by Jason Davis

Before there was Jermaine Jones, there was Thomas Dooley. In 1992, with a World Cup at home looming and international reinforcements needed, a international net was cast for US-eligible players. What came back was Dooley, a German defender with a dual citizenship by virtue of his American serviceman father. Like with Jones, the US benefited from a player being passed over for the German National Team; in Dooley, head coach Bora Milutinović found a player who dreamed of appearing in the World Cup, and provided that player an unforeseen path to making the dream a reality.

Dooley’s unexpected fortune led to a whirlwind of paperwork and language lessons to get his citizenship in order and his communication up to speed. The German footballer added “American soccer player” to his resume almost overnight. The sudden embracing of his American heritage and the opportunity it afforded him would lead to Dooley becoming a promoter of American soccer despite his Continental beginnings. Dooley may have been an “accidental” American in some respects, but he merged his new nationality with his German soccer upbringing without reservation.

Dooley’s US career was distinguished. Over seven years he held down the back line for three different National Team coaches, amassed a total of 81 caps, and started every game of two World Cup campaigns. After playing club soccer in his native Germany for the entirety of his career, Dooley joined the Columbus Crew and the fledgling MLS in 1997. Four seasons and two MLS Best XI selections later, he retired as a MetroStar in 2000 with his legacy as an American soccer legend cemented. In the span of a decade, Dooley went from unknown German footballer (to Americans anyway) without an international cap to US National Team great and MLS pioneer.

Dooley has remained involved with the game since hanging up his boots. He managed briefly in Germany, at lower league side Saarbrücken, before returning to his home in Southern California to work with young American players. He now runs a soccer school bearing his name and seems intent on launching a career in coaching on this side of the Atlantic.

Word is that Dooley is actively looking for a head coaching position in Major League Soccer, and hopes to bring his philosophies to bear in the American League. If he is successful landing a top job, Dooley would be the latest addition to a club that currently has Jason Kreis, Ben Olsen, Dominic Kinear, and Peter Vermes as members; all played in MLS and for the United States on the international stage. Four out of eighteen (including the new expansion sides) is less than a quarter of the League; despite the growth of the game in the US and the number of professional players produced over the last thirty years, American former players becoming head coaches is not yet a common occurrence.

There are other ex-US internationals who either seem destined for head coaching jobs in MLS or have thrown their names into the ring, including Eric Wynalda and John Harkes. Preki, former head coach of Chivas USA and Toronto FC may land elsewhere in the near future. The first generation of American MLS stars is coming of age on the coaching front fifteen years after the birth of the League; nevertheless, MLS head coaching jobs are still predominantly the domain of foreign coaches or coaches with college coaching experience. For every Ben Olsen or Dominic Kinnear, there are two like Hans Backe (new-to-MLS foreign coach) or Schellas Hyndman (long time college coach and newcomer to the pro game). As the League expands, more teams should mean more opportunity; though neither the job in Vancouver (a Canadian city, and perhaps a bad example) nor Portland went to American ex-players for their entry into the League, more spots and the usual turnover might help boost the numbers in the next phase of the League’s existence.

MLS needs more of these legacy names on the touchline. The American coaching tradition can hardly be called much of one at the moment; college coaches may eventually turn themselves into successful professional coaches in certain instances, but the learning curve can make it a laborious process. The perspective and experience of ex-players matters, and while the world’s greatest coaching names are not always ex-players, it is noteworthy when a coach who didn’t play succeeds at the highest level. American players have made great strides in Europe in recent years; even if the ends of developing American ex-players as coaches isn’t to have them heading to European pastures to make their managerial name in large numbers, the first to land a job there will blaze a trail. It’s one box on the “growth of American soccer” checklist we have as of yet been unable to mark.

The chances of an American finally blazing that trail improve if he gets a professional start a relatively young age. Twenty years as the head coach of a college program, as prestigious as that might be, doesn’t lend itself to the breaking of glass ceilings.

No, Thomas Dooley didn’t learn his soccer in the United States. But he is American. He starred for the US National Team, spent the part of his playing career in MLS, and embodies what we should hope for in a new generation of American coaches. Anxious to get their coaching careers started, these ex-players see MLS as the place to make their bones and refine their craft. Clearly, the candidates exist for teams to give this new wave of coaching ex-players a turn. As Jason Kreis is proving in Salt Lake City, retired American players can get the job done if they’re just given the chance.

The more success the few American ex-players currently in head coaching positions have, the better the chances MLS will shift away from relying on college and foreign coaches in the future.  Ultimately, that will be to the benefit of American soccer.

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