Commentary

Dominic Kinnear on two decades of coaching in MLS and the path that led him

The day after Bob Bradley climbed to No. 3 on MLS's list of winningest coaches, claiming his 170th win as LAFC toppled the Houston Dynamo, Dominic Kinnear  -- who had been No. 3 since passing Bradley in 2013 -- was appointed interim head coach of the LA Galaxy for the second time in two seasons. Three days later, Kinnear pulled even again with a victory over Real Salt Lake, just LA's second win in 11 games over nearly two months. His message afterward: “Watch out, Bob.”

Kinnear's chide was meant in fun, but there was more to it. The man who guided the San Jose Earthquakes to a Supporters' Shield and the Houston Dynamo to back-to-back MLS Cup championships, hasn't been the top guy -- except as interim -- since 2017, serving as an assistant to Sigi Schmid and then Guillermo Barros Schelotto with the Galaxy. He'd like that to change.

“Don't get me wrong," Kinnear told Soccer America. “I want to be a head coach in Major League Soccer still, you know. ... I'm happy to be doing what I'm doing, but I do have an ambition to be a head coach in this league still. And I think I can be.”

The Glasgow-born, Northern California-raised Kinnear won 166 games over 14 seasons in charge of the Earthquakes -- the team just a few miles south of Fremont, where he grew up -- and Dynamo and four more games with the Galaxy. LA, after dismissing Schelotto on Oct. 29, now begins its search for a new head coach, and Kinnear, passed over two years earlier, is a candidate.

His second interim stint went pretty much like the first. He lifted a downtrodden team a few notches up the ladder, shepherded improved performances from the players, flirted with a postseason berth, then watched the season end with a late collapse, this one in a draw with the defending champion Seattle Sounders.

His work hasn't gone unnoticed.

“He's very much liked by the players, he has a great resume within the league, and it wouldn't be fair for me to say he's not taken into account,” Galaxy general manager Dennis te Kloese said in a Zoom conference with media Wednesday. “Obviously, he's taken into account. He's one of the winningest coaches in the league, but we have to take that in a step, in a calm way when we can sit down and also hear his part of the story. But first of all, I'm very grateful of him taking the lead in the last few games, and the results of the first two were very positive.”

Kinnear, who was a finalist for the FC Cincinnati job Jaap Stam snared earlier this year, would certainly relish taking charge of LA, although he won't say so explicitly.

“What happens, that's all down to whatever they want to do,” he said in a conversation that covered growing up in a Scottish family in the Bay Area, missing out on the 1994 World Cup, becoming a coach, and how MLS -- and coaching in MLS -- has changed as the league has grown.

SOCCER AMERICA: When did you know you'd be a coach? How far back does that go?

DOMINIC KINNEAR: In my last two years of playing, I took my B license and I took my A license with the thought of I really didn't have anything else. I didn't graduate college. So I thought that coaching would be the best thing for me. I was planning on being like a director of coaching for my hometown club, which was Fremont City Soccer Club. That was kind of my goal. And that's why I was taking the licenses. I figured it would be an easy transition.

And then one evening Frank Yallop called me while I was in the offseason in Tampa. The [2000] season had just ended. Frank asked me to be his assistant [after accepting the job as San Jose Earthquakes head coach]. And I told him, “I don't know if I'm going to be any good,” and he said, “No, you'll be fine. Just follow my lead, and we should be good together.” After about a month, I thought that, you know, I really like this. That had a lot to do with Frank.

SA: When Frank called, had you been planning to play another season?

DOMINIC KINNEAR: I don't know if I was going to, because Tampa was coached by Tim Hankinson that year, and Tim had left and gone to Colorado. With the new coach [Alfonso Mondelo], the new look was coming in, and I was told very honestly -- and I'm very thankful for this to this day -- that likely I was not part of the plan. Maybe someone had told me that Tim was going to bring me to Colorado. But I couldn't get a hold of him. In the meantime, Frank was talking to me about becoming the assistant coach in San Jose.

We just had our second child, my wife and I, and we were both from the Bay Area, and, “OK, we're going to try and maybe play one more year.” Or go back home and start a new job, which was the more attractive choice.

SA: Working with Frank, what were the biggest things you learned about the job that first year?

DOMINIC KINNEAR: His practice sessions were good, and his everyday preparation was eye-opening. The preparation for the games was good. But the thing that stood out the most for me and was really eye-opening were his meetings with the players and how he handled the players. He was so honest and so sincere and caring, that the players responded to him very well.

And that, for me, was one of the most eye-opening things. I had many coaches, but not one as caring and as sincere as Frank was, and it was working. It wasn't a ploy by him, it just was his personality and the way he dealt with players. ... I thought that if I head-coach, I want to model myself after what Frank's doing here, because it's really good.

SA: You played for a lot of coaches, a lot of coaches that are really highly regarded, going back to Jim Lennox at Hartwick and Laurie Calloway and Bob Houghton and Bora Milutinovic and Bob Gansler and Manuel Lapuente and Sigi Schmid when he was with the national team. That's quite an education.

DOMINIC KINNEAR: Yeah, I guess playing around a lot, helped. There was Dean Wurzberger. He was my first professional soccer coach, and I still keep in touch with him. He was a great guy and he was a very good coach. And, obviously, Laurie Calloway was different than Tim Hankinson, then John Kowalski and Sigi, you know, so I got a little bit everything from all those guys. But as a player, you really don't pay attention.

You're so involved in yourself and what you're doing. I really didn't want to be a coach when I was playing. I just wanted to play. But then when you stop playing and you look back and you understand what you didn't like. You take the good from all those guys. Bob Gansler always had a great saying: “You beg, borrow, steal and call it your own.”

SA: Your dad, Hugh Kinnear, also was a coach. How did he inform who you are as a coach?

DOMINIC KINNEAR: A lot, actually. I think the one good thing about my dad, he was very demanding, but very caring and honest. If he thought his players were cheating or something, he would acall them out on it. He tried to instill a lot of really honest values in his players.

I still keep in touch with a lot of guys from back home, and they always say the same thing: “Your dad made me the person I am today,” which I think is awesome. Obviously, with his team he was different than the way he was at home. He was a heck of a lot harder on us at home than he was on the players. But he's kind of a father figure to the players as well. When you hear stuff like that, it makes me realize that being strict and being firm while also being honest can go a very, very long way.

SA: In terms of your appreciation of the game, having two parents -- your dad and your mother, Mary -- who are so rabid about the game and who are immigrants to a country when the game was not what it is today. What was that like? You came over very young. Did you always feel American growing up? That your parents were immigrants, what was cultural impact?

DOMINIC KINNEAR: You know what, I always thought it was cool that my mom and dad had an accent. People would come over and say, “Oh, I love the way your mom and dad [speak], I could barely understand them, and it's cool when they talk,” and for us it was just normal.

I did not have an accent growing up. I came over here at a very, very young age, but I always thought it was kind of cool that I was Scottish. I was a little bit different, because my mom and dad spoke with an accent. And I like soccer. And I had a team that I loved. The U.S. team was unknown to me when I was growing up. But I had the Scottish national team, and I could watch that. I felt in between American and Scottish -- I'm more American now, obviously, but I still have my Scottish ties. But growing up, I always felt that I was kind of cool that I was from another country.

SA: Where do you fall in the line of siblings?

DOMINIC KINNEAR: I'm number five of six.

SA: To have that love of the game in that era was unique. I'm about five and a half years older than you are. And I started playing soccer in 1971, the first year AYSO was in Orange County, and it was completely foreign. In the late '70s, we got on TV “Soccer Made in Germany,” “Star Soccer” with the one-hour English game, and then Mexican League either before or after bullfighting Sunday afternoon on Univision ...

DOMINIC KINNEAR: Yeah. With Toby Charles [calling the German games] and Mario Machado [on “Star Soccer”]. I met Mario Machado a long time ago, but he was obviously older. And I remember, I walked up to him, and he said, “Hi, my name is Mario Machado.” And I said, “I know who you are. And our local channel [for "Star Soccer”] was 51, and I said, “Channel 51, one-hour English League game. I know who you are.”

My father on Saturday mornings had a shortwave radio, so he would listen to “Match of the Day,” and he would also listen to all the scores that would come in after “Match of the Day.”

And then every four years, we would go back to Scotland. If you're lucky, maybe catch a Celtic game or a Celtic practice. My mom was just as [into it]. My dad was, obviously, the coach and everything, but my mom would drive us to every game. Sometimes it wasn't great, because if you didn't play good and you're driving home, she would let you know every single episode of a fault that you made.

I felt lucky. I had older brothers and an older sister that also played, so it was a constant. If I wasn't practicing with my team, I was going to my brother's practice or I was going to my father's practice. I consider myself super lucky growing up when I did and where I did.

SA: You're part of that so-called “lost generation,” too young for NASL and already deep into your prime by the time MLS arrives. It's an interesting time to be part of the game. Ever feel like “wish I were a little younger” Or is there pride of building toward what we have now?

DOMINIC KINNEAR: I never looked at it with deep thought about “oh this, that.” We really had to scrape a living. There was indoor at the time, but I never played indoor. I always thought indoor wasn't for me. So it was like APSL or WSL -- there were so many leagues around coming and going -- that I never thought I was building anything or never thought the future would be so bright as it is now. I just wanted wanted to play. You went wherever you could play and make a little bit of money. I was lucky enough to make the national team after playing with the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks for awhile.

I will say I wish I was playing now, because the facilities and the sports science and the money, is a heck of a lot different. The exposure ... everything is better now. But it wasn't so bad for us.

I always say I'm one of the lucky ones, 100 percent. I always say: I've had a better career than some and a lot of people had a better career than me. And the only regret was I wasn't part of that 1994 team. Would I have played in the World Cup? Probably not. But I would like to be on that team. That's the one thing that kind of hurt me.

SA: Being in Mission Viejo throughout the three years' preparation for 1994, when I think about that team, you're the guy I always thought should have been on that roster who wasn't. You should have been a backup attacking midfielder for that team. But you had that appendicitis attack [while with the team in early 1994] ...

DOMINIC KINNEAR: Yeah, that was in February, and it kind of knocked me out for about four to six weeks. I don't know if in the end if that was the reason why. It's a numbers game, as it always is, with a big squad like that, and I knew where I was, and I knew I was at the back end of it. I was hoping I just wasn't as far back as other people saw me.

SA: After three years with Frank Yallop, and MLS Cup titles in 2001 and 2003, you did become the head coach. Did you feel like you were ready for it at that time?

DOMINIC KINNEAR: Yeah, you always think you're ready, and then it's always difficult, because you worry about so many things. You worry about the players, you worry about the team, you worry about your relationship with your general manager. You worry if you're looking to change the lineup, where the the decision falls on you and you're disciplining players and whatever else. You always want things to go well.

From a soccer standpoint, I was ready. But from personal-dealing-with-the-issues, you're never ready, you almost have to experience it. I think it took about a year. And in 2005 -- the first year was a huge education for me -- I was a much better coach.

SA: That 2004 team was just a tad under .500 and went to the playoffs, but your 2005 team was extraordinary, going 18-4-10 and romping to the Supporters' Shield ...

DOMINIC KINNEAR: I thought we were the best team in MLS that year. We had a great season. It's funny, I was talking to somebody about that, and we were talking about Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup and I was asked if I'd won Supporters' Shield, and I said, yeah, in 2005, but I got knocked out in the playoffs in the first round. I understand the importance of the Supporters' Shield, and I think it's a very important trophy. But I will take MLS Cup over the Supporters' Shield any day.

SA: Well, you took care of it the next two years. When we discuss dynasties in MLS, so often what we talk about is D.C. United in those first four years and the Galaxy under Bruce Arena. But if you look at San Jose/Houston from 2001 through 2013 -- because it was San Jose that became the Houston Dynamo, with the same roster in 2006 -- that's 13 years where, aside from two losing seasons, you guys were either MLS Cup champion, playing for the championship or on the verge of making it to the championship. That might be the best run in MLS history. And I don't think it's recognized in the way that it should be.

DOMINIC KINNEAR: Hey, I agree with you on that. I mean, we weren't glamorous. Maybe that had something to do with [the recognition]. And I think after 2010 or 2013, MLS has kicked into a different gear, and the social aspect of sports is kicked into to a different gear, and the attention span of the sporting fans has evolved into a different gear. So the past, which usually is forgotten pretty quickly, now it's forgotten the next day, it seems. So I think maybe that has something to do with it. I don't think that we celebrated ourselves as much as maybe other people do, especially now today. It was almost like a OK-we-won, yeah-we-were-good, we-think-we-have-a-good-team, we-should-be-winning type of thing, you know.

But those are some great years. I was lucky like to be involved in all of those. I was lucky with the Landon Donovan years, the first couple years, and then, obviously, Dwayne De Rosario, Brad Davis, etc, and Houston. So yeah, really lucky. I say “lucky” quite a lot when people talk about what I've been through. And I mean, I'm not a guy who says, “blessed,” you know what I mean? But I look at my I look at my life, man, and, somebody's smiling on me, and I feel really fortunate.

SA: The way you see the game, how has it evolved over the years?

DOMINIC KINNEAR: Well, I think everyone kind of pigeonholed me as a 4-4-2 coach, and I think to keep going and to keep understanding the game, you have to move with the trends. So the 4-4-2, especially in MLS, is a thing of the past. And I think you really have to move with that. It's what you do with that formation. There's a big emphasis now on trying to play out of the back. You have to make sure to pick players that can support that style of play.

I never leave my core beliefs or values behind: working hard on both sides of the ball, being dangerous on set pieces, etc. But there has been a shift in my eyes. If you asked me seven years ago, what's your formation? Easy to answer. Now, you've got to be more flexible -- and I have become flexible.

SA: How different is coaching in this modern MLS than it was before we hit that accelerator?

DOMINIC KINNEAR: There's a lot more detail. There are bigger staffs now. Sports science plays a huge part in your preparation. Pretty much every coach, back in the day, was a GM in some way.

Now there are many layers. There's academy, there's second teams. There's a lot more to deal with rather than just “Hey, we're playing Saturday, let's get a team ready, let's go out and play.”

Now, with a lot of movement off the ball, we're trying to keep the opponent guessing with movement. But still, the main aspects of the game remain the same: what you do when the ball turns over for you, what you do when the ball turns over against you, and, obviously, the two penalty areas are still the land of gold.

10 comments about "Dominic Kinnear on two decades of coaching in MLS and the path that led him".
  1. Ben Myers, November 13, 2020 at 10:37 a.m.

    "There's a big emphasis now on trying to play out of the back."   Playing out of the back is the direct consequence of the demand worldwide for defenders and some keepers with very good feet and the ability to see the field.

  2. Craig Lange replied, November 14, 2020 at 1:33 p.m.

    Ben Myers, I respectfully submit the rule change allowing freekicks to be made between teammates inside the penalty area as the greatest influencer to playing out of the back. Granted, out of necessity, the technical skills of defenders has improved dramatically over the years. This increase in skill and the subtle alteration of the laws has led to different strategies, which help to produce a significant advantage for the attacking team to build more easily from the back.

  3. frank schoon replied, November 14, 2020 at 2:43 p.m.

    Craig ,I totally disagree with your assertion that, <"help to produce a significant advantage for the attacking team to build more easily from the back."> HOW?

    How can a team produce a better advantage, attacking wise, when you build out from the back because what happens  you allow the opponent team to move up all the way into your half, which means all the spacing is cut down . This is what the Dutch philosophy was on defense , flood the opponents own half with your players which cuts down the players time with the ball and the spacing....

    Do you see what happens which is so often the case with both centerbacks on either side of the goalie about 5meters away from in deep in his own penalty box? You in effect have given away spacing to the opponent by being so far back. Next ,what can the goalie not do that these two centerbacks can do for they are close together that all 3 are basically duplicating each other. All 3 basically can pass the ball and it makes no difference which of the 3 does it for they are so close together.

    Building out from the back ,the way it is set allows the opponent time flood in while you're setting it up unlike when building up from the back which is done fast and thereby not giving the opponents time to flood. 

    So please explain to me what signigficant advantage does 'building out from the back' give the attacking team.


  4. Craig Cummings, November 13, 2020 at 9:36 p.m.

    great  read  scott, as my grandpatents are from Glasgow, but Rangers fans.It is great reading your stories again. I can not forget playing in 1980 agaist your pacifica hs   team in  final 8 cif game at Lq hs. We must have had at 1500 people at that 1.00 ko sat day game. What a great game, and we lost. Pacifica, you went on to win CIF. What a great team you had. Some things you never forget. And I was only in 2nd yeer of HS. But I made ALL League.

  5. Craig Cummings, November 13, 2020 at 9:45 p.m.

    Scott I  began AYSO region 5 in 1973, westminster fountain valley. playing that is. Not starting it.

  6. R2 Dad, November 13, 2020 at 11:17 p.m.

    Woot woot! Killer mullet there, DK!

  7. Thom Meredith, November 14, 2020 at 7:30 a.m.

    Go Wick!!!

  8. frank schoon, November 14, 2020 at 10:52 a.m.

    Should have asked, "Whatever happened to Scottish soccer?"

  9. Christian Miles, November 14, 2020 at 11:17 a.m.

    Loved this piece. I'm biased, like a lot of others, but I like Dom and hope he gets a Head Coach role soon. 

  10. Santiago 1314, November 14, 2020 at 9:27 p.m.

    Kinnear(or Vermes) should have been brought in as the Replacement for "That German Guy"(What the He LL was his Name anyway!?!?! :) ) We would have made it to Russia 2018.!!!

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