Playoffs in Profile: A year of redemption for Crew's Bliss
As the MLS Cup playoffs begin on Wednesday, the MLSsoccer.com series "Playoffs In Profile" will take a look at the players and personalities who will each play a crucial role in their teams' hopes of winning the MLS Cup.
In the second installment, Columbus Crew beat writer Craig Merz examines the role of technical director Brian Bliss in the team's dramatic makeover this season, and what the future holds for one of the men who took the brunt of the discontent from the team's fans. Check back with MLSsoccer.com to read the latest story as the "Playoffs in Profile" series continues this week
COLUMBUS, Ohio – The derisive e-mails stopped coming to Columbus Crew technical director Brian Bliss around May.
That, or maybe the messages were instead directed toward his partners in crime – club president and general manager Mark McCullers and head coach Robert Warzycha.
Their heinous acts? Getting rid of popular and talented players such as the incomparable Guillermo Barros Schelotto, captain Frankie Hejduk and fan favorite Steven Lenhart in an offseason makeover for the ages.
The message was simple.
“Just basically, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing. This is going to end badly. Player selection has been an abomination,’” Bliss said.
While it’s too early for the group’s “I-told-you-so” moment, the Crew certainly haven’t been the disaster many predicted, and Bliss can take some satisfaction knowing many of the moves paid off.
The Crew went 13-13-8 and held first place in the Eastern Conference for more than two months before a late swoon – including a 0-5-1 stretch – and a loss to the Chicago Fire in the regular-season finale dropped them into a one-game wild card matchup to stay alive.
Columbus meet the Colorado Rapids on Thursday (10 pm ET, streamed live on MLSsoccer.com; TSN2 in Canada).
The reason the club’s supporters backed off almost certainly coincided with an educational process of sorts on the field. Along the way, the Crew introduced their fans to the steady play of Chilean right back Sebastián Miranda, the versatility of midfielder/defender Josh Gardner, a new favorite in bushy-haired forward Tommy Heinemann and a rookie class that has made an impact.
They brought in an underappreciated journeyman in Julius James in February, then signed him to a contract extension and shipped incumbent center back Andy Iro to Toronto FC in July. And they got 13 goals this season from Andrés Mendoza, despite some mercurial play and behavior from a Designated Player who finally made good on the club’s investment.
“I can laugh at it now because things have kind of worked out,” Bliss said. “If we had been out of the playoffs three weeks ago, we probably wouldn’t look back and chuckle.”
A Change of Scenery
Former Crew player Duncan Oughton moved into the role as the assistant to Bliss this season and had a first-hand look at how Bliss handled the heat. And it didn’t come from just the fans.
“He’s very even keel,” Oughton said. “There’s a lot behind the job people don’t know about. It’s not always easy. Sometimes guys on the team are mad about certain things, guys are looking for certain things. It’s a tough position.”
It helps that Bliss, 45, has experienced both sides of management, as a player as well as a coach.
He played professionally across in the US and the German second division, and for the 1990 US World Cup team. He was also a finalist for the ’94 squad before a knee injury ended his quest. He joined the Crew for the inaugural season of MLS in 1996, and spent one-and-a-half seasons in Columbus, where he was Warzycha’s teammate.
Bliss also played for the New York MetroStars, and retired from the Kansas City Wizards in 1998.
His head-coaching career began in 1999 with the A-League’s Connecticut Wolves, and he joined the Wizards staff as an assistant coach ahead of the team’s MLS Cup championship season in 2000.
He remained in that position until becoming interim head coach of the Wizards for the latter part of the 2006 season. After not being retained, he spent a year as director for coaching for the Kansas State Youth Soccer Association before returning to MLS the following year.
The Crew were about to embark on their third year of rebuilding under coach Sig Schmid when Bliss took the job as technical director in January 2008. Nearly 10 months later, the Crew won their only MLS Cup.
McCullers said he has differed with Bliss on occasion, “but that’s healthy.”
“If there weren’t disagreements, I would be concerned,” McCullers said. “We talk through them. I appreciate candidness and honest opinion. We lay it out there when there’s a disagreement. It usually works itself out.”
Warzycha, meanwhile, said he and Bliss get along as well as they did when they were teammates.
“I don’t think the relationship changed,” he said. “The place we are sitting is different.”
Bliss knows the relative quiet from disapproving fans will return if the Crew do not win the MLS Cup this year, but they shouldn’t expect another massive turnover in personnel.
“We like the players we’ve got,” he said. “We’re maybe a player or two short to be considered an upper-echelon team and that’s being in the top four. And second, we won’t have the resources in the cap or allocation money to be going crazy after international players.”
As for his future, Bliss makes no secret that he wants to return to coaching. He coached the Crew’s U-19s and U-20s to national youth titles in 2010 and the latter repeated this year, but he wants more.
He was in discussion with the expansion Montreal Impact for the head-coaching vacancy there and has also talked to new US coach Jurgen Klinsmann about a position.
“At this time, there’s nothing there, but they said maybe down the road in a part time role there might be something,” Bliss said. “I would like to get on the field, but it’s got to be right.”
Meanwhile, though, he’s happy where he is, and with an inbox he’s no longer afraid to face.
“We’ve got a good thing going here with Mark and Robert and the rest of the coaches,” Bliss said. “It’s not easy to say I’m going back into coaching because this thing is working pretty well.
“I enjoy working for the Hunts [the ownership of the Crew], to be honest with you. I’ve been here for 11 years, and value that time.”