Technically, the first MLS player to coach in the league was Roy Wegerle, who coached the Colorado Rapids' final game of the 1996 season. The second man to play and coach in MLS was Walter Zenga, who was a player-coach in New England in '98 and '99.
But Wegerle and Zenga were not really the guys who got the ball rolling for what we are seeing today in MLS, where 12 former players currently occupy head coaching jobs and more are being interviewed for vacant gigs in Dallas and Vancouver.
No, the guy who really got it all started was Frank Yallop, who played 88 games for the Tampa Bay Mutiny from 1996-98 then worked his way up from being an assistant coach to become the head coach of the San Jose Earthquakes in 2001, where he immediately began winning championships.
After Yallop, we saw a wave of former MLS players take the reins. We saw Peter Nowak lead D.C. United to a title in 2004. We saw Dominic Kinnear win his first MLS Cup for Houston in 2006, then another in 2007. And we saw Jason Kreis lead Real Salt Lake to the title in 2009.
In addition to those guys who won titles, Robert Warzycha won a Supporters’ Shield in Columbus in 2009, Yallop won a Shield with the Quakes in 2012 and, just this year, Mike Petke brought home the first piece of silverware to the New York Red Bulls trophy case.
But this year, for the first time in the 18-year history of MLS, we will see an MLS Cup final featuring two coaches who played in the league. The last four coaches standing – Peter Vermes with Kansas City, Kinnear with Houston, Kreis with RSL and Caleb Porter with Portland – have all kicked a ball in anger for an MLS side.
What brought all this about? Evolution, first and foremost. You run a league for nearly two decades and you're going to see players become coaches. But what once was a trickle in the form of Yallop, Nowak and Kinnear is a steady gush now, with Porter, Petke, Ryan Nelsen, Jay Heaps, Mark Watson and Gregg Berhalter all landing jobs in the past year alone.
It's been a predictable development for the league. Not only to have a group ex-players coach in the league, but to have men who bring different backgrounds to the profession.
Look around, from Petke in New York to Oscar Pareja in Colorado. From Nelsen in Toronto to Jay Heaps in Foxboro, or Ben Olsen in D.C. No two are much alike, are they? You've got defenders and midfielders. You've got some guys who grew up in the States and some who grew up half a world away. But they all played in the league.
And with this quartet of coaches still pushing their teams toward MLS Cup, you're looking at four guys who really represent four different segments of American soccer history, all funneled at some point through an MLS locker room.
Let’s start with Vermes, the oldest and most well traveled of the bunch. He was a regular with the US national team long before MLS even appeared on the radar in 1996, but then capped his career with seven years in MLS with three clubs, including a stint with the Kansas City Wizards that led to an MLS Cup in 2000, still the club’s only league title on record.
Like Vermes, Kinnear was established on the US scene years before MLS was born, and his best years were effectively behind him when he made his debut with the Colorado Rapids in 1996. He played five seasons in the league – including a 1998 campaign with Tampa Bay when he played with Yallop – before he joined the coaching ranks in San Jose in 2001. He’s served as an assistant or head coach in six MLS Cups since then.
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Kreis is the biggest MLS star of the bunch from his playing days. He became the first American player named league MVP in 1999 during his best days with the Dallas Burn, and eventually logged 12 seasons in the league. Couple his accolades as a player with that 2009 MLS Cup title as a head coach, and few can match what Kreis has done in the league since it dawned in 1996.
And lastly there’s Porter, the one perhaps most destined to be a coach out of the entire group. He barely got a taste of the league in 1999 before some serious knee injuries derailed his playing career, and set him on the path to coaching. This season he’s up for Coach of the Year after turning the Timbers around (he’s up against stiff competition from Kreis and Petke, it has to be said), and if he wins, he’ll be the first man to win the award in his first year since Preki won with Chivas USA in 2007. Simply put, the guy learned quickly.
All of this is not to suggest that all coaches named from here forward must be former pro players. Certainly, there will be more leaders like Arena and Sigi Schmid – two of the best coaches MLS has ever seen – to come along, and we saw four former players get the axe this season alone: Warzycha and Brian Bliss left Columbus, Frank Klopas was let go in Chicago and Yallop left San Jose. Jesse Marsch, Robin Fraser and and John Spencer have all been let go in recent years as well. The wheel is always turning.
And it’s not that coaches with other backgrounds can’t succeed – FC Dallas rode Schellas Hyndman’s college credentials for five years, Philadelphia’s John Hackworth never logged a minute in MLS and Swiss import Marco Schällibaum took the Montreal Impact to the playoffs for the first time this year – but the tide is turning in favor of league-savvy veterans willing to pass the baton to a new generation. Above all, whatever happens this weekend is proof of that.
Yes, Dec. 7 will mark the first MLS Cup with two former players. But certainly not the last.