Off to a fast start
Defense has keyed Vancouver; Hill and Santos find homes
On a raw January day in Vancouver, B.C., Joe Cannon eased into a chair inside a local coffee shop to discuss how the Vancouver Whitecaps were going to rebound from a disastrous inaugural MLS campaign. The preseason was less than a week old, and the conversation quickly focused on new head coach Martin Rennie.
"I'm very impressed," Cannon said at the time. "I think [Rennie] is a guy that's very patient, I think he has a plan, and I think he's also very intelligent about how he's going to go and implement it. Part of his personality is very intellectual and very learning. He's a guy who knows how to take things in and analyze, and I think he's a person who likes to approach things from different points of view, whether it's analytically or emotionally. He's a very even-keeled guy."
Granted, back then it was early in the process, and players are always bound to say how they're on board with a new coach. But with the MLS regular season now almost two months old, Cannon's first impression of Rennie has proved astute, with the Scottish-born manager engineering what looks to be a remarkable turnaround. A team that finished worst in the Western Conference last year without a single road win has gotten off to a 4-2-2 start, with two of those wins coming away from BC Place. And a side that had the third-worst defense in the league in 2011 is ranked third-best so far this season.
Then there are the intangibles. Even back in January, Whitecaps players were talking about the team's improved positive mentality under Rennie, and how there was more accountability. That was borne out last weekend when the Whitecaps were outplayed for long stretches by the Columbus Crew, yet still managed to escape with a 1-0 win.
Mentality and accountability can be loaded words, of course, the implication being that the previous regime had abdicated responsibility and left the players to their own undisciplined devices. But under Rennie, it's been more a case of communicating precisely what is expected of each player.
"I think it's just really important to make clear what everybody's job is," Rennie said in a telephone interview with ESPN.com, "what we should be doing on the field, and what we should be doing off the field, and exactly what their role is within the team. Then it's pretty obvious if they do the job or don't do the job.
"I think that brings accountability, and everyone knows what everyone else's job is. If they're not doing it, then they're accountable for it."
Not that it has all been smooth going. While the defense has been carrying the team in the early months -- thanks to the additions of central defender Martin Bonjour and right back Y.P. Lee -- an offense shorn of speedsters Darren Mattocks and Etienne Barbara has struggled to score consistently. That said, the early reviews have been mostly positive, with the likes of Jun Marques Davidson and Matt Watson -- both of whom played for Rennie with the second-tier Carolina RailHawks last season --providing a pleasant surprise. Still, the step up to the North American top flight has tested Rennie.
"[Coaching in MLS], it's a big challenge," he said. "Every single game is hard. Every single team is good. All the coaches are very high-level coaches. Certainly there are a lot more people involved in the processes.
"At the lower levels, I could just close the door to my office and just build the team the way I wanted to build it. In this league, there's a lot of other people to work with, there's a lot of rules you have to conform to, there's just a number of hurdles you have to get over to get things the way you would like them to be with your team."
That Rennie has acclimated himself so quickly to MLS isn't a surprise to those who worked with him in the past. Curt Johnson -- who was general manager of the then-Kansas City Wizards from 1999 to 2006 -- joined the RailHawks last season as president, just in time to work with Rennie. Johnson insists that the Scot stacks up favorably with coaches he's worked with previously.
"Having worked with people like Bob Gansler and Brian Bliss, I think Martin has the whole package," Johnson said. "To be successful in MLS, it's not only about the on-field coaching, but the management of the salary cap, getting good value in your trades, getting good value in your drafts, putting a staff together that complements you, those types of things. Martin's a very intelligent guy, and he's very capable."
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Given Rennie's modest background as both a player and coach, it is unexpected to a degree, because he only played lower-level professional soccer. Instead, he embarked on a business career in sales and marketing and racked up a stack of coaching licenses in his spare time, culminating in his obtaining the coveted UEFA "A" license at age 26.
At the age of 30, Rennie began a steady ascent through the North American soccer pyramid, starting with the fourth-tier Cascade Surge in 2005 and ending with his appointment last year as the Whitecaps manager. He obtained valuable experience at every stop, but Rennie insists that his time spent in the corporate world had plenty of carryover into his current position.
"There's lots of things [that apply]," he said during a preseason interview. "How you build a culture, how you set goals, how you communicate, how you build an environment where people enjoy working, how everybody's responsible for specific things and clear tasks.
"All of those things I think come from the corporate world, as well as that understanding of how you get the best out of yourself, how your own mind works and psychology. Those types of things I learned in the corporate world, and they all relate to soccer too."
Rennie has been careful to surround himself with assistants who have backgrounds different than his own, such as former Scottish international Paul Ritchie and former Welsh international Carl Robinson. That has helped fill in whatever experience gaps might exist in terms of his playing career.
But make no mistake, Rennie is the head man. When Vancouver dropped consecutive games to San Jose and Kansas City last month, the team's promising start was in danger of unraveling. It was perhaps the first real test of Rennie's leadership in MLS, but Cannon insists the mini-crisis was deftly handled.
"I think Rennie was able to right the attitude in the room and with the team, just with some of the words that he spoke," said Cannon in a phone interview. "He got us thinking and feeling in a different direction."
Two 1-0 wins, one against FC Dallas and one versus Columbus, have since followed, although Rennie understands full well that there is plenty of soccer still to be played.
"I feel good about where are," he said. "We're never satisfied and always looking to get better and there's lots of room to improve. But oftentimes people see the glass as half-empty and they don't give credit where perhaps it's due. I think that up to this point, the report card would say there's room for improvement, but there's also been some good steps made so far."
Rennie, clearly, is a man with a plan.
Hill finds a home: Once one of the more promising U.S. attacking prospects, Kamani Hill was enduring a pro career filled with disappointments. Stops in Europe never quite panned out, and playing time became increasingly scarce. When his contract with Portuguese club Vitoria Guimaraes was terminated late in the summer of 2011, his future was in limbo.
Yet after signing with the Colorado Rapids in January, Hill's career has been revitalized. Three goals off the bench in just 141 minutes of playing time has seen him cement himself as the team's supersub, with the possibility of taking on an expanded role.
"I've been so hungry, and I've been waiting for so long to have some type of opportunity," Hill said in phone interview with ESPN.com. "Really, this is the first positive situation I've been in my whole professional career. Now that I have it, I'm really trying to grab a hold of it."
Back in 2006, it seemed unlikely that Hill would have to wait so long. After playing two collegiate seasons with UCLA, he signed with German side Wolfsburg. Yet after getting some initial playing time, Hill was marginalized by manager Felix Magath and demoted to the second team. Hill eventually found his way to Portugal, yet his goal of seeing first-team action remained elusive.
"Terribly frustrating," Hill recalled of that time. "But as I think all players learn with experience, it's a real part of the business. When teams change coaches, and change direction, then some players get left out of the mix whether they've performed well or performed poorly; for some reason or another they don't have a chance."
Positive reinforcement from his teammates, especially those who had been in similar situations, kept Hill going during that period. The subtle improvements he made to his game gave him hope as well.
"In so many ways I think I'm a completely different player than I was when I left UCLA," he said. "Just in terms of my technical ability, tactical understanding, and on top of that just my attitude and composure on the field are things that I didn't have when I first started at Wolfsburg. I was always working on them, but they take time to develop, especially playing at a high level."
Now that he's joined a Colorado side intent on playing a possession-based game, Hill is well-positioned to stick with the Rapids. Scoring with the first team for the first time in his career doesn't hurt, either.
"I forgot what's like to score goals," he said. "It's nice to get that feeling again."
United's unlikely diamond: As the 2012 season approached, Maicon Santos wasn't exactly in high demand. He'd burned through three teams in as many seasons, and upon being released by FC Dallas at the end of the 2011 campaign, the Brazilian went unclaimed during the league's re-entry draft.
It was left to D.C. United to sign Maicon Santos as a free agent, and the payoff has been borderline spectacular. The forward already has six goals to his name, just two short of the season high he set last year when he split time between Toronto and Dallas.
"I told [Maicon Santos] when he got here, 'I don't want you to be traded. I want you to make this your home,'" said United manager Ben Olsen via telephone. "In order for him to do that he's got to play more consistent, work harder, and do all of the little things. Because we knew he could score and he has this talent, so that consistency is what we've been preaching."
One of those little things Olsen asked of his forward was to work harder in training. Another was to put in more effort on the defensive side of things in games. That has had the effect of putting opposition defense under more pressure, and with running mate Chris Pontius in electric form, the goals have come.
"For center backs I think it's a [difficult] tandem," Olsen said. "It's working right now."
Keeper change in L.A.: Heading into the current season, identifying the most important offseason acquisition for the L.A. Galaxy seemed easy. Would it be forward Edson Buddle, or midfielder Marcelo Sarvas? As it turns out, neither.
With the announcement that starting goalkeeper Josh Saunders will be entering the league's substance abuse program -- and with it a likely absence of at least five games -- the "most important" label now looks to be falling on goalkeeper Bill Gaudette. It's a development that is a stunner, given Saunders' meandering career. He started out with the San Jose Earthquakes in 2003, only to spend considerable time playing with several second-tier teams before finally landing the Galaxy starting job in the middle of last season.
Now Gaudette, whose career path is similar to Saunders', will be counted on to keep the Galaxy afloat during this time.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.