Former United States Men's National Team interim Manager Dave Sarachan was the biggest coaching appointment in the USL Championship this offseason when he arrived at North Carolina FC. | Photo courtesy North Carolina FC
Five years ago, as a member of the Colorado Rapids’ technical staff, the idea of moving to a head coaching position in the USL Championship wasn’t necessarily in Steve Cooke’s plans.
“You probably couldn’t have envisaged the exponential growth of the league in every single aspect” said Cooke recently. “[But] when you look around today at the facilities, the fans in the stadiums and you look at the product on the field, the entire infrastructure, it’s remarkable.”
As he enters his second year as the Head Coach at Championship side OKC Energy FC, Cooke’s words underline the evolution the league has undergone in that short span, to the point where it is now a highly attractive option for top-level, experienced coaches. Ahead of the 2019 season, newcomers to the league’s sidelines include figures whose resumes reflect stops in major leagues around the world, adding an unprecedented increase in experience and success to the Championship’s sidelines.
Undoubtedly, the most high-profile of them all is new North Carolina FC Head Coach Dave Sarachan, who arrives at the club this season after overseeing the regeneration of the United States Men’s National Team as its interim Manager throughout 2018. Yet while Sarachan’s hire raised the most eyebrows, the past season saw others like Louisville City FC’s John Hackworth, Indy Eleven’s Martin Rennie, Nashville SC’s Gary Smith, and Cooke all bring their experiences at the top level to the league.
Louisville City FC's John Hackworth and Indy Eleven's Martin Rennie both brought experience from leading Major League Soccer clubs when they arrived at their current clubs in 2018. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
The fact that coaches of this caliber are now leading Championship clubs speaks volumes for the work that has been done by clubs to make their head coaching positions an attractive proposition on the national level. From Cooke’s perspective, the growth of the Championship has made it a great landing spot both on the playing and coaching side, and in club front offices.
“It becomes exciting and it becomes something you would love to be involved in,” said Cooke. “It becomes something that you say, ‘Wow, not only is this going to be a great league, but it’s something I really want to be a part of.”
While the new arrivals pour in, some of the league’s old guard have also taken note of the league’s rising stature. That includes Charleston Battery’s veteran Head Coach Mike Anhaeuser – one of the most respected in the business – who is ready to meet the challenge. Having claimed his 200th victory as the Battery’s Head Coach least season – while also leading the side to a top-four finish in the Eastern Conference – the man who has seen it all from the sideline at MUSC Health Stadium believes new arrivals for the 2019 season like Sarachan, Birmingham Legion FC’s Tom Soehn and Real Monarchs SLC’s Martin Vasquez are a sign of the overall increased health of the league.
“It’s great, and of course what you’re seeing is that its standards are increasing and that coaches want to be in,” said Anhaeuser. “Jobs in the USL have become very enjoyable.”
Charleston Battery Head Coach Mike Anhaeuser has led his side to the USL Cup Playoffs in every season of the league's history, and last year celebrated his 25th season at the club. | Photo courtesy Karl L. Moore / ATL UTD 2
The integration of USL League One – which contains its own share of experience and recognizable names like former U.S. Men’s National Team Captain John Harkes, Tim Hankinson, and Daryl Shore on its sidelines as it enters its inaugural season next month – is also providing a potential ladder for new faces to make their impact.
After the work done last season by Rick Schantz in leading Phoenix Rising FC to the Western Conference Championship and first-time head coach Braeden Cloutier bringing success to Orange County SC, there are also now new faces dotted around the league looking to make a similar immediate impact. New Mexico United’s Troy Lesesne, El Paso Locomotive FC’s Mark Lowry, and the well-known names of Eric Wynalda (Las Vegas Lights FC), Jimmy Nielsen (Hartford Athletic) and Richie Williams (Loudoun United FC) all have the potential to burnish their reputations in the Championship.
As arguably the most successful coach in the USL Championship’s history, Anhaeuser believes someone like Lesesne – who both played for him and served as an assistant coach in Charleston – can follow a path in coaching that Battery alumni like Ozzie Alonso, Lamar Neagle, Forrest Lasso and Dane Kelly have achieved on the field since their time with the Battery.
“You’re always excited for anyone you’ve worked with,” said Anhaeuser. “You’ve hopefully mentored him, and he’s such a great guy whose done things the right way and has worked his tail off to get to where he is, you want him to have success. It’s like a player moving on. If I have a player move to MLS, you want him to do well, because if he does well that might show a little bit from something you’ve had a hand in, and I wish Troy all the success.”
As the quality of players joining the league increases, the influx of talented coaches like those mentioned above could be the escalator that provides the next major rise in performance for Championship sides. Eight of this year’s Head Coaches in the league have already completed their U.S. Soccer Pro Licenses, with another four selected to be part of the 12-month course this year. While Cooke believes earning his Pro License shouldn’t be considered a be-all and end-all, he looks at the experience as one that embodies the example he tries to set while looking to bring the best from his players.
“I think this is a really critical point; if you are a coach at any level and you are asking players to improve themselves to work hard and keep getting better and to develop, and to be the best that they could possibly can be, I believe also that the coach should model that behavior by doing it for themselves and in their career,” said Cooke. “I personally don’t believe that the credentials by themselves have given me the opportunities, but what I do believe is the willingness to go and work, and learn and be vulnerable, and be open to learning and improving and developing my craft, I believe that is key to the success long-term, because the game forever evolves. The players evolve all the time, they get better and better, and I think as a coach you want to be in the game for a long time, and if you want to keep developing the club, if you want to keep developing the players, then you too will try and develop yourself.”
One of eight current Head Coaches in the USL Championship to have earned his U.S. Soccer Pro License, Steve Cooke has been impressed by the league's rising quality on and off the field over the past five years. | Photo courtesy Steven Christy / OKC Energy
The need to consistently improve and evolve with the game is also felt by Anhaeuser, who will be looking to ensure the Battery’s record of reaching the USL Cup Playoffs in every season of the league’s history as the Championship enters its biggest season yet.
“Even if you have the experience, you want to evolve with these coaches and these younger coaches, and I think it is a testament that it’s only going to get better,” added Anhaeuser. “You have these coaches with a lot of experience and a lot of ideas that have been around for a long time. We have a national team coach who has been a lot of places and is coming into the league, so you have to step it up as a coach to make sure you’re going to compete.”
With the standard on the Championship’s sidelines at an all-time high, the level of competition and tactical matchups that will come as a result seems poised to be one of the major storylines of the 2019 campaign.
“You’re trying to compete to win a championship, you’re trying to make the playoffs, and you need to evolve, and you need to create something different,” said Anhaueser. “We have to keep doing things very well, and we need to keep getting the players in here, because in the end if you can’t get good players and you can’t evolve as a coach with the technology and with everything that you have, you could fall behind, and once you fall behind it’s hard to catch up, so you want to try and stay ahead of that.
“It makes it exciting, it keeps you focused, that’s for sure, and you’ve got to really be on your toes, and I think every coach is feeling that same thing.”