When the New England Revolution announced that they were "parting ways" with Steve Nicol a couple weeks back, speculation on his impending replacement began almost immediately. The organization assured the public that the search was going to start right away, and by all accounts it has. Names have been tossed around, rumors have swirled, but at the end of the day, we still aren't sure.
I have no doubt that the organization is looking for the best possible candidate. I also have no doubt in the organization's ability to look at the best possible candidate and pass on him for the most inane or ridiculous reasons, or to refuse to pay him what he's worth. Furthermore, I'm not dead sure that the ideal candidate will want to work in this organization where, as Taylor Twellman put it in an appearance on the Midnight Ride Podcast (listen to the whole thing, it's worth it), there doesn't seem to be a clear chain of command.
Regardless, the following candidates represent two things: the most likely, and the most ideal candidates available. Later this week I will talk about other candidates, from the undesirable to the unmentioned to the unrealistic. Don't forget to vote in the poll after the jump.
Steve Ralston spent eight full seasons in Foxboro (and 30 seconds of one ill-fated friendly in 2010) and left as the MLS all-time leader in assists (135), appearances (378), starts (372), and minutes played (33,143), as well as the United States record for most professional appearances (412). He served as captain for several seasons and was a leader both on and off the field while in Revolution blue.
Currently he serves as Dom Kinnear's assistant coach with the Houston Dynamo. From where I'm standing, Steve is the Revs' number one target. The Dynamo already granted New England permission to interview Ralston about the coaching vacancy, and I have a feeling that they're just waiting until after MLS Cup to start ironing out details. This move would serve several purposes: it gives the fans a name they recognize and adore, maintains a level of continuity in Foxboro given Rally's experience under the current administration, and likely saves the Revolution serious money they would have to spend to actually put in the effort of seeking and finding an established and experienced head coach.
Ralston has just a year and a half of coaching experience, and as an assistant at that. Signing him could be a dangerous move. Then again, it's worked for MLS teams in the past. Jason Kreis is an MLS Cup-winning coach after being hired on straight out of retirement in Salt Lake, and Ben Olsen has presided over an upturn in fortunes in DC after taking over during one of the franchise's worst-ever seasons in 2010. I would like to see the Revs explore other options with more seasoned candidates, but if this ends up being the final decision I won't be upset.
Few were surprised by the news that Gary Smith didn't agree to stay on with Colorado this season. His public bust-ups with technical director Paul Bravo and managing director Jeff Plush have been creating headlines all over Denver and throughout the soccer landscape. Smith leaves with a decent record and an MLS Cup on his resume and is coming off just his first head coaching job of his career, likely making him a tantalizing prospect for MLS and overseas clubs alike.
Smith is a proponent of the stereotypical English 4-4-2 game and built his success on dynamic wing play, a tough midfield, physical defense, and the greatest strike tandem in the league with Omar Cummings and Conor Casey. The Revs have one or two of those pieces in place already, if not at the same level of effectiveness. Smith and Nicol are far from the same coach, but they might bring some of the same ideas and values to the table, which could be good or bad, depending on your perspective. Unlike Ralston, he brings head coaching experience to the table, and unlike some of the other perennial head coach candidates around the league (Dennis Hamlett, Carlos de los Cobos, etc.) he brings an MLS Cup.
On the other hand, Smith just left due to issues with his administration. In a Denver Post interview he revealed that he'd received "little to no help from Paul [Bravo] or from Jeff [Plush]" and won in spite of them rather than with them. He wouldn't have a technical director to deal with in New England unless the organization really does light a fire under its collective behind and restructures the whole hierarchy and system, so there's that. But given all that we as fans and media perceive coming out of that front office...he's unlikely to find the level of support he's looking for. I hardly think that a situation where ownership appears to be absentee, the club President is is constantly preoccupied with other endeavors, and the technical staff is headed up by a PR pariah who has little experience outside organizing the academy and signing contracts, will be the sort of debacle Smith is looking to find himself in after his issues at DSG.
Ah, Paul Mariner. Given the way things have shaken out after his departure following the 2009 season, many Revolution fans are beginning to look at the former English international as the answer to all the team's woes. Mariner was Steve Nicol's right-hand man during the glory days of the mid-2000s, helping preside over three straight MLS Cup Finals appearances. Taylor Twellman has credited Mariner with changing his game and making him a more complete player, and there has been speculation that the Englishman was the yang to Nicol's yin.
Since leaving New England, however, fortunes have not so favored Paul. He returned to the club where his playing career started, Plymouth Argyle in England, as Head Coach, but was promoted to Manager when Paul Sturrock was fired. Plymouth were still relegated from the Championship and Mariner was busted back down to coach before leaving in December of 2010 to pursue other opportunities. He is now the Director of Player Development at Toronto FC, a position that perhaps plays to his greatest strengths, although definitely in an environment that is anything but stable and inviting.
Mariner would bring experience with the organization and fans as well as a wealth of coaching experience. His time in Toronto could serve him well in mentoring some of the youth in the Revs squad right now. While it is easy to point to his troubles in Plymouth as an indication that he's better as a supporting factor than he is at running the show, such an assessment may be unfair given just how shambolic Plymouth's situation really has been lately (you can read about that elsewhere - suffice to say they're on the verge of oblivion). On the other hand, there's the matter of prying him away from Toronto, and given how familiar he is with this organization and how it works, you have to wonder: does he even want to come back?
There has been no mention yet that Paul has even been approached for the job, so at this point it's pure speculation. Still, I doubt very much that anyone in Revsland would mind if he was named Nicol's successor this offseason.