FourFourTwo USA's 25 Best Coaches in American Soccer: 25-21
25. Paul Riley
Two years ago, Paul Riley’s coaching career was at a nadir. For the first time in three decades, he had failed at a job, having left the most prestigious job in the NWSL without delivering on his championship promise.
One year later, Riley had his redemption, guiding a wayward franchise to a league title no one foresaw.
Given the Western New York Flash’s state before his early 2016 arrival, Riley’s championship may even overshadow much of the hard rebuilding work he did to create a winner. Yet in the broader context of his coaching career, few who knew him could have been surprised to see the 53-year-old back on top. He was the best coach in Women’s Professional Soccer, after all, and a veteran guru at the youth level. Portland, time showed, was just a wrong-pace, wrong-time prospect – a complete aberration.
A player’s coach with a well-earned reputation for attacking play and getting the most out of his talent, Riley rode his triumph back into the conversation with NWSL’s best. In the process, he has also cracked our list of top coaches in the United States game, a honor in line with 31 years of success on the sidelines of American soccer.
24. Mike Petke
If you win as a head coach, your job is secure, right? Petke learned otherwise with the New York Red Bulls. Already a club legend as a player, he guided them to a Supporters' Shield in 2013, his first season in charge, and to the Eastern Conference final in year two. Then, he was whisked out the door so the new sporting director could bring in his guy, Jesse Marsch.
The club has had success with Marsch, too, but many Red Bulls supporters remain unhappy about the way Petke was treated. The former MLS defender, a Long Islander who started and finished his playing career with the MetroStars/Red Bulls, is an intense and inspirational coach whose blue-collar approach -- even with the presence of Thierry Henry -- made New York among the most difficult of foes. And it sure seemed odd that it took him two years to find his next gig, with Real Salt Lake's USL affiliate.
That was quickly parlayed into RSL’s top job when the Utahns started slowly and Jeff Cassar was canned at the end of March. Petke now faces his greatest challenge, rebuilding a once-mighty side into a contender again.
23. Jeremy Gunn
Stanford is the back-to-back reigning College Cup champion. It owns NCAA Division I soccer’s best winning percentage (.792, from a record of 46-8-11) over the past three years. It has groomed current MLS standouts Jordan Morris and Brandon Vincent, both of whom were rated as exceptional enough to earn their senior U.S. men’s national team debuts before playing their first games at the professional level.
The architect of all this success? An engaging Englishman whose devotion to structure, discipline and preparation has reaped success everywhere he has coached. For his first head-coaching job, Jeremy Gunn ventured into the Colorado mountains and built little Fort Lewis College into a Division II powerhouse, winning the 2005 national championship and reaching two other title games. Then he moved to UNC-Charlotte and did much the same at D-I level, booking two NCAA tournament appearances and a 64-26-14 record over five seasons and advancing to the 2011 College Cup final.
“It is different than every other team I’ve played on,” Morris said of Gunn’s Cardinal team two years ago. “You have to hold yourself accountable to doing the right thing.”
Gunn’s teams don’t always play the prettiest or most creative soccer, but they rarely lose. And when the pressure is on, they deliver.
22. Marc Dos Santos
Guiding two different teams to two different finals in back-to-back years has a tendency to get you noticed. Dos Santos is considered one of the top up-and-coming coaches in North America for a reason.
The Canadian coach first led the NASL’s Ottawa Fury to the 2015 fall season title, earning coach of the year honors. He then headed to the USL’s Swope Park Rangers, where he guided the Sporting Kansas City affiliate to the USL Cup championship game and a runner-up finish. Dos Santos proved his coaching acumen in both leagues, and his background also adds some intrigue and a unique tint to his education.
The 40-year-old spent several seasons coaching in Brazil, including as a youth coach with Brazilian club Palmeiras, where he guided the Under-15 team to a championship. That time in South America helped to hone his tactical and technical coaching philosophies, and the success he’s had since returning to North America has been impressive.
Dos Santos clearly is eager for consistently finding new challenges, as he left Swope Park after just one season to take over the NASL’s expansion side in San Francisco. He currently has that team sitting in second place in the NASL in its first year of existence.
21. Sasho Cirovski
Just north of Washington, D.C., an American soccer institution has taken root over the past quarter-century. Guided by the steady hands of Sasho Cirovski, the Maryland Terrapins program has become a blue-chip talent factory as well as a perennial national-championship contender, enjoying levels of success and devotion that make even the football and basketball programs envious.
The list of future pros sculpted by Cirovski runs longer than a goal kick in a tailwind: Taylor Twellman. Maurice Edu. Robbie Rogers. Clarence Goodson. Graham Zusi. A.J. DeLaGarza. Omar Gonzalez. Patrick Mullins. And so many more. All were legitimate talents when they arrived on campus, but all credit the Macedonian-born coach and the culture of excellence he created for pushing their careers to a higher echelon.
Never one to shirk from a challenge, Cirovski’s latest passion is a wholesale overhaul of the college game itself. For several years he has been doggedly leading a movement to make NCAA soccer a two-semester sport, creating a longer season with a less punishing schedule, a more aesthetically appealing entertainment product and a better environment for player development. A long road lies ahead. But if he can navigate the path, the results could be revolutionary for the sport in the United States.