Need a coach? Some of America's best are stuck in the lower divisions
In most corners of the world, a manager that demonstrates continued success in the lower divisions is given a shot at a bigger job.
In countries like Germany and Portugal, it’s commonplace to move up from lower divisions. South American leagues see it often; Brazilian coaches whose lower-division sides fare well in the state tournaments often earn jobs in Serie A. It’s not a foreign concept in the United States, either.
P.J. Fleck coached Western Michigan’s football team to a 13-1 season in 2016. He was hired by the University of Minnesota for 2017. In college basketball, Shaka Smart developed VCU into a perennial tournament team and was rewarded with a job at the University of Texas. Just one good tournament run propelled Andy Enfield from Florida Gulf Coast to Southern Cal.
There has not been such a clear a pathway for lower division coaches in the United States.
Three of the best coaches in the lower divisions will play in their leagues’ respective championship games in November: the New York Cosmos’ Giovanni Savarese, Louisville City’s James O’Connor and San Francisco Deltas’ Marc Dos Santos.
Savarese has coached the Cosmos to Soccer Bowl titles in three of the past four years. He now has a shot at four in five. Dos Santos has reached his third consecutive final in three years with three different teams – Ottawa Fury, Swope Park Rangers and now San Francisco – across two different leagues. O’Connor has led Louisville City to three consecutive conference finals in the USL in the club’s first three years of existence and now Louisville will play in its first championship game.
Despite that, only one of these coaches has garnered more than a sniff at a job in MLS. Savarese turned down an interview with the Houston Dynamo in 2014 and was a candidate for Minnesota United in 2016. He has yet to receive a coaching offer, however. Dos Santos and O’Connor await their first real shots at an MLS job.
The coaches say it’s simply a reality in the culture of American soccer. It’s hard to break into a league that has historically been fairly closed to outside influences.
“[Savarese] won three NASL titles in the last four years,” Dos Santos said. “If it was a country where soccer was the No. 1 sport, he would be in the first division long ago. Maybe in North America it’s a little bit of immaturity or lack of experience to understand there’s coaches in the USL or NASL that have deserved a shot at the highest level in the country long ago.”
MLS has largely looked within when making its coaching hires.
MLS coaches who have moved up from the USL in the past year – Curt Onalfo, Wilmer Cabrera and Mike Petke – all had previous experience as head coaches in MLS. Only recently have international coaches started to break in to MLS, with Patrick Vieira at NYCFC, Veljko Paunović in Chicago, Tata Martino in Atlanta and, most recently, Rémi Garde in Montreal. Some other exceptions: Adrian Heath, who moved up with Orlando City from USL in 2015 and was hired again by Minnesota in 2017, and Caleb Porter, who was hired out of Akron by the Portland Timbers in 2013.
One exception: Martin Rennie, who was hired by Vancouver after much success in the lower divisions. Rennie was fired after going 24-25-19 in two seasons, with one playoff appearance.
MLS teams have leaned mostly on former players who jump straight to the coaching ranks. Ben Olsen in D.C., Jason Kreis in Salt Lake and Pablo Mastroeni in Colorado are recent examples. Brad Friedel in New England is the latest player to jump straight into a head coaching job with limited experience; he briefly coached the U.S. under-19 national team. San Jose hired Chris Leitch, who was the club’s technical director and only had coaching experience in the youth ranks.
One reason why MLS has been so insular: The intricacies of the league arguably make the coaching job more difficult. But Vieira and Martino have proved that the right front office around the coach can more than make-up for a coaches’ deficiencies in MLS knowledge because the GM and technical director roles deal with the most confusing aspects of MLS.