Andoni Iraola joined New York City FC midway through the club’s inaugural 2015 season. The 32-year-old spent 12 seasons at Athletic Bilbao before moving to New York City to shore up a leaky defense — and to provide some companionship and camaraderie to David Villa. It seemed the Iraola made 38 appearances for the Pigeons before retiring at the end of the following season, ending a long and distinguished playing career.
News broke earlier today that the former NYCFC player is the new head coach of AFC Bournemouth in the English Premier League. The appointment has been met with some surprise in Britain, where former head coach Gary O’Neil was widely praised for avoiding relegation. Bournemouth finished the season in 15th place with 39 points after 38 games, ahead of Everton FC. Leicester City, Leeds United, and Southampton FC were relegated and will spend next year in the EFL Championship.
It was less controversial in Spain, where Iraola is regarded as a rising star among head coaches. He started his managerial career in 2018, two years after leaving New York City, and took over Rayo Vallecano in 2020, when the club was in Spain’s second division. Based in the Spanish capital, Rayo is eclipsed by crosstown rivals Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. Rayo Vallecano plays in the Campo de Fútbol de Vallecas, a simple stadium with a capacity of just 14,000.
Nevertheless, Rayo earned promotion to La Liga in Iraola’s first year in charge. In 2022, the team finished in 12th place and made it as far as the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey. More impressive, Rayo regularly defeated Barcelona and Real Madrid. That Rayo beat Barcelona at home that season by one goal to nothing, then repeated that feat again in April 2022 in front of a packed house at Camp Nou.
Writing for The Athletic, Dermot Corrigan noted that Iraola accomplished all of this “while operating on a shoestring budget” that was among the smallest in LaLiga. “Without a host of expensive new arrivals, he instead focused on detailed, long-term tactical work, ensuring individuals got to know his ideas and each others’ strengths and weaknesses,” Corrigan wrote. “The Starting XI which beat La Liga and Champions League holders Madrid last November contained eight players who had achieved promotion from Segunda during the 2020-21 campaign.”
We’d like to think that Iraola draws on his experience at NYCFC, and the ridiculously low salary cap in MLS, when he coaxes big-game performances out of small-contract players.
Iraola is the third former New York City player to coach in one of the Top 5 leagues in Europe, and easily the most successful (so far).
Former NYCFC midfielder and sommelier Andrea Pirlo was the manager of Juventus for the 2020-2021 season, when they failed to win the Scudetto for the first time in 10 years. Former New York City goal machine Frank Lampard was sacked as the manager of Chelsea FC half-way through his second season heading the club, then was sacked by Everton FC half-way through the 2022-2023 season. He returned to Chelsea that same year to act as a caretaker manager, and guided one of the highest payrolls in the world to a 12th-place finish.
The smart money is on Iraola doing better than that.