It was recently announced that the Swope Park Rangers and head coach Nikola Popovic have mutually agreed to part ways. This is the second straight year that Sporting Kansas City will be looking to replace a very successful coach with the Rangers.
In Swope Park’s first season, Marc Dos Santos led the Rangers through the Western Conference playoffs where they ultimately fell in the USL Cup Final. Dos Santos left to coach the San Francisco Deltas in the NASL.
Nikola Popovic stepped up from his assistant role of the first season to being the head coach for Swope Park. Under Popovic, the Rangers focused on the model of play and emulating the senior side’s style of play. Popovic and the Rangers looked like SKC on the field and repeated the previous Rangers’ success. A run through the Western Conference playoffs and a trip to the final came up short again.
What will Sporting KC look for in a coach for Swope Park?
1: The ability to deal with an ever changing roster. The senior team comes first in all things. If Peter Vermes needs a body on the bench, loans will be recalled. If SKC players need to get some minutes before returning to MLS play, they will start. If they want to see how an Academy kid can play at a higher level, that kid will start over more experienced/better players. If the SPR coach can’t deal with it, don’t apply.
That lack of control, or the lack of full control at least, will turn many good coaches away. Any coach for the Rangers has to remember it is a reserve team and subject to the whims and needs of the first team and dedicated to the growth of the Academy. The coach will never know for sure who is available or who he has to play until they hear from the first team.
2: The ability to coach the same model of play that Sporting KC is playing. It does little good to call a player up if they do not know what is expected of them. Also they would not want players loaned down to learn a different system or bad habits.
3: Developing young players. Over time SPR will have more and more SKC Academy Graduates on their first contract, current SKC Academy players on amateur contracts and drafted players loaned down. All of those players will be at different points in their development and will need to be coached and trained differently to achieve the same goal.
4. An “A” coaching license. This is a requirement of all professional leagues under U.S. Soccer. There can be exceptions and waivers if a coach is working on his “A” license. One problem is the USL is not wanting to ask for waivers right now so they can brag they have less waivers than the NASL.
Coaching Candidates (Unlikely as some may be)
We’ll break them down into a few categories.
Very Unlikely (but stranger things happen)
Marc Dos Santos – MDS just took his third lower division team to their league championship, this time winning the NASL with San Francisco. It appears the team will not return (life in the NASL) so Dos Santos is currently unemployed again (though he has stated if they do return, he won’t). Positive of bringing him back would be he is a talented coach capable of putting very good teams together. The negative would be he struggled with being a B team coach the first time and never quite (understatement) followed the model of play. He is unlikely to come back to this level unless he needs the money and he is already rumored for the Vancouver Whitecaps opening. He will have better options.
Preki – He is still a fan favorite in Kansas City and was successful in Sacramento a few years ago. The former Wizards midfielder was a name that was thrown around a lot early by fans the last two years. He did come back to USL but signed with cross-state rival Saint Louis FC for 2017. That did not go so well and he has already left and been replaced. It is reported he is headed for the NASL with the expansion Cal United FC. Preki combined with Technical Director Eric Wynalda at one club could require a popcorn franchise all of it’s own for the entertainment value. Well at least for us outsiders. .
He would probably have never came to the Swope Park Rangers for the same reason Dos Santos left but it would be interesting if he did.
Jimmy Nielsen – The White Puma is still loved in Kansas City. When his OKC Energy played the Rangers at Swope Park there were more Nielsen autographs requested and hugs than for anyone else. The Energy have been fairly successful but this year had some injury issues and just made the playoffs. Nielsen and OKC have parted ways and is available but Jimmy will also be probably looking for more control than a true B team. While he is the most likely of these three, for the same reason Preki and Dos Santos would not come to a B team, Nielsen probably wouldn’t either.
Unlikely – any of these might do it if Vermes asked but probably not jumping at the chance
Jon Parry – The SKC Academy director would obviously know the youth and have a vested interest in bridging the gap to the first team but seems to be happy where he is and working with growing Futsal nationally.
Kerry Zavagnin – Assistant coach already for SKC and key part of the first team staff. Unlikely to take the step to the B team as the coach unless something big changes. Has his A license so he meets all the requirements. Probably waiting to take over Sporting KC when Vermes moves up to the U.S. National Team next year (cough… cough…)
Zoran Savic – Ditto! Another assistant, Savic has also been busy with Sporting Lees Summit and seems pretty happy where he is.
Brian Bliss – He is the Director of Player Personnel and brings a ton of experience coaching to the table. He has been involved at every level of the game from player to coach to technical director. For SKC he has also coached the unofficial U-23 team of mostly former Academy players currently in college to keep them Homegrown eligible and to evaluate their talents. Would be a natural fit and seems to already work well with Vermes and the first team staff. Bliss and the departed Mike Jacobs were a big part of finding the talent for both SPR and SKC so doubtful he would leave that behind for the daily grind of a B team at this point. He has his A license so he would be eligible.
John Pascarella – Could the former SKC keeper coach come back and take over the B team? JP left to manage the Des Moines Menace USL PDL team but he was great with veterans and younger players and already knows the club well.
István Urbányi – The former Sporting KC Academy coach (and Peter Vermes team mate) has managed teams in Europe, most recently Gyirmót SE where Daniel Salloi went on loan in 2016. Urbányi was recently spotted back in Kansas City but was reported to be joining the Academy again but could at least be a potential candidate.
Paulo Nagamura – Paulo retired after the 2016 season and became the assistant for Swope Park in 2017. With Nikola leaving he could follow the pattern and step up to lead the Rangers. One drawback is he does not have his A license but he is close to finishing his B license and USL rules allow (or at least have) for a coach to be in place for a year as long as he working towards his A. What better person to show young players what it means to have heart, give your all and play for the team?
Somebody else – When the Rangers were formed it was assumed by many that one of the assistants would probably get the job and they were all wrong. Vermes went out and got one of the best coaches not in MLS (and honestly better than many MLS coaches) to be the first head coach of the Rangers. Could he do it again?
Who on this list will get the job? Or will it be some coach that we don’t know or would have never expected? Any other good/likely candidates not on this list? Let us know in the comments.