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5 Coaches Who I Think Could Succeed in the Sporting KC Head Coach Role Were it to Theoretically Open
Part thought experiment, part wish-casting, and part something to respond to a repeated question I keep seeing
Whenever the leadership with Sporting Kansas City is questioned, I see the question of “Who would you put in?” posed as sort of a ‘gotcha’ in response. This tends to be an effective rhetorical tactic, as it correctly assumes that most normal people do not dig into the minutiae of MLS past their own team. I, however, am a genetic freak, and I’m not normal. I care too much about the minutiae of MLS past my own team, and I have several answers to the question of who could potentially do a good job in a hypothetical situation in which Sporting Kansas City needs to hire a new manager.1
Freddy Juarez (Assistant Coach, Seattle Sounders FC)
Juarez’s position right now reminds me a bit of Luchi Gonzalez’s position last summer, when he was an assistant with the USMNT before taking the San Jose job in the off-season. Juarez will be near the top of many lists like these this season, and for good reason. He came into the head coach position with Real Salt Lake in 2019 under bizarre circumstances (there was a cat on the field and Mike Petke said something he shouldn’t have to a referee during the pilot run of a cash-grab tournament and all of a sudden the reserve team coach was promoted to senior team coach) and his tenure at the helm happened under so many bizarre circumstances (his owner, who was a bit miserly to begin with, was exposed for being a racist and had to sell the team to the league, which naturally didn’t spend a lot of money on them) and yet, still, he made the playoffs and won on the road against LAFC in 2019. He had his team in position to make the playoffs in 2021 when he left his post to take on an assistant coaching role with Seattle when it became clear that RSL’s new ownership group didn’t intend to keep him on. He punched above his weight with a team that was consistently at the bottom of the league in spending during his time in charge, so we’d hope that with a more ambitious ownership base like the one in Kansas City (14th in spending in 2022, 8th in 2021, 5th in 2020), he could do even better.
During his time as an assistant in Seattle, they’ve won the Concacaf Champions League, and they’re currently atop the Western Conference in MLS. They play a very entertaining brand of soccer and they win consistently. The last Schmetzer assistant coach to take a job as a head coach in MLS, Gonzalo Pineda, has Atlanta at 6th in the league currently.
A caveat might be the odd and abrupt manner in which he left RSL. I felt it was a sensible and pragmatic move at the time, given that the new ownership was coming in, but it was absolutely an abnormal decision.
Gregg Berhalter (Former United States Men’s National Team and Columbus Crew Head Coach)
Berhalter’s future is unknown, but if he doesn’t end up getting his job with the USMNT back, he’ll be one of the most sought-after coaches in MLS. He was consistently successful in Columbus from 2013 to 2018 -- making the playoffs four times and winning the Eastern Conference in 2015 – despite having an arguably antagonistic owner in Anthony Precourt. His teams had a distinct tactical identity in attack and they produced consistent goal scorers. He’s spent the past four years building relationships with American players and could potentially leverage those connections to attract domestic talent to his team. I think he’s shown a level of tactical adaptability in the USMNT job that would benefit him as a coach in MLS as well, and Sporting Kansas City has lacked the 100% ALL IN MANTALITY that he’s been able to cultivate with the USMNT, which would be another positive addition.
I am doubtful that, even if everything timed up right, he’d end up in Kansas City, just due to stronger connections with other teams in this league. If the Galaxy move on from Greg Vanney, for example, I would think his connections to Jovan Kirovski and Phil Anschutz from his time as a player would make him an obvious candidate there, and if things go sour with Vanni Sartini in Vancouver, he’d have an obvious familial connection to one of their midfielders.
Dave van den Bergh (Assistant Coach, New England Revolution)
Sporting KC is a middle-tier spender in Major League Soccer at the moment, which does not necessarily mean that the team cannot succeed, but it does shift the way in which I look at whose success elsewhere might translate to success in Kansas City. The New England Revolution under Bruce Arena have a number of similarities to Sporting KC as it stands: They’re an MLS original, they build mostly with foreign signings, MLS veterans, and a few Homegrown players (though they get far more out of their draft picks than we do), and they’ve spent in the middle tier of Major League Soccer as of recent. Adjusted for the actual amount they paid Jozy Altidore, their payroll in 2022 was about the same as Sporting KC’s. The Revolution were, at one point, in a similar situation to the one in which Sporting KC finds itself – Without a specific tactical or philosophical vision of the present or future, playing uninspired, losing soccer. This changed with the hiring of Bruce Arena in mid-2019. Since he was hired, they’ve made the playoffs three times, made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2020, and won the Supporter’s Shield in 2021 (setting the single-season points record in the process).
Along with Bruce, in 2019, New England added cornerstones Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou to the roster and Dave van den Bergh to the coaching staff. He’s been there through an impressive turnaround in Foxboro, and he’s learned under Bruce Arena, whose coaching tree includes Bob Bradley and the aforementioned Berhalter. He’s spent time coaching with the US Youth soccer teams and senior men’s national team, and he actually first entered MLS in Kansas City with the Wizards in 2006. The caveat with him is that he’s never coached a senior-level club team, but a number of coaches currently succeeding in MLS (Pat Noonan, Josh Wolff, even Jim Curtin) are in their first head coaching position.2
Alen Marcina (Head Coach, San Antonio FC)
The guy’s a winner. It is a cliché, but I don’t find it meaningless. He’s got two championships now in the second division (NASL in 2014, USL Championship in 2022), he’s beaten MLS teams in the US Open Cup, and his San Antonio FC team has found success through developing homegrown talent. Under his watch, San Antonio FC has become one of the best and most consistent teams in the second division. Marcina is a harder sell than others because here has been a (well-earned) stigma surrounding successful Division II coaches transitioning to Major League Soccer: Marc Dos Santos couldn’t keep Vancouver above the playoff line and kept losing in the Canadian Championship, Paulo Nagamura just looked out of his depth in Houston, and… Jesus Christ, I just had a time-slip moment remembering that James O’Conner was the head coach in Orlando for a few seasons, but he didn’t win there, either.
Steve Cherundolo’s success with Los Angeles FC last season might have changed the way that we look at coaches from the lower divisions. Landon Donovan, who stepped aside from his role coaching San Diego Loyal SC last season, will also always have his name in the mix for these openings, plus Sacramento’s deep US Open Cup run under Mark Briggs and Orange County SC’s 2021 championship run and academy development under Richard Chaplow might make those two coaches out to be feasible candidates as well.
Davy Arnaud (Assistant Coach, Austin FC)
There will always be some tendency to recommend players with a history with the club for jobs like these, and Arnaud has probably the brightest star of any former Wizard or Sporting KC player at the moment. He’s been an assistant on winning teams in MLS ever since his retirement, including the Houston Dynamo in 2017 and Austin FC in 2022. Austin has played attractive, entertaining soccer since he’s been there, despite being in the middle of the pack in MLS with regards to spending in their two years. I think there’s a lot of benefit to bringing in somebody with now 20+ straight seasons in Major League Soccer as a player and a coach, especially one who has had so much of a connection to Kansas City. The caveat around him comes from his brief stint as the interim coach in Houston following Wilmer Cabrera’s firing in 2019, going only 3-5-1 over nine matches.
Briefly, a few others:
Laurent Courtois – We don’t know who the first coach developed out of MLS Next Pro will be, but his players from Crew 2 last season have found their way into significant roles on a very good senior Crew team so far this season.
Danny Cruz – Cruz is very young, but he was just voted one of the most admired coaches in USL Championship by his fellow coaches in Backheeled. Louisville City’s now starting to develop a lot of good young talent and they’ve been consistent winners during his time in charge.
Kosuke Kimura – Nashville’s another team that I think Sporting KC could try to use as a model going forward (interesting as there’s a lot of ex-SKC people running Nashville right now). Both Kimura and Steve Guppy could fit this description.
Marc dos Santos – I did just criticize him for his time in Vancouver, but he had something going with the ‘21 Whitecaps before one loss in the Canadian Championship ultimately doomed him. He got experience winning the MLS Cup last year as an assistant to Cherundolo with LAFC, and, of course, he has deep connections to Sporting KC dating back to his time coaching Swope Park Rangers in the mid-2010s.
Ted Lasso – The losing has unlocked sections of my brain that have me susceptible to the belief that we might be right at the precipice of Apple TV’s total takeover of Major League Soccer’s operations in order to turn their only genuine TV hit into a reality. They’ve already changed the matchday schedule and the playoff structure. The formula is clear: Put a lot of money into the league while the Kansas City team is at its lowest. Cut the league in half and institute a surprise promotion-relegation system in the middle of 2023, ensuring that Kansas City falls to the second division. Institute either actual Jason Sudeikis or use the cloning technology you’ve been working on (why else would they use retinal and fingerprint scanning on their phones, people?) to create a real-life version of the guy from your TV Show. Season whatever it would be by then of Ted Lasso then becomes the first Inter-Reality Sports Entertainment Show. Bam. Cross-Integration. Horizontal Development. Synergistic Programming. Lasso then takes control of Sporting KC, gets them up to the top division, and wins the MLS Cup by the 2026 World Cup.
Mike Petke – No, of course not. You can’t, you wouldn’t, you shouldn’t, he wouldn’t want it anyway… But let’s take like ten seconds just to think about it. Just pause for a moment and think about Mike Petke in charge of Sporting Kansas City.
Have you done it? Good. That was an interesting image if nothing else, no? Successful? Probably not. Would we feel good about it? Probably not. But would it be interesting to watch from afar? Absolutely.
When I published a version of this piece late last summer, Sporting KC proceeded to go on a 6-3-2 run to finish the season. Modest as I am, I absolutely accept credit for the turnaround. I expect the team to do the same thing this year. This is why I’m publishing it in April, when there’s still a lot of season left to salvage, rather than in late-July, when the year was practically finished. Godspeed, Sporting!
For the record, I don’t think this will realistically happen this season unless things go absolutely catastrophically for the next few months. I’d guess that the current winless streak would have to stretch all the way to the Leagues Cup break for there to be any major change, and even then I’d assume that Brian Bliss would take the fall before Peter Vermes would. I personally think the issue lays moreso with Vermes’ match management than with the signings we’ve brought in, but that is a different discussion entirely. At this stage, I would like to see this team move on from Vermes as a manager, though I recognize both the potential long-term tumult that removing someone who’s been in charge for as long as he’s been there would bring and the lack of influence that putting anything here on my little Substack page realistically has on anything.
Last year, I included Shalrie Joseph in my post on this subject, I still remain high on him as a rising candidate as well.