Owen Coyle interview: 'MLS will be one of the world's biggest leagues'
Triple H, The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels and Ricky Steamboat were predictable names at WrestleMania XXV. But ?
The manager’s success in a mid-sized Lancashire town was brought to a worldwide audience by a Burnley fan at the event in Houston .
This was April, 2009. Coyle had been in charge at Turf Moor for 18 months and was about to enhance his cult status by leading Burnley into the top-flight for the first time in 33 years, via Wade Elliott’s brilliant goal against Sheffield United in the Championship play-off final.
Banners held aloft by Burnley supporters made a less complimentary biblical allusion nine months later: dubbing Coyle “Judas” for quitting the club to join Bolton Wanderers. After seeing the anger in the stands as his new team beat his old, : “Last year it was God but if they are going to be biblical I think it should be Moses because I led them from the wilderness.”
Despite following a promising early path, his Bolton journey took a wrong turn with relegation in 2012 and he was sacked 10 games into the next season. A spell at another Championship side, Wigan Athletic, ended “by mutual agreement” after six months last December with the club 14 in the table. Since, Coyle has been in exile from the dug-out – until now.
More than five years since he was referenced at WrestleMania, expect more Coyle tifos in the Bayou City: on Tuesday the Scot was announced as the new head coach of the and met the media on a deck inside BBVA Compass Stadium, the club’s orange-hued downtown home.
“A Stetson and cowboy boots - I might find them and see how they fit,” he grinned. “Listen, I’m really honoured, privileged to be here.”
Coyle replaces the only prior head coach in the franchise’s history, Dominic Kinnear, who left for the San Jose Earthquakes following Major League Soccer’s regular season. Kinnear’s tenure lasted nine years and produced seven playoff berths and two Cup titles. Like Coyle, Kinnear was born in the Glasgow area, though he emigrated to California as a young child.
More than a dozen British managers have run MLS teams. Among current and recent names, the Welsh former Wolves and Sunderland midfielder Carl Robinson has just finished his first year in charge of the Vancouver Whitecaps. He succeeded a Scot, Martin Rennie. The Watford-born former Canada international Frank Yallop is at the Chicago Fire. Paul Mariner, Mo Johnston and John Carver had spells with Toronto FC; Johnston also briefly led the New York Red Bulls. The ex-Scotland and Chelsea striker John Spencer took the Portland Timbers into MLS in 2011. Adrian Heath, the former Everton player, is at Orlando City, who join MLS in 2015.
Yallop twice won MLS Cup with San Jose. One of the most obscure English managers to work in North America was among the most successful: Gary Smith, fired last year by Stevenage, spent three years at the Colorado Rapids and won the 2010 MLS Cup.
Still, it is rare for a foreign coach to arrive in MLS without prior North American experience: all the above except Carver had previously played or coached on the continent. None has managed permanently in the Premier League, while the 48-year-old was one of Europe’s rising stars as recently as 2011.
That April, Bolton reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup (losing 5-0 to Stoke City), beat Arsenal and stood eighth in the Premier League with five fixtures left (they lost them all and finished 14th). And Bolton and Burnley played like Coyle talks: fast, enthusiastic, ambitious – a style that seems like a manifestation of his propulsive personality.
While it’s no longer exceptional for well-known foreign players to join MLS, this year there were only four non-American or Canadian head coaches: Robinson, Ryan Nelsen, who was sacked by Toronto, and two Colombians who had long worked in the league, Oscar Pareja of FC Dallas and Wilmer Cabrera at the now-defunct Chivas USA.
So Coyle’s nationality brings a novelty factor; his CV, intrigue in a country that has an enduring affinity for English football even as it tries to emphasise its homegrown strengths. The former US international turned pundit Alexi Lalas tweeted: “Owen Coyle as new head coach. You got my attention.” He is the highest-profile foreign coach in MLS since Ruud Gullit endured a turbulent spell with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007-08.
His arrival raises two obvious questions: why Houston, and will it work? Coyle has some American history: a long-standing interest in MLS exemplified by his decision to take his teams Stateside for pre-season training every year.
Bolton visited Texas for a charity match against the Dynamo in 2011. The year before, Coyle signed then-Houston midfielder Stuart Holden. The year after, he signed the defender Tim Ream to Bolton from New York.
Coyle had been linked with several vacancies after leaving Wigan, including Celtic. “I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve turned down in the last six months six, seven jobs at home and abroad. I didn’t think it was the right fit. I’ve had the experience of working at different clubs and I just felt that the next opportunity that I took I felt had to be the right fit with the right people,” he said.
He contacted the Dynamo president, Chris Canetti, to express interest in the job, and they clicked, with Canetti persuaded that Coyle is the best available coach, respects the league and wants to build a long-term platform for success in Houston. “I felt this could be a great opportunity,” said Coyle. “I come in here very humble, very grounded, very balanced, knowing there’s a huge challenge. I don’t come in here telling you that I know everything about the MLS. I come telling you there’s loads of stuff I can learn, I’m receptive to that.”
Coyle dismissed the notion that moving to MLS might put him out of sight and mind back home. “That’s not a concern of mine because when all’s said and done I couldn’t care less what that visibility is or isn’t. Because the bottom line is I’m here at Houston Dynamo to do the job here, that’s my only visibility, the vision to be successful here,” he said. “This league is going to be one of the biggest leagues in the world in years to come… I want to be a part of that.”
Another Scot, the former Liverpool defender Steve Nicol, was head coach at the New England Revolution from 2002-2011 and led the club to four losing MLS Cup final appearances. “Like most managers you live or die by the players you get together and the way you set them up. I don’t really think the British angle has a lot to do with it,” said Nicol, now an ESPN analyst.
“His challenges right off the bat are on the football side assessing his players because he won’t have seen them in the flesh. It’s tough to analyse players on tape, you really need to see them. He’s going to have a real busy first two months of preseason.”
MLS also has a complex and unusual set of regulations, which Gullit struggled to master. “Somebody can give you a book and you can sit and read them and study them but it takes time to soak it in because it’s so different from home,” said Nicol.
“The best example is when he wants to sign a player he has to put a discovery claim in on an international particularly. If he puts that in and somebody else already has a discovery in then he’s second, third, fourth, whatever, in line… and walking into the combine with 100 players and having three days to look at them and decide who you want is not easy.”
The Dynamo believe they have a management structure in place that will allow Coyle to avoid becoming bogged down in arcane details or suffering from a lack of North American experience. Last month they appointed the former Montreal Impact technical director Matt Jordan as general manager. His remit includes scouting, youth development, working with the salary cap and contract negotiations, which will help Coyle focus on achieving results on the pitch.
Seeing the level of participation in youth football in the US makes him optimistic about the potential talent pool. “When I’ve watched them playing on the fields it takes me back to my youth in Scotland when the fields were bedecked with kids. It’s not so much now, but here in the US it is because it’s growing,” he said.
“My mum’s actually 84 and she only gave up work two years ago. Her work ethic would put us all to shame. So I certainly come here with a real work ethic which is part of our family DNA… There’s so many challenges ahead and I’ve always been up for a challenge.”
• The writer is a freelance contributor to the official Houston Dynamo website.