|ESPN.com: MLS||[Print without images]|
|Osnabruck is fighting to avoid relegation from the German second league with the help of American coach Joe Enochs.|
Nearly two months ago, Joe Enochs was living the good life. After enjoying a long career with 2. Bundesliga side Vfl Osnabruck, Enochs opened a bar in town, settled down with his wife and two daughters and started coaching Osnabruck's U-23 side.
And then, as Enochs was giving a routine post-match news conference following an away game, one that drew all of two reporters, he spied Osnabruck sporting director Lothar Gans sitting in the back.
"I knew something was going on because Gans never comes to the away games, and even at home he never sticks around for the press conference," recalled Enochs via telephone. "He said, 'Joe, we need to get this job done.'"
The job in question was saving Osnabruck's first team from getting relegated from the 2. Bundesliga and Gans tabbed Enochs as the man to help turn the team around. In a flash he went from a tranquil existence to the Maalox-chugging slog of a relegation dogfight.
The plan was that Enochs would be the club's interim manager for two weeks, the maximum allowed by the DFB, the German Football Federation, since he didn't have the requisite coaching licenses needed take the job full-time. At that point, he would remain on the staff and assist whoever was ultimately hired.
"I felt honored that I even came to their mind," Enochs said.
For Gans, it was a no-brainer. After all, we're talking about a man who made 376 appearances for the club, an Osnabruck record. Not even Enochs' American background dissuaded him.
|Joe Enochs of Osnabruck in action during the DFB German Cup second round match between VfL Osnabruck and Monchengladbach in 2006.|
"I've known Joe for 15 years and coached him myself," Gans said in an email translated from its original German. "I have trust in him as a person and have great respect for his work and achievements. His [American] background plays no role. He also has no criticism from outside the club."
After Enochs' two weeks were up, the club decided to keep him on as an assistant coach, playing a big role in helping new boss Heiko Flottmann run the team. Together, they've been able to avoid the drop, and it remains to be seen if there will be a fairytale ending. Heading into the final game of the season on Sunday at Ingolstadt, Osnabruck is third from the bottom, level on points with Rot-Weiss Oberhausen. If Osnabruck can overtake Karlsruhe, which is two points ahead, its second division status will be guaranteed for another season. At minimum, Osnabruck needs to equal Oberhausen's result this weekend, which would force them into a relegation playoff with a team from the 3. Bundesliga.
"It's pretty much do or die," Enochs said. "We can't rely on anyone else."
The stakes are considerable, which Enochs knows all too well having watched the club yo-yo between the two divisions throughout his playing career. The television revenue in the 3. Bundesliga is about a tenth of that in the second tier. Osnabruck can also expect a drop in publicity as well as at the gate.
But if Osnabruck can survive, not only would it be a major victory for the club, but it would be a rare triumph for an American coach in Europe. Brent Goulet, who managed Elversberg in the German third division from 2004 to 2008, remains one of the few -- and perhaps the only -- American to have managed a professional club overseas. And while Enochs estimates that he needs roughly two more years until he can obtain the coaching licenses needed to become fully qualified, he admits he is still weighing the positives and negatives.
"On the field, I feel really comfortable," he said. "Doing things I want to do, that comes easy. Everything else -- interviews, dealing with the press, analyzing video of the opponent, analyzing our video, it's very, very time consuming. I like it. It's fun, and it's a learning experience. It's something I've never done before."
And the downside?
"I really feel the pressure," he said. "You think about it all the time. There's a lot hanging on it, and I realize that. It's a huge load on our shoulders. I think it's good that we know the responsibility that we have. We have a huge chance to stay up. The players, they can't think about, 'What if we lose?' It's more, 'If we win, we can achieve this.' That's what I've been trying to get through to the guys."
Not everyone got the message, however, and there have been tests to Enochs' and Flottmann's leadership. Following a 4-0 away defeat to eventual champions Hertha Berlin, starters Bjorn Lindemann and Kevin Schoneberg showed up to the next day's training a half hour late having clearly spent most of the previous evening drinking themselves into oblivion. One of the players -- Enochs wouldn't divulge who -- was too hung-over to even train. Discipline had been an issue before Enochs and Flottmann came on board, and they had no compunction about cutting both players from the squad, even during the most critical part of the season.
"They didn't leave us with any other choice," said Enochs of Lindemann and Schoneberg. "When we took over, we said, 'It's the last seven weeks guys. We don't care what happened before. We want to do everything we can for the club and the team.' I would have made a laughingstock out of myself and Heiko if we didn't react, so that's the way we reacted."
That approach is in line with Enochs' reputation as a player. Without question, his playing career counts as one of the more interesting tales in the history of American soccer. To say he had a modest résumé before heading overseas doesn't quite do it justice. He played collegiately at unheralded Sacramento State, and then played a single season in the USL's Premier Development League. He made his initial foray into Europe in 1994 only after one-time college teammate Mark Baena called him from Germany to ask him if he would come over and be his roommate.
Enochs took Baena up on his offer, and gave himself one year to make it work. To be sure, the low opinion of American players back then made Enochs a long shot to stick around. His pure playing ability didn't make him a safe bet, either.
"Technically, he wasn't the cleanest player," said Michael Linenberger, Enochs' coach at Sacramento State. "He wasn't a goal scorer or anything like that. He was just a hard-nosed, gritty player who, as a coach, you really don't appreciate him unless you're with him day in and day out over time. Sometimes if you're an American, especially in those days trying to go over to Europe and prove yourself, coaches don't usually give you that length of time. Usually it's a couple of days, maybe a week, and if you don't impress you're out."
But impress he did. In addition to his work ethic, Enochs had a quality that separated him from plenty of other players who have gone overseas and failed to make it: He was willing to start at the bottom and work his way up. Initially, he latched on with St. Pauli's reserve team, which was playing in the fourth tier of German soccer. For the first time in his life he was sitting on the bench. But toward the end of the season, he began to get playing time as a holding midfielder.
"I just got the fever," he said. "I didn't want to go home. I wanted to keep doing what I was doing."
Enochs spent another season with St. Pauli, helping the reserve team earn promotion to the Regionalliga Nord before moving on to Osnabruck where he spent the next 12 years. Along the way, he earned a solitary cap for the U.S. national team in 2001 and did his bit to raise the profile of American players. Now he's doing the same as a coach.
"I tell you what, the American mentality is what we need right now," he said. "We've got good players, great players, but we need to get up, stand up, keep our heads up, and keep on going even if we fall down. That's the American mentality. It's not a bad thing or a negative thing at all to have that American mentality as a coach."
Being an American certainly hasn't affected his standing with Gans, who indicated that when Enochs gets the required coaching licenses, he "could absolutely picture him as head coach of Vfl Osnabruck."
Before that, there is the not so small matter of Sunday's match. Ingolstadt, with the help of U.S. international striker Edson Buddle, has already secured its second division status for another season. With his team having more to play for, Enochs is hoping his side can grind out a victory on Sunday.
Perhaps then his tranquil life will return.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at email@example.com.