Newest coaches will be under pressure
Which new head coach in Major League Soccer is in a better spot right now -- Peter Nowak with D.C. United or Dominic Kinnear with the San Jose Earthquakes?
Think hard before you answer. It's not as clear-cut as it may seem.
On one hand, you have Kinnear who is inheriting a side that has won an MLS Cup in two of the last three years that isn't expected to change much during the off-season. He has the best player in the league in Landon Donovan, and a veteran leadership structure that's been in place for the past three seasons. His transition from assistant to head coach will be about as seamless as they come in sports, as his day-in, day-out on-the-field duties won't be a heck of a lot different from what he experienced in the three years he spent under Frank Yallop.
"I think that the team will be happy knowing the transition will not be difficult," said the 36-year-old Kinnear. "I don't plan on changing many things."
Outside of goalkeeper coach Tim Hanley, Kinnear was the only assistant coach to Yallop. That made for a much different job description in San Jose than it would have been in a place like Chicago or Dallas where three and four assistant coaches divvy up duties at practice and in scouting opponents.
Kinnear was, at times, like a co-coach, rather than being simply Yallop's right-hand man, which stemmed from their closeness in age and philosophy, as well as their history of being teammates with the Tampa Bay Mutiny.
"Frank and myself thought the same way about the game," said Kinnear. "Our ideas about the game and even substitutions were the same. Frank was a good teacher. He helped me out a lot as far as handling players and talking to them not just as a player but as a person in the organization."
Kinnear, a former National Team midfielder (1990-1994), also has the most to lose. He's coaching for a club he once played for when it was named the Clash in 1997, and even now lives in the same town of Fremont, Calif., where he grew up. It's quite comfortable, yes. Of course, that only ups the ante for Kinnear, as his emotional hold for the area and the franchise is as high as it gets. Not succeeding in this position -- which, by the way, means not just getting into the playoffs, but being one of the top, if not the best, team in the 10-team league once again -- would be devastating.
No one is saying that Kinnear won't succeed. He's one of the brightest minds in the game, and is tailor-made to succeed the player-friendly Yallop. His side will probably make another run at winning MLS Cup next November. Yet, let no one think for a second that the pressure he's under will be much greater than what Bob Bradley and Dave Sarachan walked into last year.
Defender Troy Dayak, who was a teammate of Kinnear's on the San Francisco Blackhawks when they won the APSL championship in 1991, mentioned such a scenario during Wednesday's announcement of his coach's hiring.
"He is in a position right now that not many coaches would even dare to step into," said Dayak. "You have to honor that decision. How many coaches would want to come in here and fill those shoes and to have the bravery to do that lets me know that he is ready to take on that task."
That's certainly not the case for Peter Nowak in D.C. Taking over for Ray Hudson, the person, is a huge task, since he's an act that's impossible to follow.
No coach in all of professional sports was as candid, intriguing to talk to, and affable with his players, the fans and the media alike during his two-year tenure. He was the Bobby Bowden of soccer, and his unique personality will be sorely missed in a league where interesting characters are hard to find.
Ray Hudson the coach isn't nearly as hard to follow, though. In his first-year, D.C. finished in last-place with a 9-14-5. Then, last year, they snuck into the playoffs with a tie in the final game of the season to go 10-11-9 before being ousted by Chicago in the first-round.
In other words, if Nowak comes in and steers his team to a .500 record or better, he'll be a success. A person like Nowak will not be satisfied with pure mediocrity, though. As a player, and as Chicago's definitive leader in his five years (1998-2002) with the Fire, the former Polish international demanded the best out of his teammates. And out of himself.
He was the ultimate leader by example for the veterans, as well as a guiding light to young players like DaMarcus Beasley and, in the late '90s before his National Team career took off, Josh Wolff.
Nowak was known for being especially heavy-handed in his ruling of the team's Kangaroo Court, even digging through the team's dirty laundry at times to see if anyone had tossed in their sweats without turning them inside-out first. This from a player who was once considered one of the world's best.
Think Hristo Stoitchkov or Lothar Mattheus would have done that?
That sort of passion and commitment will serve him well in D.C., even if his only coaching experience was a brief stint as player-coach of the Polish National Team in 1996. He'll surely surround himself with quality people, most likely Chicago assistant coach Daryl Shore and possibly John Trask, who was Hudson's assistant coach for four years with both the Miami Fusion and D.C.
While Hudson was often quoted as saying how United was "Marco Etcheverry's team," and even hired Stoitchkov as an assistant last year, Nowak will be wise to look to Earnie Stewart and Ben Olsen as the team's main leaders.
At 39, he's still young and talented enough that he'll probably be personally showing his young players -- 14-year-old Freddy Adu, mainly -- the right and wrong way to do things, much in the same fashion Steve Nicol has done at times in New England, or like Robert Warzycha has in Columbus as the lead assistant to Greg Andrulis.
D.C. United fans can be rest assured that he wasn't pulled away from Chicago or talked into this job. He wanted it from Day One, and campaigned for it two months ago once Hudson was let go.
Despite interviewing a few other coaches, including Manchester City's Juan Carlos Osorio, the folks at AEG and technical director Dave Kasper wanted Nowak from the get-go, as well. They know he badly he wants to be in D.C. after playing his entire MLS career in Chicago as well as an additional year in its front-office.
"This will be a new challenge for me," said Nowak, who spent time as a player with Kaiserslautern and 1860 Munich in the German Bundesliga. "However, I've built my whole career on meeting such challenges and establishing a winning mentality. I expect things to be no different here."
Whether he wins is a different story, but the excitement will be there. With Adu on the roster, D.C. immediately becomes the franchise that every fan in the other nine MLS cities circles the calendar for in hopes of seeing the wunderkind striker do his thing against men twice his age. If Adu doesn't see time, Nowak will hear about it. And be questioned about it. Over and over. And if Adu plays when he doesn't deserve a spot, Nowak could lose his locker room.
It just goes to show that -- no matter the individual state of the organization -- there's pressure wherever you go as a coach, which will be no different for the two newest coaches in Major League Soccer. What these two hirings show is that the league is making strides since both men are MLS alumni and are former internationals with a wealth of experience to draw upon.
Perhaps the "Who is in a better spot?" question will be best saved for midseason when their respective honeymoons will be over.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com.