Thursday, August 25, 2011

Rennie knows how to take care of business

Eight years in pharmaceutical and software sales isn't the first thing that jumps out about Martin Rennie's resume.

It's the four straight coach of the year nominations as he's worked his way up the North American soccer ladder, or the USL-2 title in Cleveland, or considerable wins in Carolina (see box).

But the Vancouver Whitecaps' future coach, a 36-year-old Scot who takes over from Tommy Soehn in November, attributes much of his soccer success to his business background.

"I was around managers and owners - very driven, very smart - who knew how to get the best out of people," says Rennie. "I picked up things about communication, goal setting, building a winning culture . . . A lot of times I would think: When I'm in coaching, I'm going to use that . . ."

Rennie has done more than simply win games since leaving Scotland for Salem, Ore., in 2005 to coach the fourth-tier Cascade Surge; he's built teams and constructed winning cultures.

In Carolina, where the Rail-Hawks are enjoying unprecedented success, he turned over almost the entire roster when he took over in 2009.

In Cleveland before that, not much existed when Rennie arrived at the expansion club. No training facility: No team name; no colours; no roster.

Former players say he's achieved success as much by his ability to manage people as his tactical acumen.

"He's one of those guys you respect as a coach and you want to work with him to make the team better," said Josh Gardner, a midfielder who played for Rennie in Carolina and is now with MLS team Columbus Crew.

"He works on the psychology of the game, which I don't think a lot of coaches do. He knows how he can get the most out of a player by talking to them, focusing on their lives so he can understand them better.

"And he's always steady, always positive, regardless of the situation. That goes a long way because a lot of coaches can be negative."

The same two things consistently emerge about Rennie: He gets to know his players intimately; and he is immensely and unceasingly positive.

The son of a Reverend and a nurse, Rennie's desire to listen, to lead and to care for others comes naturally, he said.

His interest in psychology and the mental side of soccer was fuelled by his own frustrations as a player.

When Rennie arrived in North America to pursue a professional career, he promptly tore up his right knee. After he recovered, he struggled to find his form.

"I started to question, Now that I'm physically fine, why aren't I doing well?" he said. "A lot of the things I learned after, about how my mind works, would have helped."

But the quick demise of his playing days led Rennie into sales - he has a degree in business management from the University of Glasgow - and he earned his coaching badges and played non-league soccer on the side. He attained his UEFA 'A' License at 26, which is remarkably young, and also has his Youth License.

It might be an unconventional route to MLS head coach, but it's not one he would trade.

A voracious reader of books on business, communications, psychology and sport, one of Rennie's favourites is Winning! by Sir Clive Woodward. It documents the journey of England's national rugby team under Woodward's stewardship.

Shortly after he took over in

1997, England lost 76-0 to Australia. In 2003, after a Jonny Wilkinson drop goal, they were world champions.

Wrote Woodward: "We changed the way we coached, the way we played and, of equal importance, how we operated off the field."

"He worked for a big company in sales and then became a coach," Rennie said. "I often go back to it.

"Sales is one of those jobs where you have to perform in order to keep your job and be well paid. You can have a great week, or month, or year, but what are you doing now?"

Rennie, who is married with two young kids, said sales also gave him a greater appreciation for life in soccer, and that feeds his positive approach. Coaches and players are doing what they love, and he likes to remind people of that.

"I want to create an environment that is hard but it's fair and we see the good in situations," he said. "I just prefer to live with a more positive outlook on life.

"I want to give my players as much confidence as I can, help them believe in themselves and in each other."

If the last nine games of their inaugural MLS season go anything like the first 25, the Whitecaps (3-13-9) will need a healthy dose of belief next season as much as new personnel.

Rennie wanted to remain in Carolina for the end of this season.

Having lost last year's division two final to the Puerto Rico Islanders, there is unfinished business there.

Not ideal for the Whitecaps, perhaps, but an admirable statement of character.

He is confident that arriving in November will give him enough time to help turn this franchise around by year two.

"I do believe we can build something quickly," he said. "I look at how Philadelphia has done this season after the first season and that's encouraging.

"I think MLS is one of those leagues where you can do that. A lot of the players are of a similar standard, so if you find that edge, it can be huge."

Rennie's edge, he believes, is as much mental as anything.

It's a sales pitch the Whitecaps have gladly bought into. Fans will just have to wait awhile on the delivery.


Rennie's Three-step Plan

Martin Rennie has a clear process in mind for when he takes over as the Whitecaps coach in November:

- "Making sure I've got the players that fit the profile I believe in. You have to be hard to play against, well organized, have every single player willing to do the work defensively, and you have to be good on set plays. I want to have a team that can pass the ball, build from the back and have composure in possession. A side that can be creative and attacking."

- "The next thing is to build an environment where they have belief and confidence."

- "Then you make sure they understand what their roles are, when we have the ball, when we don't have the ball, on set pieces, and so on. It's a process that takes time, but I've had to do it every season."

The Rennie Factor

Since coming to North America from Scotland in 2005, Martin Rennie has had a positive effect on three clubs that haven't done so well without him: Cascade Surge, USL PDL (fourth tier) Rennie inherited a good team in 2005, won a second-straight division title at 12-2-2, made a conference final and qualified for the clubs first ever U.S.

Open Cup. Without Rennie, they won three games in 2006. The club folded in 2009.

Cleveland City Stars, USL-2 (third tier)

Rennie coached the expansion team to a pair of top-three league finishes in 2007 and '08, won a title and made a semifinal. After Rennie, the squad finished 11th in 2009, missed the playoffs and folded.

Carolina RailHawks, USL-1/USSF D2/

NASL (all second tier) The RailHawks finished eighth in their first two seasons, 2007 and '08.

Rennie showed up in '09 and they finished second. In 2010, they were top in their conference and lost in the league finals. They are currently atop the NASL table.

Talking Tactics

Rennie has often employed a 4-3-3 formation that morphs into a 4-5-1 defensively, but he said his Whitecaps could play 4-4-2 as well.

"It just depends on what I think is best, sometimes depending on the player's a bit, or the type of game were going to play," he said.



Martin Rennie, hired on Aug. 9 to take the Whitecaps coaching reins after this season, is just 36. But in a league where the average coaching age approaches 50, he isn't alone in the 30-something club.

Here's a look at the others:

Ben Olsen, D.C. United, 34 The youngest coach in MLS, Olsen took over in D.C. midway through 2010 after a nine-year playing

career. D.C. finished bottom of the standings last year but are battling for a playoff spot this season.

Jason Kreis, Real Salt Lake, 38 Kreis was 34 when he retired and stepped into the head job at RSL in 2007. One of the league's model franchises, they won MLS Cup in 2009 and reached the CONCACAF Champions League final this year.

Jesse Marsch, Montreal, 37 The expansion Impact have hired Bob Bradley's former assistant with the U.S. national team for 2012.

Marsch retired in 2009 after three MLS Cup titles and more than 300 games for D.C., Chicago and Chivas. Note: Rennie will also be the third Scottish head coach in MLS, joining Steve Nicol in New England and John Spencer in Portland.

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