One interesting part of the inaugural season for Vancouver Whitecaps FC has been learning about each new opponent; and with that studying how they've developed their own team. In this weekend's opponent, we find a coaching model similar to the plan in Vancouver – and one that has been trending in Major League Soccer.
Below we take a look at four teams who have pinned their hopes for the future on promising young coaches.
Ben Olsen, a true Screaming Eagle
Though he won't be on the sidelines on Saturday due to suspension (following a tirade in their last match against Toronto FC), the case of D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen is worth examination.
At 34, Olsen is easily the youngest coach in MLS (the average age of the other 17 coaches is 48-years-old). After a nine-year playing career in D.C., the gritty midfielder retired in 2009 and almost immediately stepped into the head coach’s chair by replacing Curt Onalfo midway through the 2010 season. His first year at the helm got off to a rocky start, as the once proud franchise finished dead last in MLS with only six wins and 22 points. However this season has seen a major turnaround, with United having already matched last year's win total and surpassed their previous year's points with 27 so far in 2011.
An injection of talent has certainly helped United's fortunes, but no one can deny the impact that Olsen has had so early in his coaching career.
Two for 2012
Next season sees two more men in their mid-30s become head coaches in MLS. Montreal Impact are hoping that a first-time MLS coach can lead them to success as they’ve hired Jesse Marsch as their man for their 2012 expansion season. A former assistant of Bob Bradley with the United States men's national team, Marsch retired from playing in 2009 following successful stops at D.C. United, Chicago Fire and Chivas USA. Now the 37-year-old gets his first head coaching role, one where he'll also have to shoulder the challenges of a first-year MLS franchise.
Closer to home, Whitecaps FC will also be welcoming their own young coach next season, as 36-year-old Martin Rennie takes the reins. Himself a former player, Rennie has vowed to bring a fun, yet hard-working atmosphere to the 'Caps. He's already proven to be successful at every level that he's coached, and now he gets set to take the next step in MLS.
The strategy – and standard – of hiring a young coach in MLS was set by Real Salt Lake in 2007 when they hired a just-retired 34-year-old from their team named Jason Kreis. It took only three seasons for Kreis to lead Salt Lake to an MLS Cup title, and now he coaches a team that is the envy of the league. With Kreis at the helm, the Utah club have played attractive, entertaining soccer that has seen them maintain a perch near the top of the MLS standings the past while, as well as challenge internationally by making it to the final of last season’s CONCACAF Champions League.
What is it about these fresh faces that has landed them head coaching roles so quickly, and what is it that has and likely will continue to make them so successful?
For one, they’re eager and energetic. They bring new, creative ideas to the table. Not only that, but they can relate well with their players since the age difference is not terribly significant.
Another part of the explanation for the success of coaches who’ve recently hung up their boots is that soccer is an ever-evolving game. Though the rules have generally stayed the same, the dynamics on the field are constantly changing. The athleticism, the playing style, and the individual skill and creativity are constantly being re-shaped and re-adapted by players. While high caliber coaches will always possess vast tactical knowledge, it's impossible for them to truly know exactly what's happening on the field without being a part of the action.
The sport has changed a lot since the playing days of most coaches in the league. That's why these young coaches, while perhaps not initially as keen on the nuances of team management, are naturally much more aware of what it takes on the playing side of things. They know what it's like to defend a player like Landon Donovan or Thierry Henry, or to get the best of a defender like Omar Gonzalez or Nat Borchers. They've been there before – and not too long ago either.
The right blend?
Whitecaps FC hope that they can attain as much success with their new hire as Salt Lake have with Kreis – as do D.C. United and Montreal Impact. What Rennie lacks in comparison to the others though, is MLS playing experience. Kreis, Olsen and Marsch each had lengthy playing careers in North America's top tier, a fact that no doubt serves them well.
However, another main difference between Rennie and the rest of his peers is that he also already has six years of coaching experience. A knee injury cut short his professional playing career at the age of 26, leaping him into the world of coaching. This middle-ground between his still relatively recent exit from the playing field and his acquired knowledge from the sidelines could ultimately prove to be the perfect mix for a talented 'Caps team that has shown vast potential, but has so far not been able to pull it all together.
Already one of the brightest and most sought-after commodities on the North American coaching scene, it looks as though Whitecaps FC have gotten Rennie at just the right time.