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10 Under 40: The best young American coaches in the game today

Written by Will Parchman

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The German Bundesliga opens its season today. This is the literal height of sporting news on Germany’s annual domestic sporting calendar, of course, but it’s also a matter of European if not fully trans-continental news.

Germany is currently No. 2 in UEFA’s coefficient ranking, which ranks clubs’ performance in Europa League and Champions League competitions. It is not a full reckoning of a league’s vitality, but it provides clues and hints as to which leagues are outperforming their contemporaries. The Bundesliga, then, can unquestionably be considered one of the world’s top three leagues, alongside Spain’s La Liga and England’s Premier League. Based on the eye test, it can reasonably be considered No. 2, behind only Spain.

Whatever your personal bent on the matter, the Bundesliga is big business. And as we saunter into the 2017-18 season, one of the biggest leagues in the world with some of the heaviest economic stakes in play is about to push six coaches under the age of 40 into the fray.

This is a big deal, and it should be something of an international model. There’s a reason why German teams are so enjoyable to watch and so front-foot on the international tactical curve. It’s a place of experimentation, of professional sideline Clint Dempseys who try things and have a mandate to do so. It’s cultural as much as anything. The German coaching institution is a lot of things, but it is not stuck in neutral.

This is not the way of it in the U.S., which, to be perfectly blunt, has done a pretty shameful job of developing young bright-eyed coaches and pushing them into places of prominence. This should change.

The youngest professional coach – that is, coaching in either the NASL, USL or MLS – in an American soccer league is Jacksonville Armada chief Mark Lowry, who’s all of 32 years old. But he’s English. The youngest American coach in any of those three leagues is Mike Munoz, the 33-year-old LA Galaxy II coach who’s been on the sidelines as a coach since practically the minute he retired in 2009.

In fact, there are a paltry five head coaches under the age of 40 on the 61 teams split between the nation’s three fully professional soccer leagues. That’s 8 percent of the total. Remember, 33 percent of the Bundesliga’s head coaches are under 40. That, to me, is the gold standard.

A couple are close. OKC Energy’s Jimmy Nielsen just hit 40 a couple weeks ago. Ben Olsen’s been coaching in MLS for seven years and just turned 40. Ian Russell, who’s turned Reno 1868 into an attacking juggernaut in a span of months, is 41. But opportunities for men in their 30’s have simply not existed with any seriousness until lately, and even then it’s been a slow trickle.

This has not been entirely on the clubs, of course. You can only hire the coaches who apply, and the pool of talented forward-thinking coaches under the age of 40 in this country is depressingly low. But still, the stakes in U.S. professional leagues are comparatively low in relation to just about every major league of record in the world. There’s no reason not to take chances in the hope of exceeding all-too-common norms. What I am saying, then, is maybe don’t hire Frank Yallop if you think you might have a less experienced 34-year-old with some harebrained ideology.

The point is not that hiring coaches under 40 is necessary – or even advisable – in all cases. Merely that the chances need to be there for fresh blood to infuse the old with ideas from a different wave. And those chances haven’t existed in any volume at all, ever really, in this country. And the percentage sure as hell needs to be higher than eight.

With that in mind, these are my 10 favorite American coaches under the age of 40 in this country right now.

Not all are professional, obviously, meaning I dipped heavily into the college ranks. The college game is often panned in the public purview for its tendency to produce blunt objects for players, which is too simplistic an analysis but has its merits as far as critiques go. But one area where college has been indispensable is providing opportunities for young coaches denied them on the professional level. College soccer, for all its faults, is actually doing a mighty fine job of giving chances to young coaches – certainly a far better job than any professional league in this country.

My hope is that they are not ignored.

10. Nick Carlin-Voigt, Portland University
Age: 35
Head coaching record: Portland (2016-present)

There was no transformation in men’s college soccer starker than what happened with the Portland Pilots in 2016. In 2015, the Pilots won all of three games. A season later, they won 12 and captured their first conference title in 14 years. The main difference in that equation was Nick Carlin-Voigt, the former UCLA recruiting guru who left his post as an assistant with the Bruins to head up a sleeping giant in Portland. Carlin-Voigt is essentially the Jim Harbaugh of men’s college soccer: incredibly sharp, intense, unbelievably successful in coaching up young players and tactically astute. Portland wasn’t just good last season. They were fun.

9. Freddy Juarez, Real Salt Lake (assistant)
Age: 39
Head coaching record: Real Monarchs (2014-2016)

After two years spent suffering the slings and arrows of getting a USL franchise off the ground, Freddy Juarez got his promotion. Real Monarchs had been slowly improving under Juarez in 2015 and 2016 during his tenure before he was poached as a first team assistant that winter. But the groundwork he laid down wasn’t evident until 2017, when the club broke out and became the best in USL. Further, there’s a reason Juarez didn’t go anywhere when Jeff Cassar was purged earlier this year and Mike Petke stepped in in his place. Juarez is a strong all-around coach with a unique background that adds to his tactical mutability. His chances have been relatively scant to prove himself on a high level so far, but from what the club’s seen of his ability to coach up young players, he should have more chances. If not at RSL, then elsewhere as one of MLS’s most forward-thinking assistants.

8. Junior Gonzalez, Rio Grande Valley FC
Age: 39
Head coaching record: UC Riverside (2004-2013), RGVFC (2017-present)

Gonzalez is only in this 30’s for a couple more weeks, so it’s nice to sneak him in just under the deadline. Gonzalez was on the 1997 UCLA title team that included Carlos Bocanegra and Nick Rimando, among others, so he’s been around high level soccer for a minute. He spent a brief amount of time as an assistant with the U.S. U15 BNT, which was valuable time earned, but his UC Riverside tenure allowed him time spent in unchecked experimentation. He got that job as a precocious 27-year-old and grew into it as he took his tactical lumps. This sort of early experience has been all too rare in the experience of the American coach, and Gonzalez is now in a warm talent incubator in South Texas. He’s one of the hottest coaching prospects in the USL right now.

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7. Shaun Tsakiris, U.S. U16 Boys National Team
Age: 38
Head coaching record: De Anza Force academy (2007-2016), US U16 BNT (2016-present)

The US youth national team scene hasn’t necessarily been a breeding ground for future USMNT coaches, but as more and more exciting young coaches pass through, that should change. For my money, there’s no better coach in the USYNT pipeline right now that Tsakiris, who took the reins in January 2016 and has helped turn the U16s into a heck of a fighting force. The U16 level is a bit awkward in CONCACAF, which has continental tourneys for U15s, U17s and U20s but not for U16s. That makes it a bit of a launchpad to other teams, but Tsakiris’s deft tactical acumen and desire to push the attacking envelope has turned it into a unique destination in its own right. He was always one of the DA’s most tactically nimble coaches with NorCal outfit De Anza, and he’s only improved as a vital developer of the nation’s best talent. Few are more prepared at 38 for a direct leap into the pros, if he so desires it.

6. Mike Munoz, LA Galaxy II
Age: 33
Head coaching record: RSL academy (2010-2011), Chivas USA academy (2011-2013), LA Galaxy academy (2013-2017), LA Galaxy II (2017-present)

Ask anyone who’s spent any time in and around the academy over the last seven years and Mike Munoz’s name has long been earmarked for bigger things. Since the moment he retired in 2009 and started work with the Galaxy’s academy, Munoz has been on the front foot of innovative thinking in American coaching circles. His LAG academy sides have produced some truly impressive talent, even if most haven’t quite made the desired impact on the first team. Still, Munoz, the 2011 Development Academy coach of the year with RSL, was among the initial wave of coaches to take the academy director course jointly put on by the French federation and MLS, and it clearly shaped his notions on how to produce players. So when he became the youngest pro American coach in the country in January with Los Dos, nobody batted an eyelash. Munoz’s future has top tier soccer scribbled all over it.

5. Chris Leitch, San Jose Earthquakes
Age: 38
Head coaching record: San Jose Earthquakes academy (2012-15) San Jose Earthquakes (2017-present)

There are a lot of unknowns about Chris Leitch, and it’s perhaps a bit early to say whether he’ll be the next great U40 coach in MLS. But there are a few things we can see already, and that’s an insistence on playing young, playing fast and playing entertaining soccer. Those three things are often youthful bedrocks, and Leitch, for some of his defensive frailties, has given San Jose new life in two months. Just as importantly, Leitch was promoted up through San Jose’s academy, which he played a big part in getting on track and producing potential pros. Ask anyone who knows him and Leitch’s views and tactical ideas are a step ahead of most of his peers, and his history developing kids necessarily shifts his vantage onto the most important things in coaching. Leitch has a chance to move up this list, but for now he’s an exciting watch.

4. Jim Curtin, Philadelphia Union
Age: 38
Head coaching record: Philadelphia Union (2014-present)

By all accounts, Jim Curtin is one of the good guys in American coaching, and while it isn’t saying much considering the club’s shallow history, he’s also the winningest coach in Union history. Curtin’s struggled somewhat to get his team’s tactical array in a discernible shape over the long haul, but like Ben Olsen, he’s been more or less left at the grocery store with five dollars and told to find ingredients for a gourmet dinner. At times the Union have shown real verve, and Curtin’s tactical acumen seems to grow by the year. And the relatively recent arrival of GM Earnie Stewart, who cares about things like academies and smart signings, has changed the trajectory somewhat. It’d be interesting to see what Curtin could do with more resources, because he can coach. The question is merely whether he’s given that opportunity.

3. Jamie Franks, Denver University
Age: 30
Coaching record: Denver (2015-present)

In a lot of ways, Jamie Franks’ resume looks positively Mourinho-esque. He played professionally but never at the highest level, and his pro career was necessarily cut short to focus on the X’s and O’s game on the sideline. Franks graduated from Wake Forest in 2008 and launched into coaching as an assistant at his alma mater just three years later. When he took over at Denver in 2015, he promptly set the college world alight by turning mid-major Denver from a quality program into a feared juggernaut. Franks has lost twice in two years with Denver. Twice. He has two unbeaten regular seasons and his teams play a hot rod style of up-and-down soccer not entirely unfamiliar to modern day fans of top level transition soccer. Franks is somewhere between the practical and the idealistic, but he’s easily one of the best in American soccer today. And he turns 31 later this year. The American Nagelsmann indeed.

2. Luchi Gonzalez, FC Dallas Academy
Age: 37
Coaching record: FC Dallas academy (2012-present)

I only have one academy coach on this list, and there’s a reason it’s Luchi Gonzalez. It perhaps seems tougher than it is to leap directly from the academy to the pros because we’ve systematically devalued our academies over the years. That ship is turning, slightly, but there’s a reason why four of Germany’s 18 top flight coaches under 40 right now were promoted directly from their club’s respective academy. The most famous is Julian Nagelsmann, who piloted Hoffenheim into the Champions League in his 20’s. Gonzalez is the finest academy coach in America, and in his tenure his FCD teams not only won everything there was to win, but they also promoted scads of Homegrowns. I’ve seen Gonzalez coach in person; he’s amiable, fiery, and tactically forward-thinking. Unless he plans on waiting for Oscar Pareja to move on, he should be considered for every single MLS opening from here until he’s hired.

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1. Jared Embick, Akron University
Age: 38
Coaching record: Missouri Baptist (2003-2006), Akron (2013-present)

Sit down with Jared Embick for even a few minutes and it’s not hard to rev his ideological engine. Embick has so many ideas, both broadly for American soccer and intricately for what happens on the field, that it’s hard not to see him as a sort of 21st century American coaching savant. Embick’s now fully emerged from the shadow Caleb Porter once cast over the Akron program and taken it in a direction wholly his own. Anyone who watched the Zips storm into the College Cup in 2015 with a beautifully possession-oriented style usually rejected by the college game’s speed could see the genius at work here. Embick has so many ideas, in fact, that he looks just as much like a future general manager or president of soccer as he does a coach. That said, he’s as tactically clued in as any coach yet to reach 40 in American history. MLS is surely sniffing around, but Embick’s quality should have his gaze set even more loftily than that.

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