an effective traffic egress plan that moves them smoothly from the parking lots (which it doesn't).
Competitive success only partially defines the attendance calculus. Customer service is imperative, too, and complaints tumble from Pizza Hut Park like streamers from the stands in Toronto.
With the heat rising, Hitchcock played the nearest card available. But by any reasonable measure, Morrow wasn't provided a fair chance to prove himself.
Everyone knows pro sports aren't always fair. The point is, the handling of these important matters says something about clubs, plans and directions. On that regard, FC Dallas looks like the confused comb-over dude, no prize in looks and salary, but dumbfounded because he can't land the supermodel girlfriend.
Morrow replaced Colin Clarke, a respectable 29-22-13 his past two years. But Clarke couldn't beat the first-round playoff hump, so off he went.
Morrow adjudged the roster too gray and lacking leadership. He decided -- at considerable career risk, it must be said -- that the current squad had reached a plateau and would never achieve postseason liftoff. So Morrow jettisoned "old" and stocked "young," a plan Hitchcock says he supported.
Sunday's 5-1 loss to Los Angeles was surely embarrassing. Then again, Morrow's starting forwards were 22, 23 and 26 years old. The midfielders: 18, 22, 23 and 31. His attackers off the bench: 19 and 22.
Perhaps rebuilding through youth wasn't the way. Owners and GMs are well within their rights to demand "Win now!" But if the GM signs off on a youth initiative and the record doesn't stink, what's the problem?
Morrow was Hitchcock's hire, through and through. Word was that HSG shepherds Dan and Clark Hunt preferred SMU coach Schellas Hyndman, but rightly acquiesced to the GM's choice. So Hyndman surely will be approached anew, this time more likely to finally accept HSG's persistent and flattering advances.
There will probably be two FCD posts filled, the managerial seat and a new technical director's position. Hyndman, a good and smart man, would be wise to grab that technical director's chair; there's a ton more job security. Because the next FCD manager will the fourth in six years.
Whether it's Hyndman, Houston assistant John Spencer, Revs assistant Paul Mariner or Jose Mourinho himself, who knows what that fellow must do in Frisco to hold a steady course and satisfy fickle management?
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.