Per the Columbus Crew press release:
"Second stint as an MLS Interim Head Coach for the 47-year-old Bliss, who was an Assistant Coach in Kansas City with the then-Wizards from 2000-2006 and took over on an interim basis from July – December 2006 and secured points in 10 of the remaining 14 matches on the 2006 campaign as boss of the Wizards."
The last line was interesting in that you don’t normally hear MLS outlets describing success in terms of "securing points." There isn’t anything wrong with it but it does sort of raise a few flags and open itself up for question.
How many points did he earn, exactly? Was it more than the guy he replaced? Why didn’t he get the job?
What’s really intriguing about this Crew coaching change is exactly why these questions are so interesting. This has happened to this interim coach before and we have results to look back at to help us understand what to expect.
Travelling back to the year 2006 we get a Kansas City Wizards team in an eerily similar position as this 2013 Columbus Crew. As a matter of fact Lamar Hunt sold the Kansas City Wizards in August 2006, same month Lamar’s boys sold the Crew were sold in 2013.
And just as the Wizards moved (then assistant) Brian Bliss to head coach in 2006, the Crew have done the same in 2013 with the same guy. Bliss acknowledged as much in his introductory press conference on September 2nd (well, the interim coach part, not the creepy similarities in ownership change).
So, what to expect.
While the exact league round might be a little different (round 19 in 2006, round 26 in 2013) Bliss took over a KC Wizards team in nearly the exact same position as the Crew now. Let’s take a high level look:
PPG : Team
1.11 : 2006 KC Wizards
1.12 : 2013 Columbus Crew
GF per Game : Team
1.17 : 2006 KC Wizards
1.12 : 2013 Columbus Crew
GA per Game : Team
1.44 : 2006 KC Wizards
1.35 : 2013 Columbus Crew
GD per Game : Team
-0.28 : 2006 KC Wizards
-0.23 : 2013 Columbus Crew
At first glance it is a little hard to believe. Can these two situations be this similar? It does seem a little too coincidental. But once you consider that the ownership was the same and that they are the ones that picked all these guys, it doesn’t seem that strange. Right? Okay. It’s weird.
Regardless. The similarities can tell us how things will play out. How exactly did Bliss do after he took over for coach Bob Gransler in 2006? Short answer is that he improved the team.
Longer answer is that he took a talented team (Eddie Johnson, Jack Jewsbury, Josh Wolff, Jimmy Conrad, Shavar Thomas, Brian Roberts) out of a crummy season and turned it less crummy.
Bliss improved all team key performance indicators. The biggest one being Goal Difference (GD). Before he got there they were losing by -0.28 goals a game and he improved it to +0.21 by the time he was done (a pretty remarkable +0.49 swing).
Because of the way the playoff system is set up in MLS (you are statistically more likely to make the playoffs then miss) any positive GD will put you in the postseason. Bliss bringing a half goal per game improvement is immense.
Back to KC history: By the time the 2007 season rolled around the new KC ownership went with a guy named Curt Onalfo instead of Brian Bliss. Onalfo oversaw the club for a couple forgettable years before they brought in current man, Peter Vermes.
PLAYOFFS, SETTING THE WRONG EXPECTATION
The Crew are not going to make the playoffs this year. The sales staff promoting the playoff carrot is expected but any suggestion by anyone otherwise (front office, analysts) burns whatever credibility they might have to the ground.
Why this matters is because the official Crew stance makes it seem as if Bliss and his future with the team hinges on whether or not he makes it to the postseason (or ‘makes a run’). It’s just not happening this year, so framing the narrative in this way sets Bliss up for frustrating failure.
The evaluation of Brian Bliss should be looked at in conjunction with what he did with KC back in 2006 and what he is able to do with the Crew this year (with weight on this year because he had such a big hand in building the team).
14 games then and 8 games now gives us 22 total. Two above the magical number of 20 (points of data) that gives you enough to make actionable decisions. It may be painfully boring for some to hear but these are the kinds of things that successful franchises act upon.
My hope is that Bliss is getting an honest look and is not just being used as a stopgap while a sales staff (and Front Office) milks this season for everything it’s worth. Mistakes can be avoided. A sustained successful future is what Columbus should be striving for, not short term gains.