Among the USL head coaches for 2016 are three MLS ex-players of widely differing backgrounds: former U.S. international John Harkes (FC Cincinnati), Premier League veteran Frank Yallop (Arizona United SC), and former Olympic team captain Curt Onalfo (Galaxy II).
Harkes is beginning his career as a head coach with a team just starting out in the league. Yallop coached Harkes as an assistant at D.C. United and has been head coach of San Jose, the Galaxy and Chicago. Onalfo was head coach of Kansas City from 2007 to 2009 and joined the Galaxy staff in 2011.
FC Cincinnati and Arizona United are independent operations. Galaxy II is the Galaxy’s second team that is starting its third season, as is Arizona United. The teams meet in their season openers Friday. FC Cincinnati is one of six new teams added for 2016.
During a media conference call on Tuesday, they addressed a wide range of topics regarding their teams and the league. Their answers in some cases have been edited for brevity and clarity.
On the reasons for coaching in the USL.
Yallop: I just felt the challenge was here once I’d spoke to the ownership group. They have big plans. They want to build this club to a standard that I was excited about. We’re almost starting from scratch, really. I think we had three or four players on the books when we started two or three months ago, but it’s a challenge that I’m really looking forward to.
Harkes: It’s a matter of getting an opportunity. Whether I’ve done the coaching aspect of it, from a player’s perspective, and also working in the media myself, you learn along the way where you are with your family life and how you want to challenge yourself. This just seemed like the timing was right.
Onalfo: We’ve tried to improve every year that we’ve done this. It’s a little different because our team is always changing; players from the first team coming in, and we have academy players coming up. Developing that consistency when your roster is constantly in flux is a really difficult thing to do.
On the pros and cons of being an MLS subsidiary compared to an independent entity.
Harkes: I think there are advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of being part of an MLS team; in terms of the roster, certainly there are times when you can benefit from having players playing with you. The disadvantage of that is that these are uncontrollable variables that can actually maybe upset the apple cart because you’re building and developing players within your group and maybe the first team says, hey can you take a player or two that are coming back from injury. Although it may seem enticing at the time, it means that you’ve got to kind of force these players in and sometimes that window of opportunity comes on a Thursday or a Friday, so you have to make those adjustments. You’re being challenged in certain ways.
Yallop: When you have a settled team you tend to have a bit more spirit, if you like. There’s not a lot of chopping and changing. I’m brand-new to all this so and obviously the advantage that MLS clubs have is to have that pool of players and talent. But I don’t think it’s going to hurt us or John’s team, either.
Onalfo: I had a conversation with Oscar Sorto last week and he was just talking about how much he learned from Ashley Cole and just the way he approaches dealing with overlapping runners and how you deal with defending in that part of the field. Any time you have world-class players in an organization, I think it helps because you see certain habits that can help you develop.
On the standard of USL play.
Onalfo: The league is extremely competitive. It’s a really hard league. We did not have one easy game last year and look at the games we lost. Many of them were in the waning minutes. It’s a tough league, it’s a good league, and it continues to get better.
More and more players are going to be drawn through it. Daniel Steres is now starting for LA Galaxy. He was our most consistent player the last two years in USL, which basically makes a statement that there’s probably a whole bunch of other guys that are in USL that could be starting in MLS or be playing significant minutes.
Harkes: We haven’t kicked a ball yet, and it’s going to be a huge challenge for us. There are so many established clubs in the league. We know that it’s going to be hard. We’re excited to come out of the gate and hopefully do well. But we know that there’s a process and it’s going to take time.
Yallop: I didn’t want to just rush in and get 22 players and start working with a group that I don’t think is talented enough. We took our time. I think we’ve got some good players. But until you start playing for real, you find out about people.
On where the league is and where it’s going.
Onalfo: You go to some markets, you go to Sacramento and you have really vibrant fans at every single game, whether it’s a Wednesday or a Saturday. The fan base has grown, certainly the caliber of play has grown. It just continues to get better.
Harkes: Number one, is that the game, the whole landscape, has evolved tremendously in a short period of time. You’ve got obviously the founders of the league, certain clubs that have been around from day one. Then there’s been so much in terms of expansion and growth in this league -- the fastest-growing league in the world, I believe -- so you know that the challenges are there.
You see in terms of the pyramid structure how the game has grown and the leagues are getting stronger and stronger each and every year. So the demands are there and we know that we’ve got to step it up a gear.
Yallop: Looking from afar, the talent is there. There are obviously players with experience coming into the league, players from the UK that we’re trying to finalize the paperwork for, players that have played at a very high level. They’re excited to come over to the States, not only to play in MLS but to play in the USL.
On expectations for the club in 2016.
Harkes: As a club coming out of the gate we want to be competitive. We know there’s going to a challenge, especially our opener away in Charleston. I don’t know if there’s any harder challenges in the schedule. They’re one of the originals in the league so they’ve been through this before. For us it’s brand-new. We have a lot ahead of us.
We’re very ambitious in what we want to try to do. It’s a great opportunity to kind of test yourself, facing a challenge, and see if you can put the pieces of the puzzle together in a quick period of time.
Yallop: I’ll let you know in a couple of weeks how we’re doing. We’ve got five games in a row away to start the season, so two things could happen. We could go south or we could build a good spirit and look forward to the rest of the season.
Onalfo: Last year we were probably one of the worst teams to start the season. We were 0-3-1 out of our first four games. Then we just focused on getting better each day and then I think towards the end of the season we established ourselves as one of the better teams. Then we went on a good run in the playoffs and were a minute away from winning the USL championship.
It ended in a very bitter way and I think that motivates us as we start putting our team together for the 2016 season.