Osorio and Soehn prove the doubters wrong
When Tom Soehn and Juan Carlos Osorio meet on the field Thursday night before the decisive playoff game between Soehn's D.C. United and Osorio's Chicago Fire (7.30 p.m. ET, ESPN2), the two coaches will have more in common than the ties they wear and the impressive coaching jobs they both did in MLS this year. They will also share the same passion not only to lead their teams to the Eastern Conference final but also to prove several MLS teams wrong.
You can call them the coaches nobody wanted -- at least you used to be able to call them that. What else could you call Soehn and Osorio after both were passed over for more than a half-dozen MLS head coaching jobs? Some coaches might have given up hope after hearing "no" so many times. Not Soehn or Osorio, and D.C. United and Chicago are lucky they didn't.
Their fates began intertwining as far back as five years ago, when Osorio became a candidate for his first MLS head coaching job. The MetroStars were ready to fire Octavio Zambrano after the 2002 season, and general manager Nick Sakiewicz had his eye on Osorio, who was Zambrano's lead assistant in 2000, the best season in club history. Osorio would have left his assistant coaching position with English club Manchester City (which had just earned promotion to the Premier League) for the opportunity, but he never got a chance to. When Bob Bradley expressed interest in coaching the MetroStars, Osorio was told thanks, but no thanks.
Bradley left the Chicago Fire to coach the Metros and in the process left behind a first-year assistant coach named Tom Soehn. A member of the MLS Cup-winning Fire team in 1998, Soehn made a smooth transition to assistant coaching and stayed with the Fire in 2003, under new coach Dave Sarachan. The Fire reached the MLS Cup that year, losing in the final to San Jose.
Osorio's next chance to be an MLS coach came after the 2003 season, when D.C. United was very interested. He made a strong impression on D.C. but eventually lost out to Peter Nowak. It was a decision that left Osorio wondering if his chance would ever come. If he couldn't beat out Nowak, who had no coaching experience at all, could he ever really catch a break?
Nowak didn't do too badly in that first year in charge of D.C. United. He led D.C. to the club's fourth MLS Cup title, with the help of his lead assistant coach and former Fire teammate. Yes, Tom Soehn.
As Soehn kept building his strong MLS résumé, Osorio kept struggling to find a way into MLS. He passed on a chance to join the Los Angeles Galaxy as an assistant coach before the 2004 season and began seriously questioning whether MLS would ever be a real option.
"As time went on, I did think that maybe the opportunity would not come," Osorio said. "The only thing you can do as a coach is keep working and gaining experience, but honestly I wasn't sure if MLS would be an option for me."
Part of Osorio's desire to come to the United States, along with wanting his family to settle here, was the feeling he had that he would never be seriously considered for a head coaching position in England. His biggest obstacle, both in MLS and England, was a perception that he was more a strength and conditioning coach than a true soccer coach because that was the type of role he started out with at Manchester City.
Osorio's and Soehn's career paths converged after the 2004 MLS season, when both were in consideration for the Colorado Rapids coaching job. The Rapids eventually hired Fernando Clavijo, a decision that made Osorio start to strongly consider other alternatives, and a rejection that would be the first of several for Soehn.
The number of openings Soehn applied for and missed out on is staggering. Real Salt Lake passed on Soehn, choosing John Ellinger, and the Columbus Crew hired Sigi Schmid, both before the 2005 season. Toronto FC passed on Soehn, choosing Mo Johnston instead.
While Soehn returned to D.C. United and regrouped, Osorio finally left England, choosing to take a head coaching job with Millonarios in his native Colombia. As much as returning home played a part in his decision, Osorio was driven more by the desire to lead his own team and show that his coaching ability could lead to success.
Osorio made the most of his opportunity, transforming a bad Millonarios squad into a fourth-place team despite the club spending little on new players. He quickly developed a reputation as a skilled tactician and motivator, traits already familiar to his players at Manchester City.
As successful as Osorio was in his first year in Colombia, he still had that itch to give MLS another try. He discussed Chivas USA's opening after Bradley left the club following the 2006 season but did not receive an interview.
Guess who had received an interview with Chivas USA? Yes, Soehn, who had been passed over for the Kansas City Wizards job and pulled his name out of the running for the FC Dallas job after feeling he wouldn't be strongly considered for the position. Chivas USA just might have been Soehn's final destination before fate stepped in.
Bradley's departure to take over the U.S. national team also gave then-D.C. United head coach Peter Nowak an opportunity to join Bradley as an assistant. All of a sudden, the job Soehn always coveted most was available. D.C. wasted no time in signing Soehn as its new head coach.
"It was definitely frustrating going through that whole process of interviewing for so many jobs and not getting that chance, but I never got discouraged about it," Soehn said. "Nothing in my career as a player ever came easy, so I was never going to complain about having to wait for my opportunity.
"It all worked out in the end because there isn't a team and an organization I would rather be with than D.C. United," Soehn said. "So yes, you can say it all happened for a reason."
Osorio's opportunity finally came in July, when Chicago Fire president John Guppy made Osorio his top candidate to replace Dave Sarachan. Guppy worked with Osorio during his time with the MetroStars and was fully aware of Osorio's knowledge and passion for the game. He was also aware of the success enjoyed by Manchester City and Millonarios with Osorio around.
"I really couldn't tell you why Juan didn't get a chance sooner," Guppy said after hiring Osorio. "Whether it was the perception that he was more a strength coach or the belief that he didn't understand this league, teams didn't give him that chance.
"We felt he would be the ideal fit, and you have seen that with what he has been able to do with our team," Guppy said.
"I'm a firm believer that if you keep working hard, your opportunities will come," Osorio said. "I had faith that if this was meant to be for me, then it would happen."
Now, after all the rejections and all the opportunities denied, Soehn and Osorio find themselves in the MLS playoffs with two of the more exciting teams in the league. There's obviously a measure of satisfaction to be gained from their success, but both coaches insist they aren't spending much time thinking about the teams that passed them up.
Soehn, who led D.C. to the Supporters' Shield this regular season, couldn't be blamed for laughing when reminded that the first four teams to pass on him as head coach all missed the playoffs this year (Colorado, Columbus, Real Salt Lake and Toronto).
Neither coach will gloat, though -- at least not now. They're busy with the playoffs, and with making certain MLS team officials regret ever passing on them.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.