Dominic Kinnear: A Model MLS Coach

Dominic Kinnear

The English Premier League is one of the most popular football leagues in the world for many reasons, especially its coaching soap opera. No other league has managed to turn coaching vendettas and spats into a complex, highly entertaining mix of both low and high art in the manner that the EPL has achieved. Granted the league has been aided by the fact that the English press has more access to the Gaffers then to the players and that the tabloids thrive on cult of personalities, not tactics. The biggest sign of how ingrained the coaching soap opera is in the EPL was the fact that Jose Mourinho was unable to recreate his EPL drama in Serie A.

Here in the United States, the likes of Bora, Steve Sampson, and Bruce Arena have provided the game with some interesting personalities at the national level, but, on the whole, Major League Soccer with its close knit community of coaches has not developed the kind of feuds, vendettas, and sniping that occur amongst the EPL’s coaches. As Ruud Gullit learned in 2008, because of the various salary and player rules in MLS, this is not an easy league to coach in, and success in Europe does not translate to success in MLS. For the most part MLS coaches have enough to focus on without creating unnecessary distractions in the press. In the world of football coaching, the EPL Gaffers are the White Collar guys while the MLS coaches are the Blue Collar guys.

The Blue Collar style of MLS coaching might be best exemplified by one of the best coaches in the league, Dominic Kinnear of the Houston Dynamo. Kinnear, who was born in Glasgow, Scotland, grew up in Fremont, California where he began playing soccer at the age of 5. After spending a year at Hartwick College, Kinnear returned to Scotland where he played for St. Johnstone between 1986 and 1989. Upon his return to the United States in 1989, Kinnear, like many U.S. players, found playing time at clubs in the various professional and semi-professional leagues in the States, like the San Francisco Bay Hawks cum San Jose Hawks (WSL, ASL, APSL, and USISL) and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers (APSL). In 1995, Kinnear played with both Nexaca in Mexico and the Seattle Sounders of the A-League. The formation of the MLS in 1996 allowed Kinnear to play for the Colorado Rapids, San Jose Clash, and Tampa Bay Mutiny until he retired in 2000. In addition to his club career, Kinnear played for the United States National Team from 1990 to 1993, earning 54 caps, but was dropped by Bora prior to the 1994 World Cup – a decision for which Kinnear has apparently not forgiven Bora.

Kinnear has indicated that after retiring from the game he had no interest in becoming a coach, instead he was interested in becoming a teacher. But in 2001, the San Jose Earthquakes hired Frank Yallop as their coach and Yallop talked his old friend, Kinnear, into becoming his assistant coach. Working together, Yallop and Kinnear helped the Earthquakes win the MLS Cup in 2001 and 2003. Kinnear took over as San Jose’s head coach in 2004 after Yallop accepted the coaching position with the Canadian National Team. After winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2005, the team relocated to Houston, Texas as the Houston Dynamo and went on to win the MLS Cup in 2006 and 2007, becoming only the second MLS team to ever win back to back MLS Cups. Currently, the Dynamo have nine wins on the season, and sit atop of the Western Division with 32 points.

In MLS’s short history and the even shorter history of the Houston Dynamo, Coach Kinnear has quietly gone about building a club that is on the verge of MLS Dynasty status. This achievement has not been obtained through splashy signings, flashy news conferences, or making the press focus on himself, rather, Kinnear has achieved his success by putting together a team that combines a hard working team ethic that encourages personal flair and technique.

I have lost count of the number of Dominic Kinnear press conferences that I have attended, but one thing is clear, he expects all of his players to work hard at practice and during games, no matter whether said player is Brian Ching or Erik Ustruck. This attitude was best exemplified following the Dynamo’s home loss to New England on June 12, 2008. Following the match, a match which saw several younger players get extended playing time, Kinnear stated that “No matter who you are in that locker room, if you’re given the opportunity to play, the expectation is to win.” It was that New England match that marked the beginning of the end of the Dynamo career of one fan favorite, Franco Carracio.

Despite Kinnear’s statement that the expectation is to win, he is also the kind of coach that will not blast his players for playing hard and losing. Granted, Kinnear is happy with those kind of losses, but he is willing to recognize that sometimes, even when his players give 100%, a win is not in the cards. This attitude could be seen in Kinnear’s comments after the Dynamo’s home loss to New England this past Saturday. While Kinnear did not completely absolve his players for the loss, he recognized that factors such as fatigue and the heat played a significant role in that match. Furthermore, Kinnear has developed the reputation as a coach who can take a struggling player and revive his career, while also pulling aside his younger players and making it clear what they need to do if they want to stay with the team. Few football fans outside of Houston know Kinnear’s role in the back story to Tyler Deric who rebounded from attitude and substance abuse problems to become the Dynamo’s first homegrown youth academy signing.

While it could be easy to say that Kinnear’s coaching attitude comes from some kind of dour Scottish work ethic, the reality is that Kinnear has a great sense of humor, and, along with Assistant Coach John Spencer, wants the Dynamo clubhouse to be a fun and happy environment. While Kinnear is willing to hold his players accountable for not playing hard during the match, the sense that I get from Dynamo players is that come next practice Kinnear comes in with a good attitude and a smile on his face and willingness to let the players start from scratch as they prepare for the next match. According to the Dynamo players I have talked to, despite the heat and the hard work demanded at practice, the positive attitudes of Kinnear and Spencer make the practices more fun and less tedious. This fun loving attitude that exists within the Dynamo organization is obvious to anyone who follows Stuart Holden, Brian Ching, Bobby Boswell, etc. on Twitter.

In addition to creating a good clubhouse atmosphere and making his expectations clear to his players, Kinnear has exhibited strong squad building and tactical skills. Despite MLS’s salary cap, Kinnear has shown, year in and year out, that he can still build a team with the necessary depth to survive involvement in multiple competitions and the loss of players to extended national team duty. On the tactical end, Kinnear goes into matches with his game plan, but he’s shown a willingness to make tactical changes in response to the course of the match. For example, after going down a goal against New England in the 2007 MLS Cup, Kinnear converted the Dynamo to a 3-5-2 formation and managed to pull out a 2-1 victory.

This summer, the biggest sign of Kinnear’s success as a football coach has best been displayed in matches that have involved the U.S. National Team, not the Houston Dynamo or Dominic Kinnear. Earlier this summer in South Africa, Dynamo midfielder Ricardo Clark, despite a red card against Italy, clearly earned a spot on the 2010 World Cup team after his presence in midfield proved crucial to the U.S. National Team’s success in the Confederations Cup. This past Sunday, it was Dynamo players Brian Ching and Stuart Holden who never gave up during the U.S. National Team’s Gold Cup Final 5 goal loss to Mexico. Brian Ching’s efforts to rally the rest of the MLS based squad fell upon broken spirits. The never give up attitude displayed by Ching and Holden during Sunday’s debacle against Mexico has to be partially, if not completely, attributed to the attitude Kinnear has fostered in the Dynamo clubhouse.

This Wednesday, Dominic Kinnear faces a new test in his coaching career as he takes the reigns of the 2009 MLS All-Star Team which will be playing Everton at Rio Tinto Stadium in Big Sandy, Utah. Although Kinnear will only have a couple days to work with his All-Star squad, American football fans can only hope that his attitude and style rub off a little on the non-Dynamo Houston players.

Kinnear’s on the field success and off the field personality has endeared him to Houston Dynamo fans, fans who, for the most part, have seemingly come to the belief that Dominic Kinnear will be the next coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team. Kinnear’s ability to succeed despite the severe MLS restrictions and his ability to get the best out of his players makes him uniquely suited for succeeding at the U.S. National level, and considering the never give up attitude displayed by Ching and Holden on Sunday, imagine what would have happened if the entire team displayed that same ethos.

If he becomes the U.S. National Team Coach, don’t expect Kinnear to exhibit the quirks of some past National Team coaches, instead, expect a demanding coach who’s not afraid to speak his mind. But also, expect a coach who will smile, who will show emotion, and who is willing to make the necessary tactical changes to win a match.

I do not, and cannot, expect other MLS coaches to wholesale adopt the coaching style of Dominic Kinnear, after all each coach’s style is dictated by his personality and each coach has a different personality, but other coaches in MLS would do well to study and learn from the methods of Dominic Kinnear. We do know that European coaches who do not take the team to adjust to the ways of MLS are doomed to failure, so MLS needs to depend on homegrown coaches, and these coaches need to push MLS players, and demand much from them, without forgetting the importance of team atmosphere. This is how the quality of play in the MLS, and even the U.S. National Team, will improve. For now, we can leave the soap opera to the EPL and hope that MLS coaches will focus on improving the league’s overall quality.

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