And the next great MLS coach is… ignored: What we're missing in NASL, USL
In August 2011, the Vancouver Whitecaps made a surprising announcement.
The team had hired Martin Rennie, a 36-year-old with only two years of professional coaching experience, as its head coach. Having worked exclusively in the second tier of North American soccer, Rennie was the first head-coaching hire in over a decade without Major League Soccer experience.
If you don't know the league, you've already started 10 meters back in a 100-meter race.
Despite making the playoffs in his first season in charge, Rennie struggled to adapt to MLS – and Vancouver's patience quickly wore thin. By the end of the 2013 season, only two years into their coaching experiment, the Whitecaps fired Rennie.
“There [were] perhaps things that he hadn't really thought would necessarily come up [in MLS],” Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi says, now.
Since Rennie, no MLS team has hired a head coach directly from the USL or NASL who lacked previous experience in the league (Orlando City SC kept on head coach Adrian Heath when it joined MLS in 2015). This may have less to do with any failures of Rennie than it does with the belief, widely-held in MLS front offices, that MLS is too complex for outsiders to easily penetrate.
In over their heads?
“I think that without knowing the league, it would become very difficult to coach,” says FC Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo. “If you don't know the league, you've already started 10 meters back in a 100-meter race.”
Clavijo's not alone; this aversion to risk-taking is pervasive across the league.
In the past year, while three MLS teams have hired coaches directly from their USL affiliates, all three of those coaches – Wilmer Cabrera in Houston, Curt Onalfo in Los Angeles, and Mike Petke in Salt Lake City – have previously helmed a Major League Soccer side.
“People don't realize what it takes to coach in MLS,” Clavijo adds. “People don't realize until [they're] in. Sometimes some people [realize they're] in over [their] heads.”
This attitude explains why a team like the San Jose Earthquakes, even under the leadership of an outsider like Jesse Fioranelli, would promote its technical director, Chris Leitch, to fill its head coaching vacancy despite Leitch's lack of previous professional head-coaching experience.
It's also why coaches from North America's lower tiers are often shut out of head-coaching jobs in MLS.
That's not for a lack of qualified candidates, says head coach Giovanni Savarese of the NASL's New York Cosmos.
“I believe that, in the USL and NASL, there are coaches now that can make the transition [to Major League Soccer] quite easily.”
Savarese’s name was connected to MLS jobs in the past, including the recent vacancy for Minnesota United in its transition from NASL to MLS in 2017.
There’s a belief that Marc Dos Santos also has the capabilities to coach at the next level, having won in the second division with the Ottawa Fury, Swope Park Rangers and, now, the San Francisco Deltas.
“It's a question of time and opportunity of a coach being in the USL or NASL and finding success in MLS,” Dos Santos said. “It's a question of time and [of] general managers and presidents getting to know the coaches in USL and NASL.”
Dos Santos touches on a specific advantage which has developed from MLS’ relationship with USL.
Lenarduzzi noted that the Whitecaps hired Rennie in large part because of the team's familiarity playing against him in the second division. Today, many of the MLS teams hiring from their USL affiliates have done so because of their growing familiarity with that league, its players, and its overall quality, making it easier to judge successes.
Learning on the job
Still, there may be another path into MLS for ambitious USL and NASL coaches: apprenticeship.
That's the path that Brian Schmetzer of the Seattle Sounders followed for nearly eight seasons before finally getting his opportunity to lead the team midway through the 2016 season.
Schmetzer had managed the Sounders for seven seasons in the USL prior to accepting a diminished role with the organization when it joined MLS in 2009, becoming an assistant to Sigi Schmid. So when Schmid was fired last season, Schmetzer stepped in and promptly guided the team to its first-ever MLS Cup title.
“I think that the time he spent as an assistant with Sigi [was] invaluable,” Clavijo says. “You couldn't measure that in any other way, even if he's winning in the second division all the time.”
Dos Santos, too, has served an apprenticeship in MLS, working as an assistant to Sporting Kansas City's Peter Vermes while also managing that team's USL affiliate, Swope Park Rangers. But unlike Schmetzer, who played the long game in Seattle, Dos Santos itched for a return to the day-to-day grind of team building and man management, returning to the NASL at the end of the 2016 season.
Many MLS teams still find security in hiring from the inner circle. If MLS teams aren’t willing to hire beyond that, it may not only be the coaches who are missing opportunities.