Earlier in the week, the Vancouver Whitecaps introduced one-time Colorado Rapids defender and former indoor soccer legend Denis Hamlett as their new assistant coach. Hamlett joins the existing bootroom staff of head coach Teitur Thordarson, assistant Colin Miller, and goalkeepers coach Mike Salmon, and is the first member of the coaching staff with previous Major League Soccer coaching experience.
The Whitecaps have been out of the news lately, but this got them back into the soccer headlines with a shout: it was as high-profile a signing as the coaching staff could have gotten and might wind up affecting this team every bit as much as the forthcoming MLS Entry Draft. The 41-year-old Hamlett was considered a top Major League Soccer defender in the 1996 season he spent with Colorado, but unfortunately a stroke both ended his soccer career at the age of 27 and put his very life in jeopardy. The Costa Rican landed on both feet, though, spending almost a decade as an assistant coach with the Chicago Fire before taking the head job at the beginning of the 2008 season. Hamlett ran the Fire for two seasons before being sacked on November 24, 2009. He spent 2010 wandering the desert, including running the Illinois Institute of Technology's men's soccer team during the 2010 NAIA Division I season, and this is his first job in Major League Soccer since his firing by Chicago.
He won't get the headlines of a Jay DeMerit, but Hamlett is a major acquisition by the Vancouver Whitecaps. Hamlett could be an invaluable source of counsel for Teitur Thordarson regarding the quirks and pitfalls of Major League Soccer. He had a good record in Chicago and his firing was controversial. From a dramatic standpoint it could not be a better-timed hiring, as earlier this week Toronto FC made waves by bringing in two more foreign coaches while Vancouver concentrates on North American veterans. There's almost nothing to be worried about in this signing and a great deal to be excited by. An assistant coach isn't the most glamorous part of any soccer team, but Hamlett might be worth making an exception. Not only is he eminently qualified, but his hiring demonstrates an insight by the Whitecaps that is more promising than one coach could ever be.
It is easy to look back on Hamlett's record and be impressed: two seasons as head coach, two appearances in the MLS Cup semi-final. The truth is, as always, less clear and Hamlett left the Fire under something of a cloud. During an August 9 game against the Houston Dynamo, Hamlett was involved in a half-time fracas in the locker room with defender Bakary Soumare that led to a fine and bad blood among the Fire players. Hamlett was criticized for not relating to his players well enough, for being unable to nurse wounded egos and inspire confidence. After his departure, those who had worked with Hamlett were quick to go on the record anonymously, criticizing the team's atmosphere.
Not even his team's performance is entirely free from criticism. In the MLS playoffs, nothing is a certainty but Hamlett was criticized for not bringing Chicago a championship The Chicago Fire were, it was said, a very deep team and two successive semi-final appearances weren't considered good enough. In hindsight, Chicago's catastrophic performance in 2010 might lend support to the idea that Hamlett got a bit more out of the team than everyone suspected at the time. Chicago's two seasons under Hamlett were their best since 2003, and with Chicago's dispiriting play in 2010 that record seems safe. Hamlett's job was never entirely secure in Chicago. An earlier spell as interim head coach, while successful, did not result in his promotion or even his serious consideration. He had been far from their first choice as head coach in 2008, as well: Hamlett was approached only after Juan Carlos Osorio bailed on Chicago for the New York Red Bulls job and Houston Dynamo assistant John Spencer had turned the position down after initially showing interest.
The Fire were quick to burn bridges with Hamlett when they decided not to renew his contract, but I'll stick up for him. Results don't lie, and Hamlett got results in a way that neither his predecessor nor his successor could. It also beggars belief that Hamlett could spend nine years as an assistant in Chicago, win an MLS Cup, four US Open Cups, and a Supporters' Shield, and be unable to relate to professional soccer players. On most professional teams, the assistant coaches have far more day-to-day contact with the players than the head coach does. Could Hamlett really be so toxic if he spent that long with the team and achieved such success?
Hamlett's record is not unblemished. There were obvious problems in the Chicago Fire locker room in 2009 and as head coach Hamlett must take some responsibility. It should be remembered that Hamlett also failed to find a professional coaching position in 2010, being reduced to running a second-tier college program. Even with eleven years' coaching experience in MLS, Hamlett once again has to prove himself. All the same, Hamlett is a welcome addition to the Whitecaps' coaching staff. His hiring is also a promising indication of the direction Vancouver intends to take.
Major League Soccer is famous (some would say infamous) for its rules encouraging league parity, most notably its salary cap. With the addition of homegrown and designated player rules, the salary cap is easier to circumvent than it used to be, but it remains a truism that MLS teams can't count on pulling a Chelsea, spending through the nose on their roster, and winning championships that way. League rules also affect other ways that wealthier teams can gain an advantage, such as prohibiting chartered flights. It's left to the rich teams to get an edge where they can.
Well, where better than coaching? Coaches' salaries are not restricted by Major League Soccer, meaning that if the team can afford a coach, it can hire that coach. A good coaching staff from top to bottom is easily worth a few points per year in the standings, particularly if the schedule is crowded with Voyageurs Cup and CONCACAF Champions League matches. By spending the money to bring in an experienced MLS boss to assist Teitur Thordarson, Vancouver is recognizing this reality. It's a savvy move for a team entering its first year in the league, and with much of Vancouver's roster yet to be assembled Hamlett has plenty of time to do some good.
A well-selected and well-prepared coaching staff can do the Whitecaps a world of good, both short and long-term. Right now, they're off to a hell of a start.