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Every MLS coach and his Roman emperor doppelganger

Written by Will Parchman


Look, I’m not going to spend a whole lot of preamble on this. There were a lot of Roman emperors. There are 22 MLS head coaches. These are those emperors as MLS head coaches. Let’s party.

Tata Martino (Atlanta United): Trajan

Three years after he took the purple, Trajan invaded Dacia. And then Nabataea. And then Parthia. The dude presided over the last great expansion spasm in the empire’s history, and it was his probes into the Middle East and Britannia that set the broadest borders in Roman history. You know all those gifs that push out Roman influence to its widest point? That was Trajan. Tata Martino, like Trajan, is an irrepressible attacking force, constantly pushing out his width and launching fire-laden trebuchet rounds into the opposing third. Trajan probably overreached, honestly, and Martino does often. But dammit if there isn’t fun to be had in the interim.

Veljko Paunovic (Chicago Fire): Vespasian

Nobody really knows about Vespasian’s actual governmental reforms during his 10 years at the helm, but we do know he brought stability to a previously volatile position and through some level of micro-management he figured out a way to push a dying system back onto course. Paunovic is not there yet, but you can kind of see some of his movements coming good from a personnel standpoint. Vespasian was a military man at heart and dove into conflict at will, and the founder of the Flavian dynasty managed to start the building process that led to the creation of the Coliseum you probably visited during your semester abroad in college. And, like Vespasian, there’s a decent chance Paunovic loses his job (although not because he died probably?) before he sees the end of the construction.

Pablo Mastroeni (Colorado Rapids): Claudius

Legend has it that Claudius – stammering, incoherent Claudius – was cowering behind some blinds when the praetorian guard pulled him out and named him emperor when Caligula was murdered. Claudius was mostly considered an idiot by his peers, but he turned out to be a surprisingly competent organizer of government and a pretty good dude at the end of the day. In essence, he was everything his critics supposed he wasn’t (but he was still pretty slow). I see a fair amount of Claudius in Pablo: neither lit their professions on fire, neither are considered an all-time great or an all-time failure, and both managed to defy critics to some degree. So. There’s that I guess?

Gregg Berhalter (Columbus Crew): Titus

Titus’ reign was too short to really engender any wild negative press, and one gets the sense Berhalter could go somewhere else if he wanted given his rare experience in Europe, something few other MLS coaches have ever had, really. Titus only reigned two years, but he was just the second of nine consecutive Roman emperors to die of natural causes, something you feel will be afforded Berhalter by dint of his forward-thinking stylistic ethos and the fact that he made it to the 2015 final in the same way Titus responded to the Pompeii volcano explosion. WELL. Titus cryptically said “I have made but one mistake” on his deathbed without mentioning what it was before he died. Berhalter’s: all of 2016.

Ben Olsen (D.C. United): Nero


Look, we can get all hung up on how many people Nero (the original neckbeard, judging by the busts) ordered killed and how he strummed an instrument while he may or may not have ordered Rome burned for his financial gain. But look at it this way: Nero was handed the reins way too quickly (he was 19), was far too impetuous and bristly to rule well (he yelled a lot?) and hadn’t had enough time in an actual imperial environment with a good model to be of much use. Sound like anyone you know in the nation’s capital? Nero wasn’t the single worst emperor in Roman history – he actually did a couple good things – but he was too emotionally volatile to see the game rationally. And he made it 14 years. Sorry D.C. You have another decade to go!

Oscar Pareja (FC Dallas): Diocletian

I don’t know how much of a crisis FC Dallas was under when Pareja took the helm, but Diocletian established the largest bureaucracy in Roman history and turned a weirdly tanking empire into a machine that curbed inflation, preempted an East-West split and was generally a damn smart dude. Oscar is on his level, folks. Pareja’s machinery at FCD is much the same: input a rigid, unchanging style, promote young players like they’re a dying breed (they’re not) and gradually build out the infrastructure with increasing autocracy. It’s fine if it works, and like Diocletian Pareja’s system works. Real. Well.

Wilmer Cabrera (Houston Dynamo): Theodosius I

It took about 1,000 years of collective Roman history, but the last emperor to rule over a joint Eastern and Western coalition died in 395 with Theodosius I. You sort of get that sense with Cabrera, given the wild turmoil that preceded him. If he fails, you can see the mad reorganization coming in behind him with suddenly invested ownership. The Dynamo were a rambling wreck under previous coach Owen Coyle, and Cabrera has the directive to turn it around, and if he doesn’t I think the Dynamo completely reorganize. The good news? Theodosius was largely a stable emperor, but he did some dumb things upon his death. That, somehow, seems like the Dynamo Story over the past decade.

Curt Onalfo (LA Galaxy): Pertinax

Some smart people are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Something tells me Onalfo is a good coach caught in an awkward period in LA Galaxy history, and he’s going to pay for it. Pertinax was a dutiful general who pushed off imperial promotion under the hilariously derelict reign of Commodus before taking over to start a tumultuous period of upheaval after a long stay of stability. Pertinax, who’s name should definitely be handed on to your next child, was a quality emperor but was too heavy-handed with his guard and was murdered for it. Onalfo will probably do good things but run afoul of management used to titles every other year. Et tu, AEG?

Adrian Heath (Minnesota United): Commodus


I don’t like this any more than you do, entire state of Minnesota, but I personally can see Heath walking around his parlor in bearskin wielding a club and proclaiming himself as the second-coming of Hercules. I want you to take this comparison not as like-for-like between the men, but instead importing Commodus’ wild personality into Heath’s tactical ethos. Commodus was a bit of a heathen when it came down to it, valuing the wildness of games and nights on the town to the hard work of governance. Heath’s teams are usually a blast to watch and have little to no steel backbone to them on the defensive end. Commodus wanted to party without repercussion. So does Heath?

Mauro Biello (Montreal Impact): Caligula

You’re going to have to hear me out on this one. Caligula was probably the first overbearing emperor in Roman history, and he was certainly rightfully struck out of the record afterward for being kind of insane. But he did do some good during his time in office, namely pulling power back into the office of the emperor regardless of the regard from the public. I couldn’t help but see Caligula – in all his wildness and overreach – in the decision to bench Didier Drogba in 2016. It ultimately worked, and Biello led the undermanned Impact to the precipice of an MLS Cup. Caligula did expand Roman borders and was a favorite of the rabble, but he also killed a lot of people and was ultimately murdered. So. Best of luck on your next couple years Mauro!

Jay Heaps (New England Revolution): Septimius Severus

Heaps has made it this long, but maybe only because his constituents – the powerless Senate 2,000 years ago and the careless Bob Kraft right now – are tired and weatherbeaten by institutional neglect. Look at it this way: Septimius Severus wasn’t great, but he wasn’t exactly a disaster either. How he ruled for 18 years in the midst of near constant turmoil is a bit of a mystery, honestly, because the people didn’t particularly like him and he didn’t do a ton beyond some mediocre conquests. But dammit, he made do, and the man before him literally bought the throne while the man after him was a savage murderer for two decades. Maybe stick with Heaps for a bit until you get an owner who knows who to hire next?

Patrick Vieira (NYCFC): Julius Caesar

I realize the imperial period technically started with Augustus, but dammit if Julius Caesar didn’t lay down the pavers for us to get there. Caesar was mostly lauded for his military genius – look up his work at the Siege of Alesia please and thank you – but he was truly a brilliant tactician in every sense of the word, including political. Vieira, believe it or not, has the most political job in the league with Manchester City Football Group breathing down his neck at every step given the vast resources they’ve pumped into the endeavor (just ask Jason Kreis). Vieira is a genius, probably, who will be removed before his time. At least in Vieira’s case, that means a promotion and not a stabbing in the face.

Jesse Marsch (New York Red Bulls): Hadrian


Hadrian’s greatest achievement as Roman emperor was seeing Rome’s overextended borders and deciding the empire needed to rein in its excess. As a result, he walled off the warring tribes in Britannia, pulled back from Parthia and governed within his means. The Red Bulls tried, and failed, to be a buying club for years, and it wasn’t until Marsch entered the picture that they truly started building from within, promoting talent through their own ranks and emphasizing smart buys over outlandish high-risk ones that never seemed to pan out. Message to Marsch: grow a beard. It looked pretty good on Hadrian.

Jason Kreis (Orlando City): Tiberius

Like Tiberius, Jason Kreis took over for the First of His Kind (Adrian Heath-as-expansion-coach) and like Tiberius Jason Kreis is kind of a paranoid megalomaniac who’s really good at what he does and maybe a little neurotic about it too. Tiberius actually ran from the purple for part of Augustus’ reign, and he felt duty-bound to take it up when it was obvious he was the best man for the job. That feels a lot like Kreis, who’s a stern taskmaster who has little time for frivolities and is mostly concerned with stamping out the echoes of previous administrations, making his roster his own and then maybe getting away from everything for a bit for a nice relaxing shout at a subordinate.

Jim Curtin (Philadelphia Union): Lucius Verus

Like Curtin, Lucius Verus never really got to rule the empire he technically owned. Verus was a co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius for eight years before dying of the plague (sorry Jim) and handing the full reins to the philosopher emperor himself. Verus was by most accounts a smart guy, but he was content to let the men above his paygrade deal with the broader issues while he enjoyed himself on the ground. Since joining the Union Earnie Stewart’s grabbed a fistful of the organizational power, leaving Curtin to more or less tend to his wine and his tactics on the field. Verus was hardly a malcontent, but one wonders how much power Curtin, an otherwise quality coach with good ideas, really has in Philly. Plus, they kind of look the same.

Caleb Porter (Portland Timbers): Constantine

Constantine was smart. We know this, at least. He named an entire city after himself, won some decisive battles, changed an entire state religion, moved an imperial center. And he’s generally considered one of the top five ever. He also knew he was smart, which was kind of irritating in the way Silicon Valley billionaires are irritating. Constantine had his PR shaped to present him as a paragon of virtue and generally attempted to shape himself as the foundation of New Rome. Porter is clearly a Mind Set Apart, but his broader perception as a Genius In Waiting is perhaps a bit overblown. He’s a smart man who’s done some smart things who found himself in an environment capable of fostering those to fruition. Anything else is fluff.

???? (Real Salt Lake): The Year of the Four Emperors

Nobody knows much of anything about Real Salt Lake’s power nexus right now, which incidentally sounds a lot like Rome in 69 AD after the murder of Nero! Jeff Cassar was perhaps a bit nicer than Nero (I don’t recall murders?) but the vicious power vacuum left behind after more or less steady imperial power expansion since Augustus was suddenly severed. The good news? The year ended with the crowning of Vespasian, who ushered in the stable Flavian dynasty. So. Don’t mess this up RSL?

Dom Kinnear (San Jose Earthquakes): Nerva

The Five Good Emperors – Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius – oversaw the greatest 84-year period of expansion and peace in Roman history. Nerva was the first of those, and while he was *pretty good* nobody’s really sure how good. Nerva only ruled for a couple years, and history is mostly silent on how good they really were. His most lasting legacy was establishing the baseline for merit-based imperial promotion and opening a lineage of stability. Kinnear is good, because he’s won MLS Cups, but the Quakes have been bad frequently, and while he’s certainly not up with the Trajans of the world, maybe he’s good? I honestly can’t tell you, guys.

Brian Schmetzer (Seattle Sounders): Marcus Aurelius


Ah, the philosopher king. Marcus Aurelius is famed in modern America because Ridley Scott allowed him to be murdered on screen by Joaquin Phoenix with an asphyxia embrace (that did not happen!). Historically, his Stoic treatise Meditations, a book of one-liners you’ve probably seen on artificially distressed wood in strange people’s homes, is the reason for his fame. Marcus was an exceedingly smart emperor, maybe the smartest, and while he often got into strange foreign entanglements (do you even Gustav Svensson) he was invariably the smartest guy in the room. It just so happens Brian Schmetzer both looks and thinks like your neighborhood CPA.

Peter Vermes (Sporting Kansas City): Domitian

I should probably start this by saying the Roman populace damned Domitian’s memory after he was assassinated for being a Senatorial nightmare. I don’t think Kansans will murder Peter Vermes (I am making this value judgment), but history will shine brightly on him much in the same way it did Domitian. He was the first emperor in overt practice as well as in title – he cared little for the facades of popular rule – and like Vermes, who is his own GM, Domitian more or less micromanaged his own empire. The people loved it, the senators hated it and history is pretty damn kind to Domitian in hindsight. Vermes is an authoritarian taskmaster, but like Domitian he got s**t done.

Greg Vanney (Toronto FC): Antoninus Pius

Nobody really remembers Antoninus Pius as one of the Five Good Emperors, mostly because the most prolific historians of the age were contemporaries, and contemporaries don’t write negative things about concurrent emperors (unless they don’t enjoy their limbs). Antoninus Pius ruled for more than 22 largely peaceful years because he refused to pick fights in areas that didn’t require it. I view Vanney similarly, in that he smartly goes about organizing his sides, fighting on fields of his choosing and quietly cobbling together one of the best resumes in the league with little heraldry. Antoninus also adopted Marcus Aurelius, so there’s hope for TFC’s future. Huzzah.

Carl Robinson (Van. Whitecaps): Severus Alexander

There isn’t much of a market for Severus Alexander Takes because his reign was at the precipice of a furious round of regicide, but he was ultimately more stable than his contemporaries gave him credit for, and his assassination launched Rome into nearly 50 years of civil war in the 3rd century AD. I fear this for Vancouver if they fire Robinson, who’s had his turbulence (Severus censured the Roman military quite unsuccessfully for being too unruly, which ultimately undid him) but has also enjoyed some real on-field successes. Still, both are enigmatic characters who managed to reign for a long period of time despite obvious shortcomings. One hopes the post-Robinson Whitecaps aren’t as disastrous as post-Rome Severus Alexander.


Bruce Arena (USMNT): Augustus

Look, you can’t really get around this one. Arena was there for the foundation of MLS (Augustus), has won and done more in the league than anyone ever (Augustus) and spent eight wildly successful years in the highest profile post in the league before leaving on his own terms (also Augustus). The man is royalty incarnate, even if – like Augustus! – his methods were a little arcane and see-through to the point of being outdated. But it hardly mattered since both the stability and the results were there. Augustus never could quite settle on his succession plan the way he wanted, though, and one gets the sense that both with the Galaxy and the USMNT, the men at his heels will struggle to replicate the princeps himself.

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