By Clemente Lisi - NEW YORK, NY (Mar 2, 2011) US Soccer Players --There was a time when the only mentors American soccer players had growing up were foreign-born. Whether it was Pele or George Best during the 1970s in the original NASL or Tatu and Steve Zungul of MISL fame throughout the 1980s, a lot has changed in this country’s soccer landscape over the last several decades.
Since 1990, the USA has qualified for six straight World Cups, and in the process made many American players household names. The creation of Major League Soccer in 1996 allowed many of those same names to play in this country, before a new generation of children who, for the first time since the NASL, had a chance to regularly watch and root for their heroes.
These days, there is no shortage of former American players serving as role models. It is not unusual for them to run camps or work in broadcasting. With a growing number of former National Team members in retirement, many of them have transitioned from player and have climbed into positions of power within MLS. From head coaches, assistants, technical directors and front office managers, never before have so many ex-US players called the shots and molded teams on a pro level while overseeing a new generation of players.
“(MLS) is also giving us chances post-playing days to develop as coaches and managers,” said Brian Bliss, who has served as technical director for the Columbus Crew since 2008. “If the League were not in existence, a lot of us would be working in other businesses and not aiding in the development in the next generation of players.”
It is not unheard of that someday a former US player can be MLS commissioner or US Soccer president. For now, the highest-ranking former US player within MLS is John Doyle, a member of the 1990 World Cup team who has served as GM of the San Jose Earthquakes since 2007.
Heading into the 2011 season, a record six MLS clubs have head coaches that once played for the National Team. Bruce Arena, who managed the USA at the 2002 World Cup and earned one cap for the USA in 1973, is the coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy. Dominic Kinnear (Houston Dynamo), Peter Vermes (Sporting Kansas City), Robin Fraser (Chivas USA), Jason Kreis (Real Salt Lake) and Ben Olsen (DC United) are the other five head coaches.
“It is great to see how many American coaches have come up the ranks and succeeded,” said Vermes, a member of the 1990 World Cup team. “The bonus is that they played for their countries and experienced many different styles, elements, venues and more. Since soccer is the global sport and universal language for the highest percentage of athletes, it is great that America’s success on the field has translated off the field.”
While those are the former players who will be front-and-center this upcoming season, there are dozens of others who quietly do their work behind-the-scenes and away from the glare of a postgame news conference. Bliss is one of them. A former interim head coach of the Kansas City Wizards, Bliss played on the 1990 World Cup squad. He retired from playing in 1998 and earned a US Soccer “A” coaching license. He later served as an assistant coach for the Wizards from 2000 to 2006.
“It shows that there are job opportunities for those players after they are done playing if they choose that direction,” he said of the growing number of National Team players who have joined coaching staffs.
Another former player-turned-mentor is Vermes’ assistant Kerry Zavagnin, who retired from playing in 2008.
“Major League Soccer continues to provide more and more opportunities for players both during and after their playing careers,” he said. “I look around the League and see several players who I played both with and against during my career that are now giving back to the game in a variety of capacities. It should be a point of pride that so many guys want to help support MLS after they retire and want to see it succeed in the US.”
This season, the spotlight will be on Olsen and Fraser, first-year coaches who are both looking to turn things around at their respective clubs. Fraser, 44, was hired during the offseason to replace Martin Vasquez, who was dismissed after Chivas USA finished last in the Western Conference in 2010 with an 8-14-4 record.
Former players are also learning from one another. Fraser acknowledged that Kreis was one of those responsible for him getting his new coaching gig after having served as his assistant at RSL. Fraser said Kreis “gave me an incredible opportunity to enter the League and gave me an opportunity to test new ideas in terms of coaching and it obviously went well.”
Olsen has a similar tale. Olsen served as an assistant last season after retiring in 2009 and was named interim coach for the purposes of serving in that role until the end of the 2010 season once Curt Onolfo was fired. Olsen, however, was named head coach during the offseason after the team’s management decided he was the best man for the job.
“You rarely get a chance to learn on the job,” he said, “especially with the type of season we had last year.”
But Bliss said the biggest challenges for a player-turned-coach are the first few years following retirement.
“It’s always difficult in the first few years after retiring because we still have that competitive spirit," Bliss said. "However, after a few years, it wears off and reality sets in that the current players that you coach are playing a game that is quicker, faster and stronger than you can remember.”
Last year, Earnie Stewart was named technical director at Dutch club AZ Alkmaar, while Eric Wynalda was appointed president of international operations at Mexican third division club Murcielagos. Vermes, however, predicted that like American players, US-born coaches would be sought after abroad in the coming years.
“Major League Soccer is still in its infancy in many regards as 15 years is not long in the landscape of soccer,” he said. “I think our growth in that time, both as players and coaches, has increased at a rate incomparable to anything else. That being said, we should all be grateful for MLS and the opportunities it has given to many of us who grew up playing in and for the United States.”