Replacing a legend is never easy, especially when the “legend” was afforded cult status by fans for merely being better than adequate. Caio Zanardi the new Fort Lauderdale Strikers Head Coach who has served as Technical Director of the organization since July fills big shoes at least as far as many supporters of the club are concerned. Günter Kronsteiner, the former Head Coach was cruelly dismissed a year ago after getting an undermanned Strikers team within minutes of winning the NASL title became a legend among fans. So legendary was Kronsteiner that his ill-equipped successor Marcelo Neveleff, a part-time coach who also leads an elite youth program (which had a bigger budget than the Strikers until recently)was hounded by fans and quit after just nine games in 2015. Neveleff asked for specific players and instead the team saddled him with Leo Moura who was for all intents and purposes taking a paid vacation. That and overt fan hostility led Neveleff, a good tactical coach with a strong training regime to leave the job.
Kronsteiner was brought back to lead the Strikers and in his first seven games he actually recorded fewer points than Neveleff had after his first seven game, but the combination of his coaching pedigree and then quality squad the Strikers had assembled (unlike the previous season’s overachievers) allowed Fort Lauderdale to finish 4th in the 11 team NASL and make the postseason. But the Strikers in Kronsteiner’s second stint were not as inspirational as in the first, and with a squad loaded with talent in what is after all a minor league by most objective standards, his results in 2015 were by most non-biased standard merely adequate, though many managers in NASL probably would have done worse with similar talent (some however, such as Manny Lagos of Minnesota and Marc Dos Santos of Ottawa, I believe would have done better).
But adequate is better than losing, and Fort Lauderdale despite being one of only two NASL clubs to reach the postseason four times in the league’s five year history made a coaching change, again. The new man Caio Zanardi a Brazilian who has coached now on three continents has a unique understanding of what it takes to actually run a professional soccer club from a technical perspective. The sacking of Kronsteiner was difficult for fans of the Strikers, but those with a long-term soccer vision may just fall in love with the ideas coming from the man in charge.
While the Strikers and NASL in general call themselves a “professional” league, in some ways most of the league’s teams lack the professionalism of Major League Soccer, who the NASL aspires to compete with and overtake. NASL contracts tend to be short-term, practice facilities are random, scouting is often done by word of mouth, and player salaries at the low end don’t even come close to meeting a living wage.
Zanardi has a different vision for how a professional team should look like than a lot of NASL teams. Instead of the short term thinking that typifies clubs like the Tampa Bay Rowdies, the Strikers look to set up a long-term vision for the club from a playing standpoint.
The Strikers have opted to move players to 12-month contracts (the team previously only signed players for the months during the NASL season) and have set up a full technical department with film study and scouting. On Wednesday the club announced that they will place a team in the 4th Division NPSL, allowing the team to develop young players at that level with long-term goals for the club in mind. The Fort Lauderdale Strikers U-23 team follows the successful model of the New York Cosmos who have pioneered the formation of a youth team with seamless back and forth player moves in American soccer. While MLS clubs in the past (including Orlando City) have had NPSL and PDL teams, MLS rules have restricted the ability to move players back and forth during the season. In NASL, while restrictions exist, they are not as difficult to navigate as in MLS.
Zanardi envisions a possession-oriented team with a strong playing ethos that keep its core together over a number of years. He is not looking to turnover the squad dramatically every season as we see in most NASL squads. The new Strikers coach wants to try to minimize squad turnover to 2-3 players a season. Certainly a noble goal, though perhaps an unrealistic one given the state of US lower division soccer, but still one worth working toward.
Film study, opponent scouting and other tools will be implemented in preparing for upcoming opponents and the acquisition of players. A more scientific and statistics based approach which takes metrics into consideration is also being used to evaluate potential player signings. This is a club who have traditionally signed players based on word of mouth and the cost – while the Strikers player budget will continue to be smaller than many NASL teams such as the Rowdies, they won’t be throwing cash mindlessly at overvalued journeymen – instead the club will be using a smart, metrics based approach to building a squad and one which also considers long-term viability and the aesthetics of playing style.
The new Strikers boss, Zanardi has the right ideas for how to build a playing staff in NASL. With a long-term vision, season one in 2016 will just the beginning of his plans.
This story has been edited since first published to include more details of the Neveleff tenure.