Dominic Kinnear on brink of record win
Dominic Kinnear almost didn't become a coach.
Long before becoming arguably the best manager in Major League Soccer history, before becoming the assistant coach of the San Jose Earthquakes and winning the 2001 and 2003 MLS Cups, before taking over as head coach in 2004, before moving with the club to Houston to become the Dynamo in 2005, before winning the 2006 and 2007 MLS Cups, before winning his 100th MLS regular-season game by the age of 44 -- five years younger than any of the four men who have won more -- before making his fourth conference final and third MLS Cup final in six years this season, Dominic Kinnear had doubts.
Old teammate, friend and coach Frank Yallop was leaving the Tampa Bay Mutiny to join the San Jose Earthquakes as head coach in 2001. He asked Mutiny veteran Kinnear to join him there. "I got the job in San Jose and the first person who came to mind was Dominic," Yallop recalled. Kinnear was treading the tail end of a solid career path which had wound through Scotland, Mexico and the various pseudo-professional leagues that dotted the U.S. soccer landscape before MLS started up in 1996, and he went to work for the Colorado Rapids, San Jose Clash and the Mutiny. A sturdy midfielder, he'd put in 54 caps for the U.S. to boot. He assumed Yallop wanted him to come play in his hometown. He liked the sound of that.
But Yallop didn't want him as a player. He wanted him to become his assistant. That Kinnear wasn't sure about. He'd long planned to become a teacher after he stopped playing. And besides, at 33 he wasn't sure he was ready to quit playing. Yallop was adamant. Kinnear asked him who'd turned him down first. Nobody, Yallop said.
Just a few months prior, one of Kinnear's brothers had died. His four remaining siblings and his wife's 11 all lived in the San Jose area, where they had both grown up. "That kind of made it easier to go home because we were missing out on some things I didn't want to miss out on," Kinnear said.
"Frank gave me a 24-hour deadline," Kinnear said. "It kind of made sense, things were kind of coming to an end as a player. The only thing that concerned me was that I'd never coached before and I wanted to be helpful and good and I really didn't know that I could be. It turned out to be a pretty good move."
Kinnear was a natural. By Yallop's side, he helped build a dominant club. Then, when Yallop took the Canada head-coaching job in 2004, Kinnear was promoted to his mentor's old job. He almost missed the playoffs in 2004 but subsequently revamped a weakened squad -- trading the want-away star Richard Mulrooney to Dallas for winger Brad Davis, snapping up holding midfielder Ricardo Clark for allocation money and moving forward Dwayne De Rosario to attacking midfield, where he has since thrived. In 2005, Kinnear won the Supporters' Shield for posting the league's best regular-season record when the expectation had been that he'd end in last place. The Quakes were favored by many to win the MLS Cup, too, but were tripped up by an off-day against the Los Angeles Galaxy in the playoffs.
Dominic Kinnear almost didn't move to Houston.
In 2006, the club was abandoning San Jose for Houston, re-branded the Dynamo and the slate wiped clean, leaving its legacy and silverware in San Jose. Again, Kinnear wasn't sure he wanted any part in it.
His mother had passed away in late 2004, followed by his father about six months later. "I was still a little bit heartbroken and I didn't know if moving halfway across the country was good for my family," Kinnear said. "I had many late-night conversations with my wife and changed my mind a number of times. In the end, my wife said let's go because we can always come back if things don't work out."
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That swayed him to move. That and the uneasy feeling of having to hand the reins of the club he and Yallop had built to somebody else if he didn't. "It was such a great team," he said. "I didn't want to leave the team and I didn't want anybody coaching the team besides me."
That turned out to be a pretty good move, too.
With a few more shrewd pickups by Kinnear, who controls all personnel decisions, along the way -- like signing Scottish-Texan playmaker Stuart Holden after his injury-marred stint with Sunderland -- the Dynamo became only the second MLS team to win back-to-back championships after United did it in the league's first two seasons.
Kinnear stands on the brink of a third act in the Quakes/Dynamo dynasty. On Sunday, his underappreciated Dynamo will face the star-studded Galaxy. If Kinnear wins, he'll become the first MLS coach to win three championships. If he doesn't, his opponent Bruce Arena will. Only Arena will have done it with three designated players and a $14 million payroll, five times Kinnear's, who doesn't employ any designated players and so has stayed below the $2.67 million salary cap.
He missed the playoffs altogether last season for the first time since his first year in charge. He'd been forced to gradually rebuild for a second time in seven years, having lost De Rosario, Holden and Clark over the years, and the upheaval was taking its toll.
With three holdovers from his latest championship run in defender Eddie Robinson, Davis and bedrock striker Brian Ching, Kinnear started over. He fleeced D.C. United for central defender Bobby Boswell in exchange for backup goalie Zach Wells. He drafted defenders Corey Ashe and Geoff Cameron in the second and third rounds in 2007 and 2008, respectively, signed goalkeeper Tally Hall out of Denmark, defender Andre Hainault out of the Czech Republic, midfielder Luiz Camargo out of Brazil and defender Jermaine Taylor and midfielder Je-Vaughn Watson out of Jamaica. Then, putting the finishing touch on his squad, he was able to acquire midfielder Adam Moffat from the Portland Timbers in a midseason trade after a long pursuit. Bolstered by the recruits, Houston rode a late-season unbeaten streak to second place in the Eastern Conference.
Amid the masterstrokes, Kinnear was criticized for plenty of deals, too. Foreign signings like strikers Luis Angel Landin and Koke were busts. He cheaply traded away strikers Dominic Oduro, Kei Kamara and Chris Wondolowski, who combined for 35 goals for other teams this season. And he let pivotal midfielder Brian Mullan leave for the Colorado Rapids in exchange for no more than midfielder Colin Clark.
Talk to insiders, however, and they'll tell you all of these seemingly bad trades served masked purposes. Mullan, like Mulrooney years earlier, had wanted out. Kamara didn't fit in, and Oduro wanted a change of scenery. As for Wondolowski, who scored 32 in the past two seasons, well, conceded Kinnear, "Nobody foresaw what Wondo did."
Players who don't want to be in Houston are never kept there against their will. Happiness is a central tenet to the philosophy that has made Kinnear so successful.
"Frank used to say if a player comes through that door that's somebody's son," Kinnear said. "That stuck with me. You want that player to be treated the way you'd want your son to be treated. You want to give that player your honest opinion of what's going on and not to be false or to lie, even if it's not always a good message."
"He always lets you know where you stand," said Robinson, who has played under Kinnear since 2001. "As a player, you couldn't ask for anything more."
If this sounds straightforward, it's not. "You hear players around the league talk; they say I never know where I am with my coach, why I'm in the team or not in the team," Robinson said.
Kinnear has fought the industry impulse to commoditize human beings. And the payoff is huge. "The players realize he always has their best interest at heart and they wouldn't just be used and if he had no use for him he'd move them on," said longtime Kinnear assistant John Spencer, now head coach of the Timbers. "It was just like you were a family member, he just created a great harmony within the squad."
That harmony is imperative to Kinnear. He has assembled a locker room of mature, hungry players whom he can rely on to self-govern. "The first thing he looks at when he brings a guy in is whether he will fit in in our locker room," said Brad Davis, who has played for Kinnear since 2005. "He's passed on some good soccer players because he didn't think they'll fit in."
Because his players get along, he can play them against each other, breeding intensity and making them hold one another responsible and drive the collective to a higher level. "He's created an atmosphere where the guys who aren't in the first 11 are some of the hardest-working players on the team and the guys who are in the first 11, they see that and pick it up too," Robinson said. "In years past there hasn't been a day in training without a scuffle." Even a recent game of flag football organized by the players on an off-day turned into a screaming match.
For the Dynamo, that's a good thing. "When you step out on the field for training, you want it to be heated, you want it to be competitive, you want guys to want to win," said Davis, because none of it is personal. "At the end of training the guys are telling jokes and we get along great off the field. Off the field you wouldn't think we can turn into what we turn into. Whatever is done on the field, that stays on the field."
Therein the team reflects its coach. For all his humanity off the field, Kinnear is vocal and demanding on it. "If you met him in person and spoke with him and went and had dinner with him and then saw him in training, he's two completely different people," Davis said. "He's a completely different guy off the field -- very laid-back and will tell jokes. He's a church-goer; he's super polite."
That duality, the fraternity and intensity, has made the Dynamo, undefeated in more than two months, an unappealing opponent. "Players around the league will say they hate playing against that team and that's something he's very proud of and the guys in the locker room take a lot of pride in," said Pat Onstad, Kinnear's starting goalkeeper from 2003 through 2010 and now a D.C. United assistant coach.
There's no magic ingredient to Kinnear's success -- good moves, happiness, honesty, harmony and intensity is all.
Or is there? Ask Kinnear about the core philosophy underpinning his success and he'll laugh off the question. "You know I'm just a soccer coach, right?" he'll say. "I've just been so lucky that Frank gave me a chance and taught me things."
Right, luck. Like that had anything to do with it.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.