U.S.-born coaches still awaiting their shot in top-tier European soccer leagues
Europe has embraced Disneyland and the iPhone.
Its people eat at McDonald’s, download Taylor Swift and were as eager as U.S. audiences to see the new “Star Wars” movie.
However there is one import the continent has so far proved unwilling to try: the American soccer coach.
More than three dozen Americans have played in the English Premier League, where five teams also have U.S. owners. Yet the EPL has never had a U.S.-born coach.
Ditto the German Bundesliga, home to four players from the last U.S. World Cup team but to no American coaches. Nor have there been any in Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, France’s Ligue 1, Portugal’s Primeira Liga or the Dutch Eredivise.
Only one American has ever coached in a top-flight European league. And former U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley’s stay in Norway lasted only 22 months before his contract expired last month.
But don’t take any of that personally, says Christian Seifert, chief executive of the Bundesliga. “Everyone is looking for a good coach,” he said. “So if there is a good U.S. coach, there would be absolutely no problem from a German perspective.”
Bruce Arena, who is a good U.S. coach, isn’t buying that. He has won five Major League Soccer titles and a record 71 games with the U.S. national team, yet the only offer he received to coach in Europe came from a team in the far-off Danish Superliga nearly 10 years ago.
“You do see reluctance,” said Arena, who coaches the Galaxy. “There’s a lot of obstacles ahead before Americans are considered for those positions.”
Added Bradley: “There still are some stereotypes out there.”
But that’s starting to change.
The success of the national team under Bradley and Arena, the wide audiences that MLS games are attracting in Europe and rave reviews from Europeans returning home after playing in MLS have led to a new appreciation of U.S. coaches. And that may soon lead to jobs.
“The names will now start to become more household names in Europe,” said Ian Joy, who played in England and Germany before becoming an analyst on Fox’s coverage of the Bundesliga. “The talent that’s coming here [is] spreading the rumor back to Europe that these people are good enough to coach there. It’s only a matter of time, trust me, before we see an American coach in the Premiership getting his opportunity.”
Four years ago Bradley thought that opportunity would go to him. After being fired by the national team despite Team USA’s winning its group at the 2010 World Cup and compiling the second-best record in U.S. Soccer history, Bradley said his name was mentioned nearly a dozen times regarding coaching vacancies in England.
But only one team talked with him directly. And it didn’t offer a job.
“Oftentimes what you hear is … ‘We’re looking for someone with Premiership experience,’” Bradley said. “Or if it’s Germany, ‘We’re looking for German coaches.’ As much as the game has grown in the U.S., when you come to Europe, it’s that experience in Europe, whether it was experience as a player or experience as a coach. Those things still count.”
So Bradley set out to gain that experience, going first to Norway, where he guided tiny Stabaek through promotion from the second division to a Europa League berth, then on to France, where he has Le Havre within reach of promotion to Ligue 1.
But his most impressive accomplishment came just before that, when he coached Egypt through revolution and a bloody coup to within a win of its second World Cup berth in 80 years.
“I’ve been willing to take chances,” he said. “Go places where, quite frankly, most people wouldn’t go, and in different circumstances show people what it takes to be a leader, what it takes to train a team, what it takes to develop players. And now I’m confident that I’m going to move forward and once again show people how I do things.”
Yet while Bradley was taking chances, the people making coaching decisions in Europe have chosen to play it safe, often hiring familiar names who were fired elsewhere rather than taking a chance on someone new. And the numbers show just what a closed group the European coaching fraternity has become
In the English Premier League, there have been nine coaching changes since last season and each time the vacancy was filled by a manager who had previously coached in a top-flight European league. In the Bundesliga, seven of the eight coaches hired since last spring were not only experienced but German as well. In La Liga, six of the eight new coaches were Spanish and in Serie A, where 12 of the 20 teams found new managers since last season, only two were not Italian.
If Bradley, 57, is frustrated by the apparent lack of respect, he won’t admit it. In a lengthy phone interview from Normandy, he spoke matter-of-factly about the circuitous route he has taken.
“What you do is you don’t worry about it,” he said. “If something comes your way that you’re excited about, you roll up your sleeves and you say, ‘Hey, let’s get started.’
“I’m confident the different situations I’ve been in continue to show people the way I do things. And when all is said and done, you see where it takes you.”
Bradley says that any talk of a prohibition against American soccer coaches in Europe ignores the fact that U.S. professional leagues have proven equally wary of foreigners. Nearly a quarter of all NBA players come from outside the U.S., yet its only foreign-born coach is the Golden State Warriors’ Steve Kerr, who was born in Lebanon but is an American citizen and played 15 seasons in the NBA.
Major league baseball has an even higher percentage of foreign players. But two of its three foreign-born managers were born on U.S. military bases and the third, the Atlanta Braves’ Fredi Gonzalez, left Cuba for the U.S. when he was 3.
What’s aiding Bradley’s rise now is the growth of U.S. soccer and the increasing influence American players are having in Europe. It’s a big change from what goalkeeper Brad Friedel experienced when he broke in with Liverpool in 1997, a time when Americans were still something of an oddity in the sport.
“The best compliment that I ever got playing in England was when the English stopped viewing me as a foreigner,” Friedel said. “That will be the same sort of trend for a U.S. coach.”
Arena says the scrutiny placed on a coach will be even greater than that placed on the players because while there were many players, there is only one Bob Bradley.
“Until an American coach is fully accepted, there will be an awful lot of pressure,” said Arena, a longtime friend of Bradley’s. “It’s not going to get any easier and you’re always going to be labeled an American.”
Yet even as Bradley is blazing a path for U.S. coaches, there are questions about how long it will be before others are qualified to follow.
The U.S. national team job, which provided a huge steppingstone for Bradley and Arena, is now in the hands of Juergen Klinsmann, a German. The top three U.S. age-group teams are coached by an Austrian, an Uruguayan and a Spaniard, respectively, and U.S. Soccer’s coaching schools are led by Dutch instructors.
Then there are MLS Academy coaches who study under French managers; of the six coaches hired since the end of the 2014 season, only one is American. Given that lack of opportunity, it’s not surprising that just one U.S.-born MLS coach — Arena protege Gregg Berhalter, now with the Columbus Crew — has international experience.
“We shoot ourselves in the foot here,” Arena said. “We disrespect our coaches. There’s a bias both domestically and internationally with American coaches in this game.”
Winning will overcome that — and Bradley has won everywhere he’s gone. So for Seifert, the Bundesliga CEO, it’s no longer a matter of if an American can coach in Europe but when.
“I think that’s a question of time,” he said. “Soccer is a result sport and if the result is right, nobody cares where you come from.
“Coaching quality has nothing to do with nationality.”