With recent reports that the San Diego Loyal’s Landon Donovan is being considered for the San Jose Earthquakes’ open coaching job, we’re wondering: which other USL managers should be getting some attention from MLS teams? Though it’s not especially common for managers to move from the USL to MLS, the lower-divisions are full of talented coaches and sharp tactical minds.
Today, we’re highlighting three managers who are ready to take the next step in their coaching careers.
BEN PIRMANN, MEMPHIS 901 FC
LEAGUE: USL CHAMPIONSHIP
Ben Pirmann, who’s coaching one of the USL Championship’s best teams and biggest surprises, is something of a wunderkind. The 36-year-old champions an attacking (sixth in the USL in expected goals) and possession-based (ninth in possession percentage) style based on patience and control. With that style, Memphis 901 FC have gone from a fringe playoff team to genuine trophy contenders.
Pirmann earned his first head coaching job at age 28 with Detroit City FC, which was then part of the NPSL. During that time, he simultaneously served as an assistant for Michigan State. Those experiences helped Pirmann grow into a strong talent-developer who is fully capable of identifying raw potential and turning it into actual on-field production.
Take Jeremy Kelly as an example.
During his time on loan with Phoenix Rising last year, Kelly made five appearances as an emergency fullback. In Memphis, Pirmann placed Kelly on the left wing, where he’s already contributed four goals and seven assists in 2022. Kelly’s skill and work rate embody Pirmann’s coaching philosophy. If a team comes in for the young coach, they should expect to start pressing high and controlling at least some of the ball with a fluid attack.
NEILL COLLINS, TAMPA BAY ROWDIES
LEAGUE: USL CHAMPIONSHIP
After winning Coach of the Year in the USL Championship in 2021, Neill Collins is one of the top coaching figures in the USL. The Scotsman finished his UEFA coaching badges this spring, bolstering two straight title-game appearances with impressive technical credentials. His on-field success, however, is the real draw. Under Collins, the Tampa Bay Rowdies have been the cream of the crop in the USL.
Since hiring Collins in 2018, Tampa Bay has used a back-three shape defined by aggressive wingbacks and ball-playing center backs. His Rowdies team dominates possession and emphasizes quick transitions into a defensive block. Even with that solidity, the Rowdies are fun to watch, quick on the break, and reliant on free-wheeling attackers.
In addition to his system and resume, Collins is a class act. Having worked as a data analyst and scout for the Rowdies, I can attest to his analytics savvy and willingness to think outside of the box. Even setting my experiences aside, Collins is well-regarded across the league and could be ready to take the next step in his coaching career.
JOHN HARKES, GREENVILLE TRIUMPH SC
LEAGUE: USL LEAGUE ONE
The managerial quality in the USL extends to League One – and John Harkes is one of the best in the third division. A former U.S. men’s national team player, Harkes was once an assistant with the New York Red Bulls and he led FC Cincinnati to two playoff appearances and an Open Cup semifinal as the organization’s first-ever manager.
That success as a player and coach extends to his stint in Greenville. Harkes got in on the ground floor in South Carolina, building the Triumph squad for their 2019 debut.
Since then, the Greenville Triumph have reached three consecutive USL League One title games and have never finished below third in the table.
Stylistically, Harkes is a defense-first manager. He prefers a 4-4-2 and his team is always compact and difficult to break down. Greenville have allowed the fewest goals in League One in two of the last three seasons and they’re on track to do so again in 2022. Combine his ability to build a strong defense with stellar name recognition and you can see why Harkes could be a strong hire.