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USL a breeding ground for coaches, too

Photo Courtesy USL

Third-division USL isn't just a place for players to earn their stripes in hopes of an MLS call-up. Coaches have similar opportunities, too.

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There is always an uncertainty after retirement for professional athletes.

They devote their entire attention to a singular goal in their profession: performing at the highest level every time they take the field of play. For many of these athletes achieving that means pushing aside other professional opportunities in pursuit of their goals. When the time comes to stop playing, there are not many career options waiting as a result.

One of those options is coaching. For former players it makes sense to transition into the role of a coach, given their knowledge of the game and playing experiences. As the American soccer landscape continues to grow, a helpful outcome produced is more opportunities each year to coach at all levels of the soccer pyramid.

That growth was accelerated by a 2015 partnership between MLS and the third-tier USL. The partnership mandate requires all MLS teams to have an affiliate team in USL, or create their own reserve team in the league. Since the LA Galaxy became the first MLS team to create their own USL reserve team in 2014, 10 other MLS teams have followed suit. The league is seen as a developmental ground for players, and a recent trend shows it is for coaches as well.

FourFourTwo caught up with four former MLS players who now ply their trade as managers in USL ahead of the start of the new USL season this weekend. Ezra Hendrickson is the manager at Seattle Sounders 2, Jason Bent is the manager at Toronto FC II, Jimmy Nielsen is the manager for the Oklahoma City Energy, and John Wolyniec manages New York Red Bulls II. All are first-time professional managers.

Photo Courtesy USL

Jimmy Nielsen hopes MLS is in OKC's future. (Photo Courtesy USL)

Different paths brought these coaches to this point. Nielsen jumped into his coaching role less than a month after retiring, while Bent, Hendrickson and Wolyniec all spent time as assistants at their organizations before taking the newly created USL manager positions.

“I always knew what I wanted,” Nielsen tells FourFourTwo. “I wanted to be a player and when I couldn’t play anymore I wanted to coach. I actually planned to retire and promised my family we could travel for six months but I only kept that promise for two or three days.”

For Nielsen, stepping into the coach’s role in Oklahoma City came fairly easily. He said that serving as captain for teams in Denmark and at Sporting Kansas City gave him a “useful leadership role,” that prepared him to lead a team.

Nielsen’s first two months at the club also were spent organizing an entire backroom staff from scratch, which gave him no time to fret about his decision. Having to start an organization from scratch proved a big challenge and the team struggled in its inaugural season.  However, Nielsen led the team within one game of the USL Championship in 2015 and he believes the league is a “fantastic place to start” his coaching career.

Currently, Nielsen remains focused on staying in Oklahoma City, preferring to bring an MLS expansion franchise there instead of getting noticed by another team already in a higher level.

Bent said a career-ending injury at a young age inspired him to pursue coaching at a much younger age than expected. He worked different youth coaching jobs in Canada before returning to his hometown of Toronto to join the Toronto FC academy.

“From there I progressed and got an opportunity to coach with the first team as an assistant and I spent four years doing that,” Bent said. “That, along with being in the academy as a head coach, really helped me to develop my trade and understand how to be a coach. TFC II allowed me to put all those facets and skills to practice and running the team.”

Photo Courtesy USL

Jason Bent is in charge of TFC II. (Photo Courtesy USL)

Learning how to really analyze video and take care of many more players than himself were some of the challenges that Bent says he faced. He added that being in charge of such a young team in 2015 accelerated both the development of his players and his coaching style.

Bent, like his counterparts Wolyniec and Hendrickson, believes that coaching in other roles before taking over a USL team was more about timing and which jobs were available. The situation at Toronto has allowed Bent to develop as a coach just like players develop, but it is only the first stop in what he hopes is a storied managerial career.

When asked where Bent’s ambitions would lead him, he immediately answered: Manchester United.

For Hendrickson, timing was the only thing that helped him land at a completely new organization in Seattle.

“I was very grateful that Sigi [Schmid] took the job in Seattle and I was able to come in and be an assistant,” Hendrickson added. “You hope the opportunity is there for you, but you never know if it’s going to be.”

Hendrickson played under Schmid for a majority of his 12 seasons in MLS, and jumped at the chance to join his coaching staff for the Sounders in their first year in MLS. He then stayed five years as an assistant before taking the Sounders 2 job in 2015.

The St. Vincent and the Grenadines international still maintains a desire to coach in MLS, but he understands how important succeeding in USL is every day. He says that it is frustrating to see his peers that retired alongside him coaching in MLS, but acknowledges his development as a coach would not have happened without his current positions.

“Frankly, five years ago if I went straight to an MLS coaching job I may not have this success. I don’t think I was really ready for that pressure,” Hendrickson added. “Now, I think, yeah, I am ready and have what it takes. Until that opportunity presents itself, I have to keep working.”

Photo Courtesy USL

John Wolyniec carries on with the Red Bulls. (Photo Courtesy USL)

Wolyniec was the only coach interviewed who mentioned his eagerness to take coaching classes offered by U.S. Soccer while he was still a player. He started taking classes to obtain his coaching license in 2008 before ultimately retiring at the end of the 2010 MLS season.

“In a way, coaching helped that transition in my life. It kept me involved in the game and involved with the team,” Wolyniec said.

Before landing in USL, Wolyniec held a variety of different jobs in the Red Bulls organization, including stops as coach in multiple levels of the academy, the U-23 National Premier Soccer League team, and as a first-team assistant. He says he is in no rush to leave the organization he has been a part of for nine years.

Wolyniec says that his current position is the right job for him to develop as a coach, and although he would take what he felt was the best fit at any level, he is happy to continue his growth in USL.

With the MLS-USL partnership growing each year, more coaches are given the opportunities to begin their careers, and more importantly a larger pool of established coaches is available to be in consideration for MLS, or other higher-level jobs. The USL-to-MLS pipeline for players is opening and paying off, so it should be no surprise that the pipeline will open soon enough for coaches. For now, the managers are growing their skills, doing their best to win a USL championship, and waiting for that one phone call.

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