Need a coach? Some of America's best are stuck in the lower divisions

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Savarese said there has to be a change in how MLS ownership groups think about coaches in the lower division. Until those perceptions change, hiring patterns won’t.

“They feel that coaching in one league versus another changes the job,” Savarese said. “I completely disagree. I think a good coach is going to understand how to manage groups in any league, in any situation. I believe there are coaches that are able to manage a group and understand ideas of what translates to a group or club that will be similar in any level they can coach. This league, NASL, has interesting coaches, good coaches, and some who could make the transition to Major League Soccer, and as well in the USL. … A coach is a coach and those strengths you can bring to any level.”

There are risks in hiring players straight into head coaching roles, too.

Dos Santos said it’s difficult for any coach to recreate the experience you get by running a professional team, especially when you consider some of the difficulties of the lower divisions. NASL and USL teams often operate on much smaller budgets. Often, they are building teams almost from scratch from season to season. O’Connor said he went from building a team totally from scratch in 2015 to replacing half of his squad each of the past two seasons.

For a former midfielder who used to jot notes about every coach he played under and once sat after practice to observe MLS teams’ training sessions in Disney, there’s been nothing more valuable than going through the ups-and-downs of a season in charge in the USL.

“It’s been a phenomenal learning curve,” O’Connor said. “You do your coaching licenses, but over the course of three years I’ve learned much more. On the first day of preseason we had eight inches of snow and it was like that for the first few weeks. There are lots of things you get into and a coaching course had nothing to prepare you for that. The ability to adapt is something I’ve have had to learn.”

There are also the uncertainties that have come with the NASL over the past two seasons. Talk of the potential collapse of the league has been an everyday factor in the NASL.

Dos Santos got his team to the final despite reports that the team would fold at the end of the season. He called it the most uncomfortable coaching circumstances he’s ever faced – from changing practice fields regularly to the infrastructure for the front office to the reports of the club’s demise.

“Coaches in the second tier of North America go through a process that is a lot of grinding and a lot of adaptation and a lot of instability,” Dos Santos said. “When you go through the normal process of third and second division, you’re only building yourself for success in the future.

“A lot of coaches don’t go through a process. They go straight from playing to head coaches and don’t go through a real process of grinding. You have to be a person that is very honest with your players in moments like we had this year. We have to stick together in moments that are difficult. What we wanted to do this year in San Francisco with the instability and rumors, we said, if this is last year, we’d do one year that everyone would talk about.”

For now, the coaches remain on the outside looking in. And for now, that’s just fine with them. All three coaches said they remain focused on their current roles and getting the best out of their teams. The Cosmos remain one of the most recognizable brands in American soccer. Louisville approved a soccer-specific stadium and is a market that shows more growth every year. Dos Santos will surely be a candidate for jobs after Sunday’s NASL final.

They don’t need MLS to call to feel any sort of affirmation.

“My daughter tells me I’m the best coach in the world,” Dos Santos said. “I don’t need to be validated by people in the first division. I’m validated with my staff and players and the everyday work. I’m very confident of what’s ahead of me.”

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