Stranger in a strange land: Owen Coyle fails to change the perception about foreign coaches in MLS

Owen Coyle - Bolton Wanderers Manager

The former Burnley, Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic boss parted ways with the Houston Dynamo by mutual consent this week after a disappointing 18-month stint in the USA.

Wigan Athletic's manager Owen Coyle

When Owen Coyle replaced Dominic Kinnear as Houston Dynamo head coach in December 2014, the majority regarded his appointment as a bold but ultimately risky experiment.

Foreign managers without prior exposure to MLS have traditionally struggled to get to grips with the league’s unique rules and roster regulations, as well as the arduous travel schedule, and the former Burnley and Bolton Wanderers boss proved no different during his 18-month stay in the States.

His debut campaign was widely expected to be a rebuilding year for the club with Kinnear – the first coach in the franchise’s short history and a two-time MLS Cup winner – gone after nine seasons at the helm, but few anticipated their early struggles to be quite so severe.

The Texas outfit proceeded to win only two of their opening 10 games and never really recovered from there, stuttering to an eighth-place finish in the Western Conference to miss the playoffs for a second straight season by nine points. The team’s home form noticeably improved over the second half of the year, with only Supporters’ Shield winners New York Red Bulls and runners-up FC Dallas putting together better records, but they mustered back-to-back victories just twice and conceded a conference-worst 49 goals in their 34 matches.

Speaking during the winter, Coyle himself admitted that his first season in the States had been a tough learning curve, but his comments also carried the air of a man who didn’t quite realise just how challenging the transition would prove.

“The difference, and what I have learnt, is the road games,” he told Sky Sports in November. “It's not like back home in England where there are 20 teams in a 50 mile radius. In Texas, it's nearly three times the size of the whole of the UK. When we travel, I'd actually equate it to playing a European game every second week in terms of when you go on the road because flights can range from anything between one hour and five hours.

“There's no buses, you've got to fly everywhere because of the size of the country and we're changing time zones all the time, we change altitude. I've got to say the first season has been so much of a learning curve but within that we've done very well at different things.”

Picture Supplied by Action Images

Nevertheless, while Coyle’s first season with the Dynamo was always going to be filled with teething problems, year two was supposed to be different. The club seemingly addressed their attacking issues by trading for Philadelphia Union duo Cristian Maidana and Andrew Wenger, while the additions of Jalil Anibaba and Spanish centre-back Agus were expected to help solidify the leaky backline.

Highly-rated Mexican striker Erick Torres, who scored 15 goals in 29 games for now-defunct Chivas USA in 2014, would also have the benefits of a full preseason under his belt after failing to find the back of the net in 11 appearances last term following his July arrival, while, perhaps most crucially, Coyle was no longer an MLS novice.

Things even started promisingly as the club opened the season with a 3-3 draw with the New England Revolution before thrashing archrivals FC Dallas 5-0 the following weekend, but a subsequent six-game winless run that saw them pick up just one point soon led to suggestions that the Scottish-born former striker could be the first coaching casualty of the season.

Home victories over Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake either side of a 3-1 loss at the San Jose Earthquakes briefly helped arrest some of the concern, but a dismal 1-0 defeat to Eastern Conference cellar-dwellers Chicago Fire last weekend ultimately proved to be Coyle’s final match in charge.

At the time his departure was announced late Wednesday, the Dynamo were sitting bottom of the West with just 11 points from 12 games and had scored only seven goals in their last nine outings. The club’s official statement cited the ex-Republic of Ireland international’s desire to be closer to his family in England as the reason for the mutual breakup, but his homesickness likely wouldn’t have been such a problem had results simply been better. Effectively, he jumped before he was pushed.

Owen Coyle - Wigan Athletic Manager

Whether another more renowned coach from abroad could have done a better job is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that Coyle’s lack of MLS experience had a significant say in his downfall. The likes of Ruud Gullit, Aron Winter, John Carver, Carlos Quiroz and Carlos Alberto Parreira have all endured similarly ill-fated stints in the States after failing to adjust to the league’s unfamiliar demands, while Patrick Vieira reminded everyone that he still has a lot to learn last weekend when his New York City FC side suffered a humiliating 7-0 loss to crosstown rivals New York Red Bulls – equalling the record for the heaviest defeat in MLS history.

That’s certainly not to say that every foreign coaching hire will necessarily prove a failure, as outliers like Hans Backe have enjoyed a degree of success, but they’re unquestionably at a disadvantage compared to those who’ve played or previously held some kind of backroom role in the league. Even Englishman Gary Smith, who led the Colorado Rapids to the 2010 MLS Cup title, cut his teeth as an assistant before moving into the top job, and his side never actually finished above fifth in the West during his three years in charge at Dick's Sporting Goods Park.

Coyle’s replacement now faces a mighty challenge to get Houston back into playoff contention this year, yet there remains plenty of talent on the roster. Their next coach will certainly have the tools to build success at BBVA Compass Stadium going forward, but in all likelihood he’ll be someone already fully familiar with the challenges MLS offers.

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