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Top Eastern Conference teams meet in Sunday match led by foreign coaches

Mar 24, 2018; Foxborough, MA, USA; New York City FC manager Patrick Vieira smiles on the side line during the second half against the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Soccer has overcome a pair of dubious perceptions in recent years.

The “retirement league” reference is beginning to fade, with foreign fans and clubs recognizing an influx of younger talent. Of the last 35 designated players signed to MLS, only Bastian Schweinsteiger of the Chicago Fire was in his 30s, according to Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated.

Additionally, the suggestion that foreign head coaches cannot succeed due to cultural mores and complicated MLS mandates was disproved — most recently by New York City FC’s French coach Patrick Vieira and Atlanta United’s Argentine coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, who will match tactical acumen Sunday.

Atlanta (4-1-0, 12 points) is second in the Eastern Conference standings and will host No. 1 NYCFC (5-0-1, 16 points) for the 6:05 p.m. kickoff at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Former LA Galaxy manager Ruud Gullit, a Dutchman, blamed a lack of soccer culture in the U.S. and the labyrinth of MLS rules for his lack of success and sudden departure from the club in 2008. There were other arguments relating to his coaching style.

The list of foreign failures travels beyond Gullit, but Vieira and Martino are different. They’ve displayed problem-solving skills and a willingness to adapt in any way necessary to succeed. 

Mar 3, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Atlanta United head coach Gerardo Martino reacts from the sideline during the second half against the Houston Dynamo at BBVA Compass Stadium. (Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

Preseason predictions placed both Atlanta and New York City at or near the top of the league. But the Five Stripes kicked off the season with a dud, losing 4-0 at Houston, so Martino switched from a four-man back line to a three-back system. Since the change of shape, Atlanta has four wins with 13 goals for and two goals against.

Meanwhile, NYCFC lost talisman David Villa to calf and groin injuries following a Week 2 victory over the Galaxy. Villa has been the team’s primary goal scorer the last three seasons. Many doubted the team from the Bronx could make up for his absence on the score sheet, but NYCFC remains unbeaten through six matches.

“We have many players who can score goals,” Vieira said after the departure of Villa’s 2017 compliment Jack Harrison.

Vieira encourages players to express themselves. Specifically, he inspired playmaker Maxi Moralez to be more assertive around the goal.

“I always say when Maxi is playing well, we play well,” Vieira said. “He doesn’t want the light on himself. He’s here to try to make players around him look good. He’s always putting the team in front of himself – the sign of a good person and good footballer. But we needed more from him.”

Moralez shares the team lead with four goals, including a pair of game-winners. Villa has contributed only one of his team’s league-leading 14 tallies.

As for Gullit, his last club assignment was Russian Premier side Terek Grozny in 2011.  In less than six months, he was fired after only three wins and what the club called an off field “party lifestyle.”  He is currently an assistant with the Netherlands, who failed to qualify for the World Cup.

So does a coach’s nationality matter? Probably not, but two preeminent MLS coaches will continue serving as mentors for future foreign team leaders when they take part in Sunday’s highly anticipated match between the top two teams in the East.

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