By Ridge Mahoney
The history of the Houston Dynamo spans more than a decade yet only two men have served the team’s head coach.
Oddly enough, both are natives of Scotland, and were born in July about a year apart. But little else about the careers and lives of Dominic Kinnear and Owen Coyle bore much resemblance, and Coyle’s departure from the post this week is a stark reminder of just how different and difficult coaching in MLS can be.
Coyle, 49, cited family reasons for his decision to leave, though surely the timing is perfect for him to seek out a job in his homeland or England. What he was trying to instill in his players hadn’t taken root: Houston missed the playoffs last year, his first in charge, and is last in the Western Conference. He leaves MLS with an all-time record of 14 wins, 21 losses, and 11 ties.
Under Kinnear, 48, who moved with the team from San Jose after the 2005 season, Houston won MLS Cups in 2006 and 2007 and lost in 2011 and 2012 finals to the Galaxy. Kinnear’s eventual return to Northern California, to which his family had moved from Glasgow when he was 3, opened the door for Coyle, whose coaching career stalled after initial success at Burnley.
Many foreign coaches with illustrious resumes have fizzled in MLS. The list of British coaches to flourish is a short one -- Steve Nicol, Ray Hudson, Carl Robinson, Kinnear – and those men had lived in America for at least a few years before starting out as head coaches. Nicol and Robinson finished their playing careers in the U.S., Kinnear played in several domestic leagues as well as MLS, and Hudson – who left Newcastle United in the mid-70s to start a new life in the States -- blossomed into a broadcasting icon after playing for an impressive list of defunct clubs that included Union Solingen in Germany, though he’ll forever be remembered by fans of the old NASL Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
Coyle had arrived in America well-steeped in the game but only marginally successful as a manager. As a striker, he played more than 600 matches for more than a dozen professional clubs, and after becoming a coach worked on both sides of the border. While manager of Burnley, he took interest in a young American star named Stuart Holden, and began the process of luring him across the Atlantic.
In January 2010, a job opening at Premier League club Bolton – for which Coyle had played two seasons -– prompted a sudden departure from Burnley, which he had guided into the Premier League but was fighting what was to be an unsuccessful battle with relegation.
The abrupt change of clubs didn’t sway Coyle’s interested in Holden, and about a week before the European transfer window closed a deal was consummated. A superb start confirmed Coyle’s opinion of Holden, whose terrible luck with injuries is all too well known by fans on both sides of the Atlantic.
Coyle’s tenure at Bolton ended at 2012. He then succeeded Roberto Martinez at Wigan, which had just won the FA Cup while also being relegated, and that stint lasted just four months with Wigan 14th in the League Championship standings. He sat on the sidelines, figuratively speaking, for about a year prior to signing a contract to coach the Dynamo.
He didn’t take well to MLS, and vice versa.
“It’s a league like no other,” he said in a feature published in the Guardian three months ago. “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.”
Houston didn’t go into the post-Kinnear era relying solely on Coyle. General manager Matt Jordan -- a former MLS keeper who’d started off in management with Montreal in 2011, a year before it entered MLS -- and assistant coach Wade Barrett, who had played for Kinnear in San Jose, had been retained. President Chris Canetti, one of the league’s brightest young executives, had joined the Dynamo in 2006. They were supposed to provide the knowledge and expertise in the curious and quirky machinations of MLS Coyle didn't have.
A solid core of experienced veterans -- DaMarcus Beasley, Will Bruin, Ricardo Clark, Brad Davis -- gave Coyle pieces to build around, though Houston had fallen short of the playoffs in Kinnear’s final season. But under Coyle, Oscar Boniek Garcia maintained his maddening inconsistency, as did several veterans, and one of the newcomers -- Spanish defender Raul Rodriguez -- seldom put two good performances back-to-back.
A trade of Davis, who had served as the team captain, to Sporting Kansas City last winter further separated the Coyle era from past triumphs. The acquisitions of Cristian Maidana and Andrew Wenger from Philadelphia failed to improve the team's fortunes.
Mexican striker Erick ‘Cubo’ Torres signed a Designated Player contract shortly after Coyle’s hiring and couldn’t establish himself in the first team. Last year he failed to score in 11 games, just three of which he started. He’s also been blanked in six appearances this year. He’s on a contract worth $650,000 and whoever takes over as head coach will be expected to get production out of him. Like Torres, owner Gabriel Brener -- who bought out former ownership partner AEG in December -- is from Mexico.
Houston plays at Vancouver Saturday stuck in last place at 3-7-2 and eight points out of the playoff tier. Thursday it plays at in-state rival FC Dallas, which by hiring ex-FC player and former academy director Oscar Pareja three years ago provided a template the Dynamo might follow by promoting Wilmer Cabrera, currently head coach of Rio Grande Valley, the Dynamo’s USL affiliate.
Jordan said there’s great interest in the Houston job both domestically and abroad. The assistant coaches retained -- Barrett, Paul Caffrey and Paul Rogers – will be considered. It’s doubtful Houston will take another gamble as did on Coyle, and after two and a half seasons of disappointment it can’t afford to stumble again.
“First and foremost, we’re not satisfied with where we are in the standings right now,” said Jordan in a video posted on the team’s Web site. “We had a good start and we’ve had some performance where we could have performed better. We’ve had some heartbreaking results at the end of games.
"I think if you go ask each and every player in that locker room if they feel they’ve played to their fullest potential, they would tell you to a man, ‘No. I think I could give more.’ But the most important thing is we have to turn the page and we have to move forward.”