In his short but impressive coaching career, Jason Kreis may be approaching heights unseen by an MLS coach. This weekend he essentially fielded a backup squad that handled an undefeated Revolution squad. RSL is in the CONCACAF Champions League final and is the prohibitive favorite to win a second MLS Cup in three years. Also an impressive player, Kreis is compiling the sort of record and experience that, if he were coaching in England, would make bigger clubs take note. Now may be the time to ask – is Jason Kreis the right MLS manager to make the leap to the European coaching ranks?
MLS head coaches have in the past been rumored to be ready to take the next step to Europe. Octavio Zambrano was a head coach in Moldova and Hungary but has now returned to the U.S. Both Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley were rumored candidates for English jobs, with Bradley supposedly being considered by both Aston Villa and Fulham in 2010. But neither were actually hired despite high-profile victories at the international level and winning MLS Cups.
So before we address whether Kreis should be that coaching pioneer, we need to address what impact MLS coaches going to Europe would have on the league. We spend much time and energy debating whether MLS players should make the jump and how that affects the league, and the general consensus is that the best players benefit from European playing time while those who are good MLS players might benefit more from staying in the U.S. Where that line is drawn is where the debate is. This season we are beginning to see the benefits of the exporting of MLS players: the league is getting players back in return. Not only are the Beckhams of the world coming to America, but loanees like Simon Dawkins are coming over. Dawkins, on loan from Tottenham, has given the ‘Quakes a scoring option besides Chris Wondolowski.
Would exporting coaches be the same? Not quite, but there would be some similarities. MLS currently imports Europeans who have played in Europe and in American leagues (Steve Nicol) and now is beginning to bring in new coaches from specific systems (Aron Winter). If American head coaches began to be viewed as possible managerial candidates in Europe, then I think the best young coaches would begin to be poached by European clubs. But this experience would be good for these MLS head coaches and allow them to expand their strategy and tactics beyond the North American viewpoint. Having someone like Jason Kreis go to the Championship, for example, would allow him to immerse himself in different football philosophies and learn the latest trends overseas. When he returns to MLS or is named USMNT head coach, he has a more diverse viewpoint to construct a winning team and improve the quality of MLS or the national team.
So if we agree this is a good thing, than who would be the best coach to make the jump? The obvious answer is Bob Bradley, since he is the best known American coach/former MLS manager around. Ideally, though, he is unavailable until after the 2014 World Cup. Kreis right now is the hot name in MLS, possibly adding numerous trophies to the Real Salt Lake trophy case. But he has few roots to any league outside of MLS, having played his entire career in the states and having not coached elsewhere. I can imagine many teams would hesitate to hire someone with just MLS experience. So is there a successful MLS coach with international experience that would catch the eye of a European club looking for something different?
There are a few actually. The obvious answer is Bruce Arena, but at age 59 he may be too old for clubs to want to take a chance on. A younger choice is Dominic Kinnear at age 43. Kinnear played a bit in Scotland when he was younger as well as a year in Mexico, so he does have some international experience. He has been a success in MLS, winning two MLS Cups with the Dynamo. If I were a club in the Scottish or Irish Premier League, or lower levels of the English game, Kinnear is the type of head coach I would consider hiring if I wanted to garner a little attention and try something different.
If you expand the list to consider internationals who are currently coaching in MLS, then there are several viable candidates to leave MLS in the future. I can’t believe Steve Nicol won’t get an offer back in England at some point, especially if he is successful in rebuilding the Revolution this year. Aron Winter is being groomed for bigger things and he could return to the continent if he is able to successfully construct a Total Football Toronto. Colorado’s Gary Smith could be in line for another job as well, especially considering his Arsenal connections and the fact that his owner now is a major player in the EPL with his majority ownership in Arsenal.
So what does the future hold for MLS coaches? I think it will be a while before American/Canadian born head coaches are viewed as viable coaching candidates in Europe. Over the next few years we will see foreign-born MLS coaches return to Europe (or Central and South America), showing bigger leagues that MLS is a good league for coaches. And as bigger-named American stars retire from playing and enter coaching, it will be easier for European clubs to justify their hiring to fans as more than a publicity stunt. Within the next 10-15 years we will begin to see the export of American head coaches which will lead to an improvement in MLS and the national team. And it will give the best MLS coaches a chance to show that they are good managers anywhere, not just in North America.