Marc Dos Santos: The Canada-born, Brazil-bred coach rising on MLS' radar
The career path of a coach often provides the blueprint of their philosophy, each stop representing a new influence that added to a never-finished product.
Marc Dos Santos’ coaching career started in Portugal, crossed the Atlantic into Canada, continent-jumped again to Brazil and then landed in the Midwest United States. The stops were not mistakes. It takes just one conversation with Dos Santos to grasp his keen understanding for how those choices would build into who he is as a coach.
For the third time in his career and the second time in two years, Dos Santos, a native of Montreal, will lead a team into a championship game in the lower tiers of North American soccer, this time taking the Swope Park Rangers to Sunday’s USL Cup Final against the New York Red Bulls II.
This latest pin on Dos Santos’ career map will feel like only a blip, a one-year stop on the way to a new destination. Dos Santos will move next year to the expansion San Francisco Deltas in the NASL. Zoom in on the job Dos Santos has done with Swope Park Rangers, the ‘B’ team of Major League Soccer’s Sporting Kansas City, however, and you discover a coach who is grounded in his philosophy, if not in one location.
A circuitous but measured path
Dos Santos, who has a UEFA ‘A’ License, comes across as organized, extremely sharp and driven, and it’s why some believe it is only a matter of time before Dos Santos is given a chance in MLS.
His approach is unique. Dos Santos said he focuses his model around four key segments of the game: defensive and offensive organization and defensive and offensive transition. Everything in training revolves around how he wants his teams to react in those moments. Swope Park tends to play in a deeper defensive block, then break out with quick counter-attacking play through the wings with an emphasis on keeping the ball. The style of play is honed with repetition.
“Look at Carlos Santana, I don’t think he plays piano to get better in what he does, he plays a lot of hours of guitar,” Dos Santos told FourFourTwo. “So if you want to play a certain way, you have to train that certain way. And it’s not enough to go to a board and write it down. Like in music, again, if I show you a YouTube video of a guy playing a guitar but I don’t give you the guitar in your hand, it’s not going to help you. The training session has to reflect that model every day.”
Dos Santos honed his approach in Portugal, experimented with it in Montreal and refined it coaching youth teams at major clubs in Brazil. By the time he led the Ottawa Fury to the NASL championship game last season and then joined Swope Park this year, the 39-year-old was grasping who he was as a coach. It was an identity he had sought since beginning his career in 2002 learning under Vitor Frade and José Guilherme Oliveira in Portugal.
There, he learned about the training methodology of José Mourinho and André Villas-Boas. Dos Santos said the foundation was built around the idea that “a coach has to have a very strong model of play,” and that everything must revolve around that. It requires total belief.
“People ask if I run fitness sessions. No, I don’t. The beep test? No, I don’t. We go through the best tactical moments in training and those tactical moments will bring the physical part by the consequence of the physical work. This is what I believe in. This creates habits in players and identity in players and a way of training and being.”
That identity was in place when Dos Santos led the Montreal Impact to the USL title in 2009. It has since evolved and matured. In Brazil, where Dos Santos led the Palmeiras Under-15s to a championship, he combined his training methodology with a more focused attitude on the person as much as the player, saying he wants to “help them move forward in life and in other areas.”
Life in Brazil also renewed Dos Santos’ outlook on winning. He saw youth coaches fired for losing two straight games. Dos Santos also recalled a talented young player named Lucas at Palmeiras who was key to what the team did. He played every minute of every game, and deep into the season the staff decided to give him a day off training.
“He came to me and say, ‘My name is not on the board for training,’ and he was very upset,” Dos Santos recalled. “He was 15. I said to him, ‘You accumulated many minutes. We have to be careful with you.’ He said, ‘I want to train.’ He was very upset in his face. … I said, ‘We know what’s best for you,’ and he said, ‘You don’t know. Every time I stop training here I give an opportunity for 2 million youth players who dream about playing at Palmeiras to take my spot. So I’m not going to stop.’ That’s the mentality over there. It’s innate in the player, they are born with that dream in a very aggressive way. … It’s not important tomorrow; it’s important to win today.”
Those memories drive Dos Santos now, and it’s the reason why he said he’s not afraid of taking up the next challenge. Coaching three teams in three years was not part of the plan, he said, but it’s about being willing to dive into the right opportunity when it comes. Dos Santos praised his family – his wife, Marie, and three kids, Jazmine, Joshua and Noah – for its willingness to support him in that search.
He also emphasized that he hopes the opportunity to coach in MLS comes soon. The result Sunday won’t change that Dos Santos is seen as one of the top coaching prospects in the country.
“It’s a dream I have, of course,” Dos Santos said. “I want to coach at the highest level possible. People have asked me about the national team and MLS. Yes, of course, it’s an opportunity I want to embrace one day. I’m very calm and not anxious about the future, I believe everything in life happens in the right moment and I think that opportunity is going to come for me at the right time and that right moment. I see people going from zero years of experience straight into MLS, and what I could guarantee is that the last years have prepared me for any level in North America. I feel more than prepared.”
Sunday’s USL Cup Final is a chance for Dos Santos to add another honor to his resume. He may not have to wait much longer until MLS teams are reading it with great interest.
Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.