Owen Coyle binge-watched when he went back to the UK after last year’s MLS season.
“It was brilliant, I absolutely loved it. I returned toward the end of November – I was at three games in three days. And obviously over here you can’t get to games because of the size of the country, so it was refreshing,” he tells the Guardian.
He landed on 25 November, a Wednesday. Next day: up to Glasgow with his son, Owen Jr, to watch Celtic lose to Ajax in the Europa League. Friday night, off to see Derby’s 2-0 away win over Hull. Saturday? Across to Ewood Park for Blackburn 2-2 Sheffield Wednesday and a catch-up in the stands with his fellow Scots, David Moyes and Malky Mackay.
It was a taste of his former life, of the crammed intensity of British football. And it seemed very distant at the Houston Dynamo’s training ground on a mid-February day. True, it was windy and dark clouds were battling the sun for supremacy, much as they might in Britain.
But it was warm. The fence behind one of the goals is mercifully large, stopping stray balls from ending up in the long grass of a bayou drainage ditch that, rumour has it, contains venomous snakes. Maybe even alligators. Sometimes the local zoo borrows the fields across the street to exercise cheetahs.
Every other vehicle on the main road seems to be a pick-up truck. When Coyle drives to work from the house he owns in an upscale modern suburb, skyscrapers loom in the windscreen. And when he’s not plotting the Dynamo’s path to the playoffs you might see him at a baseball game or the city’s rodeo.
His previous three managerial roles, Wigan, Bolton and Burnley, were within 30 miles of each other. Houston’s suburbs spread out from downtown for 30 miles in every direction. The derby opponents are FC Dallas, 270 miles north.
“It’s a league like no other. Certainly the biggest eye-opener is the travel, the road games as they call them. They’re certainly not road games because every game is a flight. I think that was the olden days when they used to travel by bus. We’re scheduled to fly 63,000 miles this year to play our 17 away games,” says Coyle.
Sandy Stewart, his longtime assistant and Houston housemate, explains the team’s poor 2015 away form like this: Houston to New York or Los Angeles is about the same distance as London to Moscow. “There’s not many teams go to Russia and win,” he says. And that’s before you’ve considered the variations in temperature, altitude and pitch surface.
There are fundamental differences too in a Coyle priority area, youth development. Talking about the rodeo, he mentions the only-in-America event, Mutton Bustin’, in which tiny kids are loaded on to the back of sheep and cling on grimly to the fleece as the animal is sent trotting through the arena. The tot who goes the farthest before sliding off, wins. Success requires a certain level of tenacity and technique, but also a smooth ride in the right direction if they’re to not to tumble into the dirt.
The same principles apply in any sport, but with so many MLS prospects completing college before turning professional aged 21 or 22, Coyle is worried that young talent is too often being guided sideways and slipping, with negative consequences for clubs and the national team.
At Bolton, after all, he took an 18-year-old Jack Wilshere on loan from Arsenal and picked him every week. If the midfielder had been born in Shreveport instead of Stevenage he might have received a degree at the cost of being three years older before making his professional debut. “Back home, really if your young kids are not in the team by 19 you’re thinking they might have a career but maybe at a different club,” Coyle says.
“For me those years are very important in terms of the soccer education, how they develop, and I just feel that those years between 16 and 19 are so important and if it’s lost because, with all due respect, they‘re at a college and maybe not getting the same soccer-specific time and detail, they’re probably still the same player at 19, 20 that they were at 16. You don’t want that to plateau out. You want them to continue their development.”
As for Coyle’s progress, despite his exotic surroundings, he appears little altered from the manager who led Burnley into the Premier League in 2009, abruptly ditching them for Bolton in January 2010. Still, he turns 50 on 14 July, the day before the Dynamo have an away game against the Los Angeles Galaxy of Ashley Cole, Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard. He first ventured into management as co-player-manager with Falkirk in 2003.
No longer a young coach, then, but he retains the vigour that he transmitted to his Burnley players; the product of a work ethic he attributes to his Glasgow upbringing and of the sort of passion that sees a football manager spend his Christmas holiday watching lots of football.
“He makes you feel that you can accomplish anything,” says Giles Barnes, the former Derby County prodigy who joined Houston in 2012. Barnes sees parallels with the Dynamo and Coyle’s inheritances at Burnley and Bolton. There he took over from Steve Cotterill and Gary Megson, respectively, and had impressive impacts on results and the style of play. In Houston he succeeded Dominic Kinnear after the 2014 campaign as the club embarked on a roster makeover with the aim of becoming younger and more, well, dynamic.
“I think we’re going to have exciting players down the flanks, creative attacking players, but first and foremost we’re going to be hard-working and solid,” Barnes says.
Coyle’s Texas migration is less left-field than it seems. After a brief and unhappy spell at Wigan in 2013 he was unlikely to bounce straight into an irresistible job in England. Perhaps he could have sought to work his way back up through the lower leagues, like former Watford manager Aidy Boothroyd and ex-Hull boss Phil Brown, two other rising stars in the late 2000s who fell out of fashion after guiding underdogs into the top-flight.
But Coyle had a connection with Houston Dynamo, having signed the Aberdeen-born, Texas-raised Stuart Holden from the team in 2010 and faced them with Bolton in a summer friendly in 2011.
If the continent’s wide spaces are a technical challenge for coaches, they have a symbolic importance as well: there is ample room for a nascent league to grow. With potential as endless as its landscapes, America’s possibilities appeal to Coyle’s personality. The Scot is relentlessly upbeat and on-message, so the league’s boosterism comes naturally to him and he embraces and embodies the optimism encoded in the country’s DNA. He’s come to the new frontier to build something, like millions of immigrants before him.
Yet in practical ways the league is restrictive and narrow, counter-intuitive to foreign perceptions of the US. In soccer, the world’s pre-eminent culture of risk, excess, self-aggrandisement and wealth-worship is found in England; caution, prudence and tight central regulation are MLS hallmarks. This helps explain why few foreign head coaches have been hired, let alone successful, in MLS. While roughly half the league’s players are foreign, of the 20 MLS head coaches, 14 played in the league and all but six are American or Canadian citizens.
In 2014 Houston appointed the former MLS goalkeeper Matt Jordan as vice-president/general manager, allowing Coyle to spend more time on tactics and less wrapping his head around arcane but vital concepts such as Targeted Allocation Money, the Re-Entry Draft and the Discovery List.
“There are always going to be the very good American coaches but as the league grows and grows I think sometimes you’ll see [more from overseas]. The challenge for all of us is to come in as foreign coaches and show our quality because it’s a very unique league,” Coyle says.
The latest is Patrick Vieira, about to begin his first season at New York City FC, Manchester City’s clingy little brother. “I spoke to Patrick at the Combine, I think he’s excited at the challenge. He’s very worldly in his ways, delighted to be involved, was involved at Manchester City getting a grounding, I think there’ll be loads of stuff that he’ll be the first to tell you he needs to learn, but I think given the capacity he’s got he’ll learn quickly.”
Last year, NYC FC welcomed Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard and David Villa. Coyle’s sights are set rather lower but he has so far been unable to entice any targets from Britain. “I’ve tried. It’s not been through lack of effort,” he says. During the winter a deal to sign a Sky Bet Championship centre-back fell through. “We had agreed, but his existing club offered him a new deal. He was coming for less than what he was earning [there]; but they gave him a marvellous offer.”
The Dynamo operate with one of the smallest wage bills in MLS, a reported $4.5m last summer; far less than Lampard or Gerrard collect.
Still, especially in a league that morphs into a knockout format at the end of the season and where some of the costliest players were signed because of who they were five years ago, the correlation between means and points is not as pronounced as in Europe. After all, last year’s MLS Cup teams were the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew, two similar-sized clubs to Houston.
But the Dynamo mustered back-to-back wins only twice and finished eighth of 10 teams in a tough Western Conference, nine points adrift of the playoffs and with the division’s leakiest defence. The club did make a splash to acquire a marquee signing, Mexico striker Erick “Cubo” Torres. He arrived in July with a record of a goal every two MLS fixtures for the now-defunct Chivas USA, but failed to score in 11 appearances. Much of this year’s hopes rest on whether Coyle can reboot him; he has looked sharp in preseason.
The Scot spent chunks of his media availability last year lamenting the league’s masochistic decision to schedule games during Fifa international windows, depriving him of his top players, and pointing out that the fading team he inherited from Kinnear – the only other head coach in the franchise’s 11-year history – failed to reach the postseason.
Neither explanation will be a viable reason for missing the playoffs this year, especially with a squad that is faster, more cosmopolitan and deeper than in 2015, seemingly better equipped to play the sort of direct, counter-attacking football that worked in the short-term for Coyle at Bolton and Burnley and for 2015 Western Conference winners FC Dallas.
And there is a new boss, with previous part-owner Gabriel Brener, a Mexican businessman, grasping majority control after buying out the entertainment titans AEG, who many fans felt were more preoccupied with their sexier MLS property, the Galaxy.
“It was definitely a transition year, probably more so than anticipated, to be honest with you,” says Chris Canetti, the Dynamo president. “He’s learnt a lot. Just like anything in life, you sometimes need to go through things one time to have a complete understanding, regardless of how experienced you are and how qualified and how good you are. His first spin through MLS in 2015 certainly gave him a new perspective on everything and he’s using all of his learning. He’s a smart guy and a quick learner.”
Stewart concedes: “It was a wee bit into the unknown. Although you do your research and everything else, until you actually experience it, you won’t know the pitfalls and the enjoyments. Only experience gives you that. Now we’ve had that, we’re better prepared for it this year, particularly the football side but also the cultural side, your own environment and everything else that goes with it, you’re more settled.”
And though there are not a dozen clubs on the doorstep, there are compensating factors. “99 times out of 100 the sunshine’s out,” Stewart said.
This article was written by Tom Dart in Houston, Texas, for theguardian.com on Monday 29th February 2016 10.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010