For a handful of MLS franchises, the playoffs are here. For a few others, the offseason is a time for hard introspection and, in some cases, a difficult and trying coaching search.
Luckily, there are more than a few men’s college coaches lying underneath MLS’ collective nose, rewriting record books and sharpening skills at their respective posts. This is my list for the top MLS-ready head coaches in college soccer, matched with struggling teams that match their talents (not necessarily just ones without current coaches). If clubs aren’t taking prolonged looks at these five, they should. Before somebody else does.
1. Ken Lolla, Louisville
Resume: Was Caleb Porter at Akron before Caleb Porter. The school’s all-time winningest coach during his tenure, going 160-68-25 before jumping to Louisville in 2006 after 12 years with the Zips. Has revived the Cardinals’ men’s soccer program with a national title game appearance, a No. 1 ranking, a 20-1-3 season and a conference title all in the last three years. Has coached the U15 BNT and was a Youth Development Director for the indoor Canton Invaders at the ripe age of 25.
Bonafides: Lolla knows player development as well as anybody in men’s college soccer, and it would seem he’s as MLS-ready as any coach in the country. To wit, Louisville has produced 11 MLS draft picks since Lolla arrived, including at least one player every year since 2009. The last two years? Nick DeLeon, Austin Berry and Andrew Farrell, all of whom hit the ground running in MLS, speak for themselves. He’s tactically adventurous enough to shake up some dust and professional enough to earn a team’s respect. At 47, Lolla is MLS ready right now.
Suggested team: Chicago Fire. With his midwest roots and strong dedication to longterm development, this one seems like a no-brainer right away.
2. Tim Vom Steeg, UC Santa Barbara
Resume: Has made significant headway at UCSB, his only stop as a Division I college coach. Went 121-18-4 at Santa Barbara City College before taking a moribund UCSB program and turning it into one of the hottest draws in the country. Won 13 games in his first season (1999) after the team had won just two the season before, and he’s since been to two national title games (UCSB won it all in 2006), as well as being named the NSCAA Coach of the Year in both 2004 and 2006. Won 278 of 383 games coached through 2012.
Bonafides: Vom Steeg is a prototypical student of the game. He opted out of professional soccer and went directly into coaching after his college career at UCSB closed. Vom Steeg has a reputation as a fiery coach whose teams often opt to play a more brusque style to muscle past opponents. But Chris Pontius and Luis Silva both came through his system, which is an indication that he can coach silk as well as steel. It should be noted that he built UCSB’s program almost entirely from scratch, and now it has arguably the best home atmosphere in the nation.
Suggested team: Toronto FC. Vom Steeg’s history with rebuilding should have TFC brass making contingencies should Ryan Nelsen fall flat again in 2014.
3. Kevin Grimes, Cal
Resume: Started DI career as an assistant beside Schellas Hyndman at SMU before jumping to Cal in 2000. Has turned the Golden Bears into an NCAA Tournament mainstay including a run to the 2010 Elite 8 behind, most notably, future MLSer A.J. Soares. Five-time Pac 12 Coach of the Year. Also shuffled through the USMNT system as a player, gathering knowledge base in the international scene with five caps. 131-80-30 in 12 seasons at Cal in one of the toughest regions for college soccer.
Bonafides: It’s hard to ignore Grimes’ past, which is about as perfectly set up for a run at professional coaching as it gets. He has experience playing in nearly every national team setup, has coached under an (until recently) active MLS coach and has made hay for more than a decade on his own. You listen to him talk and it’s obvious that his intellectual faculties would immediately make him one of MLS’ most cerebral coaches from the jump. By 2009, Grimes had already put eight active players in MLS, and he seems to produce at least one every year.
Suggested team: FC Dallas. Grimes has old roots in the Metroplex, and FCD higher-ups would have a hard time finding a smoother transition from Hyndman. Of course, the Hyndman connection could just as easily be a drawback.
4. Brian Wiese, Georgetown
Resume: In eighth season at Georgetown, his first Division I coaching gig. Was an assistant at national powers Stanford and Notre Dame from 1996-2005. Helped oversee those programs to a combined 136-48-25 over that span. Former Dartmouth goalkeeper with a degree in mechanical engineering. Led Georgetown to most prosperous three-year run in program history since 2010, including a 19-4-3 record and a visit to the program’s first ever national championship game in 2012.
Bonafides: Wiese is still in his 30′s and took over Georgetown at just 32, which shouldn’t put off MLS franchises that’ve watched Caleb Porter take MLS by storm in his first season. Indeed, the two share more than just age. Wiese had been quietly remaking Georgetown into a powerhouse until he made himself a national name in 2012 by guiding the Hoyas into the national title game against Indiana for the first time in Georgetown’s history. You watch Georgetown ping it around with smooth operators like Steve Neumann and Brandon Allen, and it’s not a stretch to put Wiese’s outstanding tactical mind in the same category as Porter.
Suggested team: D.C. United. Wiese’s history in the D.C. area would make him an instant fan favorite, not to mention the job he’s done making Georgetown attractive and hugely successful. A name to keep in mind if Ben Olsen struggles again in 2014.
5. Sasho Cirovski, Maryland
Resume: A brief playing career yielded a very successful run as Maryland’s dean of men’s soccer. Took over Terps head gig in 1993 and has become arguably the biggest name in men’s college soccer coaching over that time. Made College Cup for unprecedented four consecutive years from 2002-2005. Won two national titles in 2005 and 2008 and has coached a rolodex of top US soccer talent, Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi among them. Has a boisterous reputation on the sideline and is known as a charismatic leader.
Bonafides: Cirovski’s inclusion in this list (and perhaps the reason he’s not higher) comes with a caveat: it’ll take the right offer to lure him from Maryland, where he’s entrenched and enjoys coaching immensely. He’s become a household name in Maryland athletics, and it remains to be seen whether he’d even be interested in a move to the next level. But should the right program come along, MLS fan bases will love Cirovski’s dedication to the attack, his direct but purposeful game planning and his colorful demeanor. If an MLS team can entice Cirovski from Maryland, consider it the coaching coup of the decade.
Suggested team: Vancouver Whitecaps. A charismatic general with a history of developing top players would be immense for a franchise with so much talent coming through its academy system.