Now that the regular seasons have ended for the major domestic soccer leagues; MLS, USL, NWSL and even in college soccer, it’s rebuilding time, which often starts at the top with a new head coach. No fewer than six Major League Soccer teams are scouring the globe for a new manager. And yet, apparently, Riverhounds head coach Bob Lilley hasn’t heard a peep from any of the first division sides in the U.S.
“No, I have not been contacted. (But) my ambition is to win it here.”
In a season-ending press conference with the media last Thursday, Lilley was asked if any MLS teams had made attempts to interview him, and whether he planned to stay with the Riverhounds in the near future. Lilley was intent on winning a trophy in the near term here in Steel City.
“I know where my heart and mind is at,” Lilley stated. “And, it’s here in Pittsburgh.”
Lilley’s professional record as a coach is second-to-none.
The Riverhounds gaffer has compiled a winning record at every team he has lead, from his first job with the Hershey Wildcats to his later success leading the Rochester Rhinos, where he won the USL Cup in 2015.
Lilley has been head coach of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds since 2018. In 2019, in just his second year with the club, the Hounds finished with a 19-11-4 (WTL) record and 68 points, atop the Eastern Conference. His overall record with Pittsburgh the past four years is an impressive 61-34-21.
Meanwhile, over in Major League Soccer, several teams find themselves in disarray.
Vancouver Whitecaps fired their head coach, Marc Dos Santos, on August 27 this year after managing just five wins through the first 20 games. The team has seen five different coaches since joining MLS in 2011. Other than a strong 2015 season in which the club finished secondin the Western Conference and won the Canadian Championship, the Caps have generally been between mediocre (2013: 13-9-12, 13th in MLS overall) and bad (2019: 8-10-16, 23rd overall). Before their entry into MLS, Lilley was a head coach for Vancouver from 2005-2007, winning the USL-1 Championship with them in 2006.
Vancouver is currently functioning with interim coach Vanni Sartini, and with his help, they made into the playoffs with a 6th place finish in the conference.
Chicago Fire dismissed their coach, Raphael Wicky, after two losing seasons. He was the replacement for Veljko Paunović, who had just one winning season in his four years at the helm. Former USL side FC Cincinnati terminated head coach Jaap Stam several weeks ago. He was the teams fourth coach in just three years in MLS. FCC has finished last in the league each of their three years in existence. Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas, and Toronto FC are all looking for new managerial leadership after sub-par seasons.
Bob Lilley in action against Charlotte Independence in May of 2021. Photo Credit: Mark Asher Goodman
MLS teams, however, seem stubbornly committed to giving the bulk of interviews for openings to European coaches, MLS assistants, and recently departed coaches from other MLS teams. Cincinnati’s Stam, a native of the Netherlands, had previously coached Feyenoord and PEC Zwolle in the Eredivisie. Toronto’s head coach Chris Armas had been the manager at New York Red Bulls prior to his gig in Canada. RSL’s interim head coach is a former RSL assistant, Pablo Mastroeni. Mastroeni was previously the head coach at RSL’s bitter rivals, Colorado Rapids. And so the coaching carousel in Major League Soccer proceeds along a predictable course.
There have been some exceptions in which USL coaches have been given a shot to lead a team in the top U.S. league.
The MLS iteration of FC Cincinnati chose Alan Koch to be its first coach in 2019. Koch was already the coach of FCC when they were a USL team. He lasted just 11 games, compiling a 2-7-2 record. He was fired on May 12 of that year.
Wilmer Cabrera, over his 16-year coaching career, has roughly split his time between MLS and USL teams. He served as an assistant for Colorado Rapids and head coach with Chivas USA, Houston Dynamo, and Montreal Impact in the top flight. Cabrera has also had two stints as head coach of USL’s Rio Grand Valley Toros – the first in 2015 and 2016, and the second from February 2021 till the present.
Nashville SC’s Gary Smith won MLS Cup with the Colorado Rapids in 2010, was fired in 2011, coached abroad, then returned to the U.S. to coach Nashville SC in USL in 2018 and 2019. When they switched to MLS in 2020, Smith came along with them. Smith’s 2021 Nashville side finished 3rd in the Eastern Conference with a 12-18-4 (WTL) record.
Finally, Orlando City hired James O’Connor to be their manager from the middle of 2018 through the end of the 2019 season, replacing Jason Kreis. O’Connor had been the manager of USL’s Louisville City from 2015 to 2018, winning the USL Cup trophy in both 2017 and 2018.
OCSC went 2-3-13 in 2018 under O’Connor, and a better-but-not-good-enough 9-10-15 in 2019 before he was sacked.
Some would argue that the record above of MLS coaches that matriculated from USL has produced little success. However, it must be noted that in a league with 27 teams and 26 years of history that has had hundreds of coaches over time, four former second division coaches at the helm of MLS teams is an incredibly small sample size. The jury is still most certainly out as to whether the USL Championship can become a fertile training ground for future MLS coaches. Certainly Gary Smith’s success at Nashville indicates that there are good coaches in USL, and they gain valuable coaching experience coaching in the second division.
For now, the Riverhounds SC’s Bob Lilley is entirely focused on winning it all in the USL Championship. After another winning season as head coach, his team was poised for a run at a USL trophy until a rampant Covid outbreak forced the bulk of the squad into quarantine at the end of October, scuttling their first round matchup against Birmingham Legion and forcing the Hounds to bow out for the season with a forfeit. It leaves Lilley with a sense that there is unfinished business for the Hounds to attend to in 2022.
“It is really disappointing to put nine months in and not have the opportunity to compete at playoff time,” Lilley said. “It’s a tough price to pay.”
On Zoom with media, Lilley was not at all thinking about his future, but on the Riverhounds’ future. He was excited about the progress at the team’s under-construction AHN Montour Health and Sports Medicine Center in Coraopolis. The new training facility will have 10 outdoor fields and a robust full-sized indoor pitch, along with ample locker room space, a fitness and recovery center, and a medical office focused on treating sports injuries. Lilley saw that as a building block to growing the Riverhounds into a more powerful force in the Pittsburgh sports landscape.
“I’m excited. Where we are headed is to solidify this team and this market.”
It was clearly a project he wanted to be a part of. Lilley might certainly be capable of helping lead an MLS team from mediocrity to success, but he’d rather take the Riverhounds from good to great, and from small, to medium, and finally to large, at least in terms of their soccer presence in Pittsburgh.
As Lilley put it, “Everywhere I’ve been, we’ve built a strong team. We’ve gone further. And I’m determined to get this over the line here.”