Mike Keeney embodies a certain type of American soccer story. You know the one: a young man packs a bag with some clothes and a dream, stuffs a couple hundred dollars into his pockets, hops a plane to Europe and dives into football on the continent. He struggles and works, embracing any opportunity while battling negative perceptions and reality. Eventually, he finds a place, making himself indispensable and building a career.
“Those first few years, I was scraping by trying to make make a living,” Keeney told ESPN over Zoom. “I was sacrificing a lot of time and energy to train three, four or five teams. I joke around, if two kids were kicking a bottle in the carpark I probably went over there and tried to make them better. Why? Because I wanted to show my ability, and I think in a country like Finland, they reward you for this.”
Keeney is nearly 15 years into this journey, a veteran with experience at a dozen clubs including HIFK Helsinki and FC Samorin, and a Finnish passport to boot. He’s built a reputation, a good one, with connections throughout Europe. Keeney’s story is one of success, but the Antioch, California, native isn’t a player. The 48-year-old is a manager, one of a small but growing number of Americans who are making it in the European coaching ranks, forging paths not just for themselves but for the people who will come after them.
The American-in-Europe coaching fraternity includes some big names. U.S. men’s national team manager Gregg Berhalter previously managed Sweden’s Hammarby IF, while Bob Bradley had stints at Swansea City and Le Havre. Jesse March is with Leeds United after a successful run at FC Salzburg and less successful one at RB Leipzig. Pellegrino Matarazzo and David Wagner boast Bundesliga experience, with LAFC‘s Steve Cherundolo previously working in an assistant capacity at Hannover.
Others, such as Kenney, Enochs and former University of Connecticut and Temple assistant Brian Clarhaut — now with GIF Sundsvall in Sweden, which just signed MLS stalwart and former U.S. international midfielder Joe Corona on loan — don’t have the name recognition, but are forging a path others can follow. In football, success begets success, and a chance taken creates another opportunity for someone else.
That said, just as American players had to (and continue to) deal with prejudice and prevailing perception about the quality of soccer in the United States, coaches do, too. Bradley drew the ire of the fans for saying “PK” and “road games,” and mispronouncing Premier League. Marsch caused a collective commentator meltdown after holding a postmatch team huddle on the pitch, while Manchester United assistant Chris Armas can’t get away from the Ted Lasso comparisons. (We’ll get to the Richmond FC boss in a bit.)
But while there’s a negative connotation of the U.S. as a backwater football culture, leaning into the stereotype of being “an American” can have its benefits.
“I didn’t try to downplay it — I tried to embrace it,” said Clarhaut, a brash and proud 35-year-old New Jersey native. “That type of leadership, that type of aggression is one of my biggest strengths. It’s like, ‘OK, who is this kind of crazy American guy?'”
American managers might be crazy (at least some), but are they any good? It’s a decidedly mixed bag.
Twenty First Group pulled together a list of how American coaches had fared during their tenures, using their World Soccer League ratings to determine how much better or worse a coach’s team got during his first 30 matches in charge. Matarazzo and Marsch made their teams “much better.” (In fact, Matarazzo’s time at Stuttgart rated as the most improvement of any of the 771 manager tenures tracked.) Enochs, Wagner (at Young Boys) and Bradley (at Le Havre) rated between “slightly better” and “slightly worse.” Berhalter, Bradley (at Swansea City and Stabaek) and Wagner (at Schalke and Huddersfield) checked in as “materially worse.”
Not horrible, but not exactly Ted Lasso, either.
Speaking of that streaming phenomenon, while Americans coaching in Europe mostly have similar stories about their paths, they have vastly different opinions regarding everyone’s favorite affable football-turned-football coach.
“They did a great job,” Cherundolo said. “It’s a great show.”
“We just got sort of hooked on it,” said Enochs, who binged both seasons with his wife. “It was funny. I enjoy it. I know it’s only entertainment, though.” He also said that none of his assistants in Germany know anything about it — a boon when it comes to avoiding the dopey-American-coach stereotype.
Keeney, on the other hand, isn’t a fan. “The little bit I’ve seen, I don’t think it does favors for the image of an American abroad,” he said. “It undermines some of the work that myself and some of the other guys have been doing, the guys who actually come over to Europe and work and battle.”
One issue not covered in a fictional show that’s very real for flesh-and-blood Americans is the fact that U.S. Soccer coaching licenses are not valid in Europe. Without a UEFA Pro License, one cannot manage a team in a top-tier league for more than 12 weeks. Getting one requires successfully completing the B and A Licenses, and getting approved for a Pro course, which happens at the discretion of national federations.
“These are very selective spots,” Clarhaut said. “So that’s a huge, huge disadvantage for American coaches. It’s a problem.”
While this wrinkle isn’t unique to Americans as all non-European managers can have difficulty earning their UEFA badges, it dramatically limits the opportunities available for coaches coming from the United States. (And, perhaps, the lack of reciprocity indicates the low standards in which the European governing body holds the USSF coaching-licensing program.) Before moving to Europe, Keeney worked at Hoover Soccer Club in Birmingham, Alabama, which had a coaching- and player-exchange program with Celtic. While he impressed the Scottish club’s coaching staff, getting a job with them was a nonstarter.
“They told me, ‘You’re an American guy with no UEFA badges, no coaching licenses,'” Keeney said. “‘It’s almost impossible for us to get you hired, let alone get you the work permit.'”
When an opportunity presented itself in Finland, Keeney jumped at it, and even then, constantly applying and reapplying for visas and work permits took a good deal of his time.
In the future, more American coaches will find their way to Europe, but it’s not happening yet. In his capacity as chief intelligence officer at Twenty First Group, Omar Chaudhuri helps teams perform due diligence on lists of coaching prospects and also creates lists of potential coaching candidates for clubs. He said there’s never really been an American on the shortlists, although he did note Marsch’s hiring at Leeds. While he (and others interviewed for this piece) have noticed an improved perception of American players in Europe, the same isn’t true of coaches.
“If a coach is doing very well in MLS, I think in Europe, it’d be dismissed more readily than if a player was doing well in MLS,” he said.
Conversely, American managers are on short leashes when they do get top jobs. The masses turned against “Soccer Bob” Bradley almost immediately — perhaps before he even fielded his first starting lineup. Marsch and Leipzig parted ways just four months into his first season, with both parties admitting that it was the wrong person in the wrong situation.
This isn’t an unknown phenomenon. In the recent past, American players wouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt, pulled from the lineup or buried on the bench after a few mistakes, whereas their counterparts from more “respected” soccer cultures would earn more chances. As more Americans succeed on the field, that reality is changing.
“The dialogue is much different today,” said Cherundolo, who has experience both as a player and a manager helping to change the perception. “It’s: ‘No, he’s good. Let’s give him some time and get to know the team.’ Respect and credit has certainly grown over the years. It’s only a matter of time before that happens for coaches. But there are always going to have to be some trailblazers who go through difficult stretches first.”
“We have to prove ourselves first,” he said. “We have to go through that. It’s just a lengthy process, but it will happen.”
The goal, of course, is to get to a place where Americans aren’t “American coaches” and just “coaches.” The best way to do that is to win.
“They don’t look at your passport, they look at your ability,” Keeney said. “If you’re not winning games, if you’re not developing players, if, on a professional side, you’re not selling guys for profit, they don’t care who you are or where you’re from. It’s a business.”
Keeney continued: “It’s an interesting pathway. If you would have asked me 15 years ago, when I first left, would I be down this road, I would say, ‘You’re crazy.’ But you know, the journey has been fantastic.”