Vancouver Whitecaps are in the hunt for a new head coach, their fifth in the Major League Soccer era.
Marc Dos Santos was sacked this afternoon after just over two and a half years in charge of the Whitecaps, leaving with a record of 22 wins, 19 draws, and 40 defeats from his 81 games in charge. Dos Santos left on the back of an eight game unbeaten run in the league, a MLS era club record that has seen the ‘Caps slowly climb the Western Conference standings. But Thursday night’s Canadian Championship loss to Pacific FC, and the nature of the performance, proved too much for the owners, who have placed Vanni Sartini in charge as interim head coach.
We’ll take a deep dive into the MDS era in another article but now the attention turns to who is going to replace him and when. Will there just be an interim coach for the rest of the season or will we see an appointment sooner to start fully evaluating the current squad and laying the foundations for 2022?
No doubt there will be a “global search”, there always is, but is that wise at this point of the Whitecaps history? Should they be looking for someone with MLS experience and a proven track record in the league? There will be lots of names linked and lots names suggested in the coming weeks. For me, current Pacific FC head coach Pa Modou Kah would be the front runner to take the role at the end of the current Canadian Premier League season.
He’s come into Pacific FC and has built a solid squad that currently sits atop the CPL table, playing some very attractive football along the way. But this is his first head coaching experience and although his players love him and go to battle for him every game, he still has a lot to learn and that may not be the ideal coach for the Whitecaps right now.
More on Kah in a later piece, for now let’s kick things off by looking at five other possible MDS replacements from five different categories of potential manager. Some are obviously a lot more possible than others!:
JASON KREIS (The experienced MLS candidate) – Ideally the Whitecaps not only need someone who knows the league, but also someone who knows how to win in it. The top candidates in this category are all pretty much locked in to where they are. Philadelphia Union’s Jim Curtin would have been my first choice if we could have anyone, but he’s just seen his contract extended through to the end of the 2023 season and is well into his legacy project in Philly.
Other perennial names that are thrown about when a vacancy comes around, like Gary Smith and Robin Fraser, are currently in situ at Nashville and Colorado and don’t look likely to be going anywhere. So who does that leave that’s not only coached in the league before, but that we would actually want to have here?
The contenders are few and far between. There’s the likes of Dominic Kinnear, who won two MLS Cups with Houston as head coach in 2006 and 2007, but aside from two interim spells in charge of the LA Galaxy in 2018 and 2020, he hasn’t had a head coaching gig since he left San Jose in 2017. Is he from an older MLS era? Has it moved on from then or could he still come in and do a job?
There’s Wilmer Cabrera. The Colombian would fit in well with Vancouver’s South American players and bring that playing style to the team, but he only had a 37.50% win record with Houston in his near three years there, but he did win the US Open Cup for the Dynamo. He’s currently in the USL and having a good season with Rio Grande Valley Toros. He did have an interim spell in Montreal in 2019, so he does know Canada and landed a Voyageurs Cup while there.
Then you have Mike Petke. Our chats with him would be epic I’m sure! He’s had spells in the league coaching New York Red Bulls and Real Salt Lake, with a winning record of just over 40% with both and winning the Supporters Shield with Red Bulls in 2013, and played in the league for 13 seasons. He left RSL under a cloud, however, after being accused of uttering a homophobic slur at an official. That appointment wouldn’t fly here in Vancouver with some fans, but I do firmly believe in second chances if someone is genuinely contrite and has shown they’ve taken the steps to change. I think the Whitecaps would want to avoid any more reasons to give fans a chance to attack them though.
So the only one that leaves in my opinion is Jason Kreis. What would have been a dream appointment a few seasons ago, may not be seen that way by fans any more after a tough couple of years with two expansion sides, NYC and Orlando, that have seen his star wane somewhat.
Kreis has spent 12 seasons in MLS as a player and the same amount as a head coach. He knows the league inside and out, what works, what doesn’t. But are his best coaching days behind him? Tough to say of a coach that is still just 48 years old, but since leaving Real Salt Lake, where he made his name, he’s struggled in New York, where his win percentage was just 28.57%, and in Orlando, where it was just slightly better at 33.85%. Those were expansion teams though, while Vancouver isn’t, although it still does feel like one at times. There is at least a solid base here to build from.
He spent seven seasons in charge at RSL and became the youngest coach in league history to win the MLS Cup. He had a reputation in Utah for putting together squads that combined some well scouted talent, many of them South American, without any too flashy signings, and get some good contributions of homegrowns. They also played some nice, attacking football. All of which would be good attributes to bring to Vancouver.
He is currently the assistant manager at Inter Miami and the head coach of the US U23 national team. If offered the chance to talk the helm within MLS again, he would surely jump at the chance and the “Whitecaps in Kreisis” headlines would write themselves!
VANNI SARTINI AND RICARDO CLARK (The in-house candidate) – The Whitecaps have gone in-house before with the appointment of Carl Robinson. Although much maligned in some quarters for his time here, there’s a little bit of revisionist history going on as Robbo delivered the most successful season in Vancouver’s MLS era, making the playoffs in three of his five seasons here, and winning the only silverware the ‘Caps have seen in the past decade. It might not have been pretty to watch at times, and how he played in the postseason was frustrating, but it’s still the best we’ve seen in Vancouver in their 11 MLS seasons.
Robinson had experience in the league as a player and as an assistant coach. His appointment was a definite risk and a similar appointment would be as well, never mind the fact that it would also be viewed negatively by some of the fanbase for showing a lack of ambition. Would the Whitecaps owners be willing to take that risk again or is now the time that a proven and experienced head to steady the ship and actually propel it onto a new path?
If they were to go down this route, they could look at MDS’ former assistant, and current Director of Methodology and U23 coach, Vanni Sartini. Sartini has the interim tag right now aided by Ricardo Clark. Could that be the management team moving forward, with perhaps Sartini later moving on to let Clark have the role?
With 15 years experience in the league as a player, Clark is raw and untested as a coach. With that though can come some new ideas. He’s still taking his coaching badges, and aside from a spell with Houston Dynamo’s academy, moving to Vancouver to take up the assistant manager’s role earlier this year is his first coaching experience in the pro game.
Clark’s current role sees him working with the younger players, so he knows them well and may get the best out of them, and he knows how to win in the league, having won two MLS Cups with Houston.
It would be a risk, but sometimes these risks pay off. It would also be the cheaper option, with Clark already being on the club’s payroll. You have to start your head coaching journey somewhere, the trouble for Vancouver though is you have 11 disappointing seasons in the history books and the fans are demanding more. There will definitely be other candidates ahead of Sartini and Clark, but then that was also the case with Robbo.
BOBBY SMYRNIOTIS (The Canadian candidate) – A criticism often levelled at MDS by irate supporters was that he had no track record in top flight football, only in the second tier of the game here. While I can partly see that mindset, you’re talking about a man who won a couple of championships with different teams and took others to championship finals. He had a proven track record and was highly thought of when he came to Vancouver. He also had previous MLS experience as an assistant with Sporting KC and LAFC. It just didn’t work out here. Would they consider going down a similar road to replace him?
The Whitecaps have been in that second tier manager situation before with Teitur Thordarson (although he did have national team experience with Estonia) and with Martin Rennie, neither of which brought much success in MLS. I think it’s unlikely that they’ll think fourth time is the charm, but if they did they may turn their attention to the Canadian Premier League.
And if you’re looking at the CPL, although Tommy Wheeldon Jr would be a lot of fun to have here and bring some fresh ideas, it would be hard to look beyond Forge FC head coach Bobby Smyrniotis.
Smyrniotis has delivered back to back CPL championships to the Hamilton side and has a history of youth development after co-founding the highly successful Sigma FC. He was head coach there from 2005 to 2018 and brought through a string of top Canadian talent such as Cyle Larin, Kyle Bekker, and Tajon Buchanan. His coaching ethos would fit what the Whitecaps say they strive for in developing homegrown talent, but he hasn’t been tested before in an environment like MLS.
He’s built a great foundation at Forge, and while he feels he still has a lot of work to do there, he could be tempted by a move to a bigger league. Whether the Whitecaps would be in bringing in another inexperienced top tier coach, I’m not sure.
MARTIN SCHMIDT (Ze German connection) – Martin Schmidt. Who he, you might ask? He’s a man Axel Schuster knows very well, having worked with him for seven seasons at German club Mainz 05 and is who is currently a free agent in the head coaching world, so the Whitecaps wouldn’t need to pay any compensation for him.
You would expect that Schuster will use his European connections to source out overseas candidates interested in replacing Dos Santos. A lot of that search would take in Germany and people that he has worked with before. I think we can rule our Jurgen Klopp, who Axel worked with at Mainz, and Thomas Tuchel isn’t leaving Chelsea for the ‘Caps either!
From looking at the rest, the stand-out candidate in this category would appear to be Schmidt. The former Swiss midfielder worked with Schuster for just over a year, before Axel moved on to Schalke 04. Schmidt had another year at Schalke after Schuster left and had a winning record of 36.26%, guiding them to the Europa League in 2015/16.
Schmidt moved on to Wolfsburg and then Augsburg, but had a winning record of under 30% at both clubs. He was sacked by FC Augsburg on 9 March 2020 and hasn’t had a head coaching role since.
I would imagine that Schmidt and Schuster have a good relationship, but it would be a big ask to get a European manager with no experience of the league to come in. We’ve seen the disaster of Frank De Boer, and Japp Stam’s time in Cincinnati has been a struggle, despite the big budget he’s been given.
Such an appointment would be a massive risk in Vancouver and one the club can’t really afford to take. But never say never!
EDDIE HOWE (The Wildcard) – Whenever there’s a football manager vacancy, I love to have a look at the betting odds for who will get the job next. There’s always a few wildcards in there that your look at and either think, no way would they go there, or you know what, that would be a great appointment, no matter how far-fetched it might seem.
So let’s get creative here and think out of the box for the Whitecaps’ next boss. A coach who is experienced, has a successful track record, brings an exciting fresh outlook, and a name that fans would recognise. Now obviously there’s a load of people in the world of football that would fit that bill, and we could all come up with dozens of dream names for the job, some more realistic than others. So I’ve gone for one of them – Eddie Howe.
For the longest time the 43-year-old Englishman was expected to take up the vacant position as Celtic manager but that fell through at the very last minute after an apparent disagreement about his backroom staff. Howe was then in the mix to take over at Everton, but they went with former Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez. So he is currently a free agent.
What Howe did on a shoestring budget with Bournemouth was fantastic, spending eight seasons in charge of the club, before leaving by mutual consent in August 2020. He also has a good track record in bringing on younger players and his whole coaching style and ethos would seem a perfect fit here.
He’s a highly thought of young manager and will be in demand for top jobs in England. I’m not sure the lure of MLS would tempt him, but if the money was right, perhaps it would. We may as well shoot for the moon at this point and offer him a big pot to come here.
What do you think of those five suggestions? Who would you like to see? Let us know in the comments below.