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Meet Dominic Kinnear, MLS All-Star coach: Football Every Day Exclusive Interview
Football Every Day’s Alex Morgan caught up with the 2016 MLS All-Star head coach Dominic Kinnear to discuss his career, the growth of Major League Soccer and tonight’s All-Star Game against Arsenal.
It’s a sweltering afternoon at the San Jose Earthquakes’ Avaya Stadium and there’s no escape from the sun on the club’s training pitch adjacent to the stadium. Not that Quakes head coach Dominic Kinnear is one to look for shelter. He’s right alongside his players, leading them through warmups, a small-sided scrimmage, and some shooting games.
Even though Kinnear has to prepare for an MLS All-Star team press conference in an hour, where he’ll be speaking alongside some of the biggest names in the world game, he’s focused on being there with his team in the moment. “I haven’t taken too much of a step back [from the Quakes],” he says, despite the whirlwind of this week’s many All-Star game festivities.
There are some coaches in modern soccer that take a more aristocratic hands-off approach, focusing more on the purely tactical aspects of the game than on the team’s chemistry or developing functional relationships with their players.
Kinnear is not one of those coaches. He’s not always the most effervescent of figures in front of the media and supporters, but clearly understands the grit required to compete amid the parity that is Major League Soccer, and is always right there alongside his team.
It’s almost ironic, then, how such a pragmatic coach has found himself once again in charge of one of the showiest games in the United States. Kinnear hasn’t managed as much as a single European star in his entire career and now he’ll be leading the crème de la crème of the league against European giants Arsenal on Thursday.
Kinnear is only forty-nine years old (his birthday was on Tuesday, though he wouldn’t shout about it), yet has taken part in every single Major League Soccer season since the league’s inception in 1996 as a player and then a manager. Having been coaching in MLS for so long, he has been able to leverage his network and experience to lead two of the league’s most frugal teams – the Houston Dynamo and the San Jose Earthquakes – to two MLS Cup Final appearances apiece over the course of his career.
Especially with the salary cap and pervasive squad restrictions in Major League Soccer, understanding how to construct a well-rounded team can be as important as having a war chest of transfer funds.
Kinnear has been a part of the Bay Area soccer scene his whole life, having moved to Fremont from Scotland as a toddler, and has experienced the rise of Major League Soccer from its roots. He remembers the days when the Quakes had to drive to three different locations just to train and there was barely enough infrastructure in the States to scrap together a league.
Now, as we’re speaking under the beautiful expanse of Avaya Stadium, he reflects on the growth of American soccer with pride.
“Really, you just kind of feel lucky,” he told Football Every Day. “When the league first started, nobody knew what direction it was going in. If you had shown us a snapshot of where the league is twenty years later we all would have been really happy with what’s happening with the expansion, new stadiums, training facilities.”
“Forty-two years ago when I was driving to Spartan Stadium as a seven-year-old, I never thought that I would be here coaching the All-Star team,” he added in Tuesday’s All-Star game press conference.
He was a robust centerback during his playing days, playing for the San Francisco Blackhawks, the Colorado Rapids, the San Jose Clash and the Tampa Bay Mutiny before immediately transitioning into coaching, joining Frank Yallop’s backroom staff at the Quakes. In 2005, he took over for Yallop and has gone on to be one of the most successful managers in the history over the league after leading the team to a Supporters’ Shield trophy in his first year in charge.
He directs a lot of the limelight away from himself to the players, the league, and the growing infrastructure around him, and over the past week has talked at length about how MLS has so dramatically changed over the past twenty-one years.
But over the course of his career he has also grown as a coach, too.
“I’ve become a little bit more patient over the years, I used to be more of a yeller and got upset with a lot of the little things,” he says. “Over the years, you kind of just let things go a little bit easier and try to focus on the big things rather than just worry about the little things.”
“From top to bottom we’ve taken huge steps. Back in the day it was just about trying to get professional teams and now we’re talking about academics and even more expansion teams. All in all, the progress has been excellent.
It’s not just what you see on game days, what you see in the stadiums. You have to think of the infrastructure. Some teams are a little more advanced than others because of the facilities and the time they’ve spent in the league, so the Chipotle Homegrown Game is a wonderful idea. It’s not just about the All-Stars, it’s the young stars that will be playing in MLS for years to come.”
— Dominic Kinnear on Major League Soccer
He has a straightforward mindset when it comes to tactics, operating flexible, defensive-oriented teams. He doesn’t aim to be revolutionary (his coaching style has remained broadly consistent throughout his career), but he clearly respects forward-thinking managers such as Arsène Wenger.
For any counter-attacking minded coach, understanding the opposition is a key part of the game and perhaps that might give Kinnear’s men a slight edge in the All-Star game, one that they will need against a polished Arsenal side.
“Out of all the English teams, I’ve probably watched [Arsenal] the most,” he says. “I’m not an Arsenal supporter, I just like the way they play. Arsène Wenger has been there and transformed the English game… just to look at the teams he has had and the players he has brought in. They’ve always played attractive soccer and I’ve always enjoyed watching them play.”
Kinnear speaks from experience, as he has been a part of the All-Star festivities twice before, though this year’s edition is bigger than ever.
In 2001, he was a part of Frank Yallop’s coaching staff back then it was still the East versus West format and the game finished in a chaotic 6-6 draw. It was the first and only game to have ended in a tie, though clearly by the scoreline there was no lack of entertainment.
Nine years later, Kinnear was in charge of the All-Stars when they faced Manchester United. However, what was supposed to be a fun experience for the team went downhill fast in a sobering 5-2 defeat. “It was a sickening feeling walking off the field even though it was a friendly,” Kinnear said.
That experience, he says, has given more recent All-Star teams the motivation to avoid similar embarrassments. They’re are on a two-year winning streak, having beaten Bayern Munich in 2014 and Tottenham Hotspur last summer. Since 2009, the league has welcomed an entirely new cast of stars with bigger profiles than ever before.
“The guys that we have in the locker room, they play for a reason. They want to win, they want to play well. We want to step on the field, have the team play well and win the game. We’re not just going out and having fun, there’s a competitive edge to the game that our players will have and I think the fans will see that as well.
— Dominic Kinnear on the MLS All-Star Game
“It makes it a lot different,” Kinnear said. “Landon [Donovan] was really big…but now you’re talking about [Andrea] Pirlo, [Didier] Drogba, Kaka, [David] Villa, and [Sebastian] Giovinco. The makeup of the squad is a little more star-studded and that makes it more fun.”
Moreover, the star players made the process of picking the squad that much more fun for his staff, “almost like fantasy football,” he laughed.
“It really hits you the first time you give a pre-game talk to the guys,” he added. “You’re pinching yourself a little having watched all of these players on television and then you’re writing their name up on the board. It has come a long way in a short amount of time.”
Despite all the glitz this week, he’s his usual personable self with the All-Star players, taking the time to check in with each All-Star ahead of Wednesday’s training session.
“Dom?” said Quakes goalkeeper David Bingham, one of the two hometown players on the All-Star roster. “Dom never changes.”
In some ways, it can be a frustrating trait for fans hungry to see more big-name players now – but Kinnear understands change comes gradually and doesn’t try to force it when success is a delicate juggling game in MLS. On the flip side, those unwavering qualities are what have made him one of the most successful, ever-present coaches in the history of Major League Soccer.