American coaches, not Ted Lasso, are trying to break into Europe It’s almost impossible for us to get you hired
Mike Keeney embodies a certain type of American football history. You know this one: a young man packs a bag of clothes and a dream, stuffs a few hundred dollars in his pockets, hops on a plane to Europe and dives into football on the continent. He struggles and works, seizing every opportunity while struggling against negative perceptions and reality. Eventually, he finds a niche, makes himself indispensable, and builds a career.
“Those early years I was scratching trying to make a living,” Keeney told ESPN on Zoom. “I was sacrificing a lot of time and energy coaching three, four or five teams. Just kidding, if two kids were kicking a bottle in the parking lot, I was probably going over there and trying to beat them up. improve. Why? Because I wanted to show my abilities, and I think in a country like Finland they reward you for that.”
Keeney is nearly 15 years into this journey, a veteran with experience at a dozen clubs including HIFK Helsinki and FC Samorin, and a Finnish passport to boot. He built a reputation, good, with connections all over Europe. Keeney’s story is one of success, but the native of Antioch, Calif., is not a gambler. The 48-year-old is a manager, one of the few but rising Americans rising through the European coaching ranks, blazing trails not only for themselves but for those who will come after them.
The American coaching fraternity in Europe includes big names. USA men’s national team manager Gregg Berhalter previously managed Sweden’s Hammarby IF, while Bob Bradley had stints at Swansea City and Le Havre. Jesse March is with Leeds United after a successful run at FC Salzburg and less successful at RB Leipzig. Both Pellegrino Matarazzo and David Wagner have Bundesliga experience, with LAFC’s Steve Cherundolo having previously worked as an assistant at Hannover.
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Others, like Kenney, Enochs and former University of Connecticut and Temple assistant Brian Clarhaut – now with Sweden’s GIF Sundsvall, who just signed the MLS stalwart and former USA international midfielder Joe Corona on loan – don’t have name recognition, but are forging a path for others to follow. In football, success breeds success, and one chance taken creates another opportunity for someone else.
That said, just as American players have had to (and continue to) deal with prejudice and the prevailing perception of the quality of football in the United States, so do coaches. Bradley has drawn the ire of fans for saying “PK” and “road games” and mispronouncing the Premier League. Marsch caused a collective meltdown from commentators after staging a post-match squad rally on the pitch, while Manchester United assistant Chris Armas cannot escape comparisons from Ted Lasso. (We’ll get to the Richmond FC boss in a moment.)
But while there is a negative connotation of the United States as a backward football culture, leaning into the stereotype of being “an American” can have its benefits.
“I didn’t try to minimize it, I tried to embrace it,” said Clarhaut, a proud and brash 35-year-old New Jersey native. “That kind of leadership, that kind of aggression is one of my biggest strengths. It’s like, ‘OK, who is this kind of crazy American?'”
American managers may be crazy (or at least some of them), but are they any good? It’s a decidedly mixed bag.
twenty-first group compiled a list of how U.S. coaches had fared during their tenures, using their World Football League ratings to determine how much a coach’s team had improved or worse at during his first 30 games in charge. Matarazzo and Marsch have “improved” their teams a lot. (In fact, Matarazzo’s time at Stuttgart was considered the biggest improvement of all 771 tracked managerial terms.) Enochs, Wagner (at Young Boys) and Bradley (at Le Havre) were ranked between “slightly better” and “slightly worse”. Berhalter, Bradley (at Swansea City and Stabaek) and Wagner (at Schalke and Huddersfield) presented themselves as “materially worse”.
Not horrible, but not exactly Ted Lasso either.
Speaking of this streaming phenomenon, while Americans who coach in Europe mostly have similar stories about their journeys, they have very different opinions regarding the affable football coach turned everyone’s favorite football coach.
“They did a great job,” Cherundolo said. “It’s a great show.”
“We just got hooked,” said Enochs, who spent both seasons with his wife. “It was funny. I like it. I know it’s just entertainment, though.” He also said none of his assistants in Germany knew about it – a boon to avoid the silly stereotype of the American coach.
Keeney, on the other hand, is not a fan. “What little I’ve seen I don’t think benefits the image of an American overseas,” he said. “It undermines some of the work that myself and some of the other guys have been doing, the guys who come to Europe and work and fight.”
One issue not covered in a fictional show that is very real to Americans in the flesh is the fact that American football coaching licenses are not valid in Europe. Without a UEFA Pro licence, one cannot manage a team in a top league for more than 12 weeks. To obtain one, one must pass the B and A licenses and be approved for a Pro course, which is done at the discretion of the national federations.
“These are very selective places,” Clarhaut said. “So that’s a huge, huge disadvantage for American coaches. That’s a problem.”
While this issue is not unique to Americans, as all non-European managers may have difficulty obtaining their UEFA badge, it significantly limits the opportunities available to coaches coming from the United States. (And, perhaps, the lack of reciprocity points to the low standards by which the European governing body holds the USSF coaching license program.) Before moving to Europe, Keeney worked at Hoover Soccer Club in Birmingham, Alabama, who had a coaching-and player-exchange program with Celtic. Although he impressed the Scottish club’s coaching staff, finding a job with them was a failure.
“They said to me, ‘You’re an American with no UEFA badge, no coaching licence,'” Keeney said. “‘It’s almost impossible for us to get you hired, let alone get you the work permit.'”
When an opportunity presented itself in Finland, Keeney jumped at the chance, and even then, constantly applying and reapplying for visas and work permits took up a good chunk of his time.
In the future, more American coaches will find their way to Europe, but that is not happening yet. As Director of Intelligence at Twenty First Group, Omar Chaudhuri helps teams carry out due diligence on coaching prospect lists and also creates lists of potential coaching candidates for clubs. He said there had never really been any Americans on the shortlists, although he noted Marsch’s hiring at Leeds. While he (and others interviewed for this article) have noticed an improvement in the perception of American players in Europe, the same is not true for coaches.
“If a manager is doing very well in MLS, I think in Europe he would be fired more easily than if a player is doing well in MLS,” he said.
Conversely, American managers are on the alert when they obtain high-level positions. The masses turned on “Soccer Bob” Bradley almost immediately – perhaps even before he had fielded his first starting lineup. Marsch and Leipzig parted ways just four months into his debut season, with both sides admitting he was the wrong person in the wrong situation.
This is not an unknown phenomenon. In the recent past, American players didn’t get the benefit of the doubt, dropped from the roster or buried on the bench after a few mistakes, while their counterparts from more “respected” football cultures gained more chances. As more and more Americans succeed in the field, this reality is changing.
“The dialogue is very different today,” said Cherundolo, who has experience both as a player and as a manager helping to change the perception. “It’s: ‘No, he’s good. Let’s give him some time and get to know the team.’ The respect and credit has certainly grown over the years. It’s only a matter of time before that happens for the coaches. But there will always have to be pioneers who go through difficulties first. tough times.”
“We have to prove ourselves first,” he said. “We have to go through it. It’s just a long process, but it will happen.”
The goal, of course, is to get to a place where Americans are no longer “American coaches” but just “coaches.” The best way to do this is to win.
“They don’t look at your passport, they look at your abilities,” Keeney said. “If you’re not winning games, if you’re not developing players, if professionally speaking you’re not selling guys for profit, they don’t care who you are or where you’re from. come. It’s a business.”
Keeney continued: “It’s an interesting route. If you asked me 15 years ago, when I first left, would I be on this route, I’d say, ‘You’re crazy’. But you know, the trip has been fantastic.”