Tuesday, May 28, 2024
Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Like Ships in the Night

Photo: Justin Nuoffer

Forward Madison Football Club announced on Thursday they would be parting ways with Head Coach and Technical Director Carl Craig after just over eleven months on the job. The statement released by the club announcing Carl’s departure hinted heavily at a league table position of ninth (of twelve) and a missed chance at the USL1 playoffs as the primary reason for his dismissal. There was also mention of a decline in form after the month of May, when Craig received Coach of the Month honors.

Reaction from fans has been mixed, many taking to social media to voice their disapproval, while others voiced relief. Personally, I’m bummed out by the whole situation, because I feel like this 2021 season was a massive missed opportunity. Years from now I truly think we’ll look back at the 2021 season and what could have been the start of something truly special, and I can’t help but wonder how things could have been if we weren’t living under the spectre of COVID-19.

The Weight of Expectations and Hype

Knowing Carl’s past coaching experience and reputation (especially the references and glowing reviews my MNUFC fan friends passed along), I myself vouched for him with club ownership after meeting with Carl late last autumn via a Zoom interview the club set up with a small group of fans. I recommended his hire to Conor Caloia and Vern Stenman, and was convinced his coaching pedigree (NASL champions as an assistant, USSF A and England FA Advanced coaching badges) and slant toward a holistic approach to the game and the community around it made him a perfect fit for FMFC. And even with the way the team finished this season, I still stand by my recommendation.

On paper, Forward Madison should have ran away with the league this season. With a brilliant, qualified manager, new signings who’d just won the league with Greenville, quality players in from the Championship, and a manager who was allowed to make decisions on about 87% of what ended up being the final roster. But as with many things in life that involve a lot of variables, what’s on paper doesn’t always match up with reality. And in the case of Carl & Forward Madison, there’s no smoking gun, no big glaring single moment of downfall, no right or wrong party — only a massively missed opportunity and the loss of someone’s livelihood. So while some fans might be relieved at the idea of a fresh start and new direction after this past season, I don’t think anyone is celebrating his dismissal.

Living Up to the Reputation

I want to qualify the criticisms in this article with an unavoidable fact: the COVID-19 pandemic heavily affected what was possible this season, there is no debate about that. And I can’t help but feel like Carl was a bit hard done in that regard, and if these were normal times, things might have been different. We could waffle on and on about theoreticals, but taking off my rose-colored glasses for a moment, if we take a hard look at this past season and whether reality matched up to our expectations, I think the picture shifts a bit.

The things Carl was known for in Minnesota, the storied reputation he built there with the community around the Minnesota Stars and Minnesota United, they didn’t really have time to happen in Madison. Carl spent many years in the Twin Cities soccer community before joining the Stars & Minnesota United as an assistant, then winning trophies and making it to the quarterfinals of the Open Cup as part of his management resume. So to equate Carl’s time in Minnesota with his time in Madison is an apples to oranges comparison; they’re not even close. However — Carl’s reputation from his time coaching in Minnesota preceded him, helped him get hired in Madison, and the expectations were very high as a result.

Madison is not an easy city to find your initial footing, to sink down roots, and I think Carl struggled to connect with this city and the people in it. Talking with Jeremy & Rob on Talkin’ Flock, Carl mentioned (around the 24′ mark) that he didn’t get out much this year. He talked about how he worked as much as he could and hadn’t really embedded himself in the community the way he’d have liked, but was hoping to do more next season. Again, COVID-19 is a motherfucker and ruins a lot of opportunities, and I feel again like Carl was a victim of circumstance in this regard. It sucks, and it’s clear that he had ambitions of doing more but was aiming for that as a goal in 2022.

A Dressing Room Divided?

I don’t pretend to know what the sit-down between Conor and Carl was like after the season ended, but Carl did mention in a quote in Madison365’s coverage after the announcement that he’d planned to offload quite a few players this offseason.

“The reality was, I was looking to turn over about 50 percent (of the roster in the offseason), maybe a little more than that, so you’ve probably got 50 percent of the blokes pissed off, and then that sways the balance, right?”

– Carl Craig

The 2021 squad were by and large players brought in by this year’s coaching staff — only Fuson, Trimmingham, and Vang were announced as returning before Carl’s appointment. I have to imagine Conor Caloia asked Carl what the plan was for 2022 to fix the issues the technical side saw in 2021. If the plan was to roll the dice and replace half the players, does that plan solve the issue of players not performing up to their potential due to a possible rift with the manager? Maybe I’m reading too much into Carl’s comments, but stating half the players are pissed off makes it sound like there might be a deeper lying issue.

In regards to why players might not want to perform for a coach, that’s a complex issue. Is it just a conflict of personalities? Management or communication style? Also, there is a difference between someone liking their manager, and someone respecting their manager and still working hard. Assuming all of the contributing factors to this season’s performance and results are down to just one person would be a bit naive. But with that being said, ultimately in football it’s the coach’s job to motivate the players and if there’s a rift in the dressing room, it’s his job to fix it and get the team to work together to win.

I am acutely aware of what it’s like to manage 22-26 year olds in this day and age, and it’s not the same task it was even 10 years ago — you can’t be as direct, you have to be almost overly tactful — it’s harder now in 2021 than when Carl coached the pro game just five years ago in Minnesota. And as much as I like Carl as a person, he isn’t my boss — and that’s a very different interpersonal paradigm. I don’t think there’s any debate about Carl’s comments regarding needing to make things better holistically at an infrastructure level at the club. I agree with that wholeheartedly, and Conor mentioned some major upgrades for the technical arm of the club at Friday’s town hall. You can read more about that in this Twitter thread from Rob Chappell.

Caloia mentioned something else of note during Friday’s town hall event, that the coaching staff declined the use of a strength and conditioning coach this season, which seems very odd to me. It’s possible Carl might be used to working with physio staff who specifically work with footballers, and didn’t want a more generalized fitness coach. It’s strange though, because even without specializing in the sport, you have to think some extra help with keeping players up to fitness would have been beneficial, especially when the squad looked extra leggy or like they were carrying knocks in some games this season.

Would Another Year Have Worked?

I can appreciate that things might have worked out had the club given Carl another year, but I can also understand how ownership wouldn’t see swapping out a lot of the squad as a viable plan toward a title push after the results this season. It’s understandable that the players were upset after finishing like we did, but it sounds like they were mad at the manager for one reason or another. And while the team’s shortcomings this season can’t be pinned just on the manager, it is the manager’s job to get the team to perform, even if some players aren’t playing very often. If the team was assembled by the coach, who’s to say those interpersonal / attitude / motivational issues won’t happen again in year two with new players?

To be clear: I like Carl, I’m not a coach, and I really did want Carl to succeed at Forward Madison. But likeability unfortunately doesn’t always translate to success, especially in the sporting world — just ask Scott Parker. If there are deeper issues at this club causing players to not perform outside of whoever is manager, they will keep cropping up and need addressing, and we’ll end up facing this situation again. This is a business, and all aspects of said business need to work together. This club’s ownership — specifically Conor Caloia — will one way or another be held to account for decisions like this. And ultimately if ownership decides they don’t trust the manager to take things forward, that’s their prerogative, and that lack of trust is a big problem.

Boiling It Down

I had a chat with Conor Caloia Friday after the town hall and asked if I could share the following, because I thought it was a good contextual quote around the decision to find a new coach, and paints a picture of where ownership stands in general:

This decision is not about making money. The club is a long way from that. The one thing this club is missing is winning. If we aren’t progressing, we are going in the wrong direction. We can’t sit and wait. We need to change and try and improve. Our fans have high expectations and we share those.

Our fans have been critical of our performance since September — I’ve heard it in the stands at Breese, after games at Palette, in my email inbox — and I felt that fans have been asking for this. There will always be people on the fence about a decision like this, but either way, we are learning how to process fan feedback and act in what we feel is the best interest of the Club. We are doing this for the fans and putting our hearts on our sleeve. Fans can judge the decision based on how the team competes next season.

– Conor Caloia

If ownership feels that the main person accountable for running the technical side of the business can’t be relied on to get results to keep fans engaged — and attendance did drop during August, September, October — I can see why they’d move to oust said person. Conor and FMFC’s ownership really does rely on the coaching staff to bring results — they have to — they’re not dyed-in-the-wool soccer people (though admittedly they are learning). They’re focused on running other parts of the business, and as Caloia said in Friday’s town hall event with fans, “our expectation is the Head Coach and Technical Director will operate like a CEO of the technical side of this club, taking full responsibility and accountability for it.”

Something that struck me during Friday’s town hall was that the FMFC owners have way more equity than we (as fans) have in this club. Sure, we buy tickets and kits and beers and burgers, but we’re not there day in and day out doing what it takes to move this club in a positive, winning direction. Everyone at this club wants to win, and the main area of the club yet to deliver real success is the on field results. And if ownership doesn’t trust a manager to be successful when they’re far more connected than I am, I need to respect that — even if I don’t 100% agree with timing, messaging, etc.

Hard Decisions

This club isn’t old. It isn’t storied. It still hasn’t turned a profit. And if these folks want to run their club extra cautiously or extra passionately, I’m here for it. Ultimately, their investment right now drives the decisions, and I’m glad they involve the fans a much as they do and I’m thankful for the communication and transparency. And while Carl won’t be coaching in Madison next season, Conor mentioned in the town hall that FMFC will still be honoring the 2nd year of Carl’s contract and said he would be receiving compensation for the 2022 season.

The long-suffering soccer fan in me appreciates that at least in their estimation, FMFC’s owners are making hard decisions so this club can be successful in both the long and the short term. I can be certain there will be plenty more hard decisions this club will make over the years that will make me uncomfortable, and many of those will be necessary decisions. I hate that some of those conclusions will negatively affect people like Carl, who may well in this case be a victim of circumstance more so than any of his own personal or professional failings.


  • Andrew Schmidt

    Eclecticist, FMFC supporter, Flock co-founder, designer of things, and taker of photos. Writer, wrench, motorcyclist. Pro-intellectualist, anti-pedant. Drinker of coffee and greeter of dogs.


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