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2024 USL Championship Preview – New Coaches Roundtable

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 03/07/24, 10:40AM EST


We talked to Indy’s Sean McAuley, Las Vegas’ Dennis Sanchez and Rhode Island’s Khano Smith on a wide range of topics as they prepare for the season

The past offseason has been full of changes in the USL Championship’s coaching ranks.

Since the end of the last campaign, Orange County SC’s Morten Karlsen had his interim label removed to take the helm on a multi-year contract, and nine new coaches have taken the reins around the league, including a pair of managers – Hartford Athletic’s Brendan Burke and the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ Robbie Nielson – who arrived with experience leading a squad in the professional ranks.

That leaves seven managers who are taking the reins officially as Head Coaches for the first time. We sat down with three of them – Indy Eleven’s Sean McAuley, Las Vegas Lights FC’s Dennis Sanchez, and Rhode Island FC’s Khano Smith – to discuss a variety of topics as they prepare for the new season this weekend.

Here’s what they had to tell us.

Note: Some answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Q: When did you first envision becoming a coach?

DENNIS SANCHEZ: Honestly, it’s been a long time. I think I grew up as a player that always in the back of my mind felt like I had some natural leadership qualities. On the field I was always a team captain and I felt that helping others is really where I wanted to be. So, I would say I had a shorter playing career – I played in college, but then made a decision to really embark on a journey approaching and learning from the best. So, I would say from a very early age, I felt like coaching was my calling.

SEAN McAULEY: For me, similar sort of thing. I started playing professionally in ’88, and during that time we had to do a coaching qualification as part of our apprenticeship. I ended up passing that, and if you didn’t take the next level within five years, you got your license withdrawn, so I just thought I might as well take the next one, and then take the next one. Then while I was playing, I always used to coach within the academies of the teams I was playing for, and I sort of realized that the second career was probably going to be coaching.

KHANO SMITH: It was probably right when I got done playing. I was in Boston, and I knew I didn’t want to leave. I just wanted to stay rooted in the Boston area at the time, that was when I was around 30, 31. So, I just started working with the youth academy and doing the player development programs with the Revolution Academy. And then obviously worked my way up to working in in the Developmental Academy at the time.

I did my “B” license while I was still playing. Obviously, it accelerated when no more offers were coming in, but I certainly thought about it. I knew I would have worked in the game at some point, and I guess at that time coaching was the pathway. You look at opportunities for players now, they just have so many more opportunities and avenues to go into and stay in the game.

Q: What's one of the most important elements you've come to understand in your progression as a coach?

Indy Eleven's new Head Coach Sean McAuley in preseason with his players. | Photo courtesy Indy Eleven

McAULEY: I don't think you can ever stop learning. It’s been the most important thing for me. You know, different places have different challenges, different games, different challenges, working with different people, different players, you never stop learning. Then, coupling that with all the coaching education that you need to keep up to date with and your continued professional development. That’s the most valuable thing that I’ve come to learn from.

SANCHEZ: Yeah, I would agree. I think that if you’re not evolving, you’re going to get passed by, so there’s this constant thirst for gaining new knowledge, learning new things, being open minded. I think that learning from the best is essential to anybody’s progression, and I think that really the biggest thing for me in learning from others is that there’s not one specific way, right? There’s a lot of different ways in which you can be successful as a coach and really, it's about staying true to your core values, knowing what your identity is, and not really changing for different reasons. Staying true to yourself and coaching the way that you feel like is going to be best suited for the environment that you’re in.

SMITH: The most important element is that it’s people, at the end of the day, that they are people. We are all human beings, and they are no different as players. They have feelings, they have emotions, their insecurities, just like all of us. You would hope that they play well and play to the best of their abilities all the time, but there are so many elements and factors that come into that, and it’s not possible, so you have to be relatable and connect with them on a human level before anything else.

Q: Who's been your most important mentor?

SANCHEZ: Oh, I have a lot and I’ve been fortunate to work around some really good people in my career. I think they’ve all added different things. I think when I was in Seattle with the Sounders, learning from Sigi Schmid, Chris Henderson, Brian Schmetzer about how to develop a winning culture, the type of roster that you need to be successful, connecting with the fans in the community that was an essential part of my development. And then when I was in Columbus, I think that in terms of the detail to what I saw, or the way I saw the game was really brought out. Learning from Gregg Berhalter, Nico Estevez, Ben Cross, Josh Wolff, there were a number of really high-quality coaches there, and I just saw what the next level looks like in terms of the detail the process in really having a true North Star. So those are probably some of the people that have influenced me the most.

SMITH: I don’t know if I could name one, I think there’s a few. There’s a couple of people in Bermuda that have been very influential, one was my national team coach and still a friend and mentor, Kenny Thompson, he’s that person for me. Paul Mariner was my coach with the Revs. Paul had a profound impact on me. I strive to make my players feel about me what I felt about him. He was always inspirational to me. He got the best out of me, knew how to get the best out of me.

Rhode Island FC Head Coach Khano Smith joined the club last year after serving as an assistant coach at Birmingham Legion FC since the start of the 2019 season. | Photo courtesy Rhode Island FC

But then my professional coaching journey started in the Revs Academy, so Bryan Scales, he was the Academy Director at the Revolution at the time, he’s somebody that I still talk to. And then Tommy Sermanni was my coach when I was working with the Orlando Pride, so again, someone is still a mentor and then Tommy Soehn that I was just with in Birmingham. I think you take bits and pieces from everyone that you know and work with, and obviously there's people that I have studied, that I look at all of the other top coaches in and around the country, in and around the world and just trying to steal little bits and pieces from everyone.

McAULEY: Yeah, I’ve worked with some really good coaches. When I was a player, obviously, some of the best [Editor’s note: McAuley came through Manchester United’s Academy and was signed to the First Team by Sir Alex Ferguson in 1990] and then as an assistant coach, I worked with a lot of good people, especially over here in the U.S. In terms of mentorship, the biggest and best mentor I’ve had has been my dad. He’s been the one that put the values into me – hard work, enthusiasm – so I would say he’s the biggest mentor that I’ve had.

Q: Does being a Head Coach feel different to being an assistant?

SMITH: One-hundred percent. You’re the leader now, and obviously you get bits and pieces of that as an assistant coach, you’re helping to lead, but you know you are the leader as the Head Coach. I tried to surround myself in my staff with people that obviously have different strengths than me. I’m not insecure about that. We’ve hired them because they’re obviously good at their jobs and you try and let them lead in their own way and do their jobs, but it certainly is different. You’re the one that everybody looks to at most times, and that’s good and bad, so leading is my first responsibility now.

McAULEY: Yeah, yeah. Different responsibilities, you know? You’re in charge of more than just the responsibilities of your day-to-day, you’re in charge of everything that’s involved for the whole season, and the buck stops with you. But the good thing about my time as an assistant, I had a couple of chances to do that coach's job on an interim basis – both in in the U.K. and in the U.S. – and having that experience helps you become a better assistant as well. Once you then step into being a Head Coach, because you’ve been an assistant, you know what they need and what they want and you know how to lead them. There's a lot of times as an assistant where I thought, ‘Well, I wish I had more responsibility’ and you think if I’ve got the top job, I’d give the assistants the responsibility. So, it’s that sort of stuff. That really is the difference.

SANCHEZ: There’s obviously differences in both roles. And to echo what Sean said, I think that having worked on both sides in different capacities gives you a really good viewpoint, right? We’ve all probably been in situations as an assistant where you have no responsibility and you’re asking for more and you’re wanting to have a bigger role, and I think it’s important as a Head Coach that I want to work in a very collaborative way. I want to bring in good people that I trust and that are experts in their respective field, and ultimately know I can trust them in their roles and leading the process. Having different voices, I think that’s an essential part, especially over the long course of a season. So, obviously, as a Head Coach there’s a lot more responsibility, a lot more decision-making, more off-the-field responsibility that I wish I didn’t have to deal with all the time. I love being on the field, but that just comes with the role.

Q: You’re obviously in different situations in terms of the rosters you’ve inherited, but when it comes to the fundamental elements of what you're looking for, what is it that you look for in a group of players as you build out a squad?

Dennis Sanchez arrives at Las Vegas Lights FC having previously served as an assistant at the Charleston Battery and elsewhere in the USL Championship and MLS landscape. | Photo courtesy Charleston Battery

SANCHEZ: I think that for us building a roster really from scratch, it’s the person, the people, the character. I know everybody says it, but I think that we've been trying to be really diligent with the conversations that we’re having with the players to the types of questions that we’re asking them, connecting with different people that know them on an individual basis. So, for us it’s really about the way that we establish our environment and the culture, and it starts with good people first. That’s been a really, really important piece of what we've tried to develop and build.

Of course, there’s a footballing aspect. I think that we have a very clear identity in the way that we want to play. I’m not married to a system, it’s my job to put the best players on the field and find a way to collectively be at our best, but within that, how do we stay true to the behaviors and characteristics that we want to uphold on the field? Through that, we want to have as much of a balanced roster as possible, making sure that we have some USL experienced players, some senior guys that, honestly, I can lean on and work with to lead the locker room, a mix of some younger, top talented players that can develop into the future, and really just everything in between that. Having as much of a balanced roster as we can has really been the focus.

McAULEY: Yeah, same. You know, you arrive at a place, and you take a look at what you’ve got, and you’re always trying to improve what you’ve got. That’s just the nature of the beast. And it goes back to what you were saying in terms of how they want to play. We have a defined style of play, and the players adopt it, and if they don’t, they move on. It’s as simple as that. You never stop building, everybody goes into different stages of where the current roster is. I was fortunate that I have a lot of players that if you were choosing. you’d probably want to pick, but like everywhere you have a couple where you think, ‘they’re probably not going to fit into how I want to play.’ So, they’re the ones that ultimately will either change their behaviors and buy into what you’re telling them to do, or they’ll move on. We’ll be very honest and open with them in terms of how we want to play so that there will be no secrets. And if they can do it, then great. If they can't, then we’ll help them, and if they won’t, it’s goodbye.

Q: What's more important, man management or tactical process?

McAULEY: Both. There isn’t one or the other. Some people get the tactical stuff and the pictures and the vision of how you want to play really easily, naturally. So, then you probably focus more on man-management with that type of player. Then some probably need more information given to them in different forms, whether it be through working one-to-one, video work, or extra work on the training ground, but it’s both. My experience has told me that if you have a great tactical plan, but nobody wants to carry it out because they don’t like you, then the tactics really go out of the window. So, I’d rather get the players in who want to do it and enjoy the work that they want to do, because then the tactics, they’ll probably adopt them and buy into them. So, it is both, but I’ll probably go that man-management’s probably slightly ahead.

Indy Eleven defender Callum Chapman-Page and Head Coach Sean McAuley talk during the current preseason. | Photo courtesy Indy Eleven

SANCHEZ: I would agree. I think that if I look at the process that we want to implement here, of course, there is an identity and a way that we want to play, but for me shifting the mindset and the mentality of the group, especially based off the perception of what Las Vegas Lights has been, we need to change that. So, for me, if we can get the mentality right early on, I think that will lead to more success tactically and with an identity on the field.

SMITH: I think they're both very important. But like I said before, they’re human beings, and you have to understand human beings first so you know how to treat them properly. Unless you treat players properly as human beings, what you know tactically doesn't really matter. There's a saying that people don't really care what you know until you show that you care. So, you have to care for them and respect them and treat them properly as human beings first.

Q: How do you go about setting goals or targets for a season?

SANCHEZ: I think there’s a balance. I used to be, in my own self, ‘I want to do this, and this, by this date.’ And what I’ve come to learn over the years is that it’s very important to have a North Star. We want to make playoffs this year. That’s going to be something that’s openly discussed within the group and that’s going to be our goal, but the most important thing is to be present and focus on the daily process. I think that when you do that, and you have this daily idea of moving forward, progressing, having a growth mindset, to me that is the ultimate way to reach your goal. It’s just a balance of knowing where we’re going, but it’s the daily behaviors that are going to allow you to get there.

SMITH: We certainly have our own goals that we talked about internally, and what we want to do, but ultimately the bigger global perspective is that we want to provide the community and the people of Rhode Island with a team that they all can be proud of as their team and provide a team that people come in to enjoy watching. We would love to win every game, win every championship, never lose a game, but that's not possible. So, we have to provide an experience and hopefully an entertaining experience for people that they want to come back to. Win, lose, or draw they’re proud of their team and they are there to have a team that shows fighting character and a character that mirrors the community. You look at the people of Rhode Island naturally have a chip on their shoulder, they’re salty, it's cold, they’re gritty, they know how to fight. They’re the smallest state in the union, so the team has to have those characteristics of the community so the community can then follow the team and be proud of the team. That’s the type of team that we’re trying to build.

McAULEY: Yeah, I think target setting is pretty important, and it’s really difficult to come to terms with set targets because the majority are usually not met. If you asked every ownership group, the target is to win every game. The only problem is the other team we’re playing against, they want to win as well, so somebody is going to miss out. For us, we set targets daily from a physical perspective. So, they need to be met. And if they’re not, then obviously change the target for the following day. We set targets weekly in terms of periodization, for what to achieve tactically and technically, based on what we’ll do on the training ground or in the meeting and video rooms.

Then when we get into the games, we’ll set targets for points monthly. We’ve got a point total that we want to achieve every month based on opponent, fixture, travel, when the Open Cup comes in, all that sort of stuff. So, we’ve got targets that we want to achieve, and basically if we exceed them, we probably know the following month, we’re maybe going to fall below them, and we’re going to try and keep an even keel all season. But the data is now stronger and stronger in terms of people coming into the game. And we’ve got to adopt it and work with it, you can’t fight it, because it’s there and it’s never going away. For ourselves, we’ve all agreed, staff and players, what we want to achieve on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.

Q: How do you feel about promotion and relegation in the league system?

New Rhode Island FC Head Coach Khano Smith meets the media ahead of the expansion club's first season in the USL Championship in 2024. | Photo courtesy Rhode Island FC

SMITH: I know it’s something that our league is looking into, and, look, I think it works wonderfully all over the world. But I think when people try to compare promotion and relegation, they try and compare this country to England. You have to take that out of it. You have to take that out of it because England is the best example of it, and promotion and relegation all around the world doesn’t necessarily work like it does in England.

So, can it work here? Sure, it can work here. But ultimately, it needs to be right for the franchises and teams in this country. But I’m excited about the possibility of it happening in USL. I know there’s been some discussions about it at some level, whether that happens now or 10 years from now. I think it would certainly add to the excitement of the league, but I also understand that people that are running businesses certainly don't want to be losing money because of promotion-relegation.

McAULEY: If I was an owner who was putting millions and millions and millions into getting a franchise, I’d think it’s ridiculous to think that you would want them to go into league where another one has not put money in. As a player, I’d think it’s fantastic because you get the opportunity to succeed and rise and challenge yourself against the next level of opponent. And as a coach, I can see the value and the reason of both sides of it. 

From me personally, I’ve been involved in promotion-relegation, and been on both sides. As a player I got relegated, and I got promoted at Wembley. There is no better feeling than getting promoted. But you’ve also got to realize that that feeling can be you know, flipped on its head when you get relegated, and a lot of bad things can happen in terms of people losing their jobs.

If you want to go down that road, it’s amazing, because the player who earns 500-grand a year when he gets relegated doesn't get anything off, but the tea lady who earns 25-grand a year making cups of tea and a few sandwiches for the players, she gets sacked. So, it’s not all sunshine and everything else that they say, because there’s a huge responsibility. I know there’s a lot of talk of people doing it in the U.S. If they do it, then great, everybody adopt it, but recognize the fact that it comes with a lot of other things as well.

SANCHEZ: I think Sean handled that one pretty well. I think the concept is something that’s attractive, right? The idea, especially in our space of moving up to a higher division is obviously very attractive. And I think that with promotion-relegation, there's a pressure to be successful. I mean, the reality is, if this was in place last year, then you’d be talking to a coach that’s in League One right now. So, the added pressure, it can be a good thing. I think pressure is a privilege. But I think what Sean alluded to is there’s a lot more to it than just a team moving up and down. So, ensuring that the concept is thought out correctly and in a way that protects clubs too is going to be really important if we want to try to instill that within the U.S.

Q: How important is giving young players an opportunity, with the ups and downs that can result at the senior level and your clubs?

SANCHEZ: I mean, look, I think that I’ve always been a coach that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. But what I found over my time is that everybody talks about how development and winning go hand-in-hand. So, it’s very important that a young player who is moving into a professional environment that is competing at the highest level, it’s important that they have structure around them. I think that you’ve seen teams experiment across all different levels, bringing in a really young team, ‘we have a lot of high-potential players,’ and typically that doesn't work out and they’re losing every game. To me, that’s not development. I think that you have to have very much a blended approach. It’s just as important for young players to be around senior guys that are leading them on and off the field, they’re learning the intricacies of what it takes to become a professional. You really have to create this structure for your high potential players. And I think when you do that, you can drip-feed them through different experiences at different times and ultimately make them earn it. Just as with any other player, we’ll give them an opportunity, but they have to come in and earn their stripes.

New Las Vegas Lights FC Head Coach Dennis Sanchez is aiming to instill a new culture and direction at the club as it enters a new era this season. | Photo courtesy Charleston Battery

McAULEY: I agree, and I agree about development and winning going hand-in-hand. We both have backgrounds in youth development, so I’m passionate about youth development, I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s great to put young players in with senior players to provide an enthusiasm and a freshness to everything you do. And you know, knowing now what I know based on previous jobs that I've had in the U.S., where you've got squads of 30 and now you come and we’ve got a smaller squad – it’s like they would be back home in in the U.K. where you’d have teams outside of the Premier League and the EFL Championship who’ve got small squads and they use what they call apprentices, which are 16- to 18-year-olds, to fill out the squad.

We’ve done the exact same here, and they’ve been fantastic. They've been really, really good. I'm really excited about the young players that we've got, and that is the one area where I think the USL can get a grip and get hold of youth development as a strong, strong point. I do think we need to fight our corner as a league, because I don’t think we should run academies, play in the MLS Next program, and then lose players because MLS comes and wants to have a look at them. I think that’s ridiculous. And I think until we sort that out, what’s the point of us showcasing our younger players in the First Team, then all of a sudden because they're under the age of 18, an MLS team can come in and ask for the details of the player. It’s not for me, that.

SMITH: It’s very important. That’s where I got my I got my foot into the game was in the youth development space, so I love working with young people and young players. And ultimately, I think we do have a young roster and young people need to be given experience and they need to be given a chance. But ultimately, they’re there to provide a service, so just because a young player says they want to be a professional doesn't necessarily mean that they’re ready. They have to be ready just like everyone else, and it’s the right blend of giving them playing time and letting them sit and watch when it’s their turn to watch. They have to prove that they are ready to step into a man’s game and a professional environment to contribute to the team winning, because ultimately that’s what we’re here for.

Q: How important is having everyone from the ownership down bought into the same vision for the club's direction?

McAULEY: I mean, it’s vital, but unfortunately that changes from period to period within the season because as much as we all say that we want the same vision, the same alignment, you’ve just got to try and get as close as you possibly can. When you lose a game, you’ve not got to fall far, because sometimes there the areas of the club that say, ‘Oh no, it's a disaster.’ And if you win a game it’s, ‘Yeah, we're going to win it all.’ And that’s where you’ve got to try and keep everybody as close together as possible. To have everybody thinking the same would probably be counterproductive anyway, because then you get no creativity in moving it forward.

Indy Eleven Head Coach Sean McAuley has served previously as an interim Head Coach at Sheffield Wednesday in England and Minnesota United FC in the United States. | Photo courtesy Indy Eleven

SMITH: It’s very important, and if you look at any top organization – in sports, and non-sporting – around the world, the best are aligned from top to bottom. Having no alignment throughout the organization is not a sustainable business model, in my opinion. So yeah, everybody has to be aligned from top to bottom.

SANCHEZ: The better the alignment, I think, the better that the club operates, right? The key piece for that, though, is, as Sean alluded to, everyone’s going to have their own ideas and different ways of seeing things. But having clear expectations is really important to the process in which you're trying to achieve. I think that was a big selling point for me was hearing directly from [new Lights owner] José [Bautista] on what his vision was and feeling these philosophical alignments that we agreed upon. There’s always going to be disagreements on certain things, but I think that the overarching philosophical approach, when that’s aligned, I think that's when the club is operating at its best.

Q: What tells you that what you’re doing as a coach is creating a successful environment?

SANCHEZ: I mean, I think that we’re in the business of winning, so there’s no doubt that when you’re winning – there are some times it can cover things up – but I would say that if you’re consistently performing at a high level, you’re going to get better results, but you’re also going to feel like the process is moving forward. I think there’s always a balance of gauging this – objective data, wins, losses, looking at different performance metrics – but also at the same time, not losing sight of the subjective side, which is we’re in this job for reason. We have the experience, we bring in people that we rely on, and feeling the moments where you feel like the club’s going the right way, or maybe there’s something that you have to pivot – maybe there’s a player that has to be moved on, or whatever it is – you’re always trying to look bigger picture and understand the why behind the success or why you’re maybe not fully achieving what you’re trying to accomplish. So, for me, it’s this blend of very much an objective process, but also having the subjective opinion too and trusting your intuition.

SMITH: Results are going to come and go. I don’t think necessarily results are a clear barometer of what’s happening at a club. You can look at clubs now that are successful around the world, they have good people in the building. They have competent people in the building. And sometimes the results don’t always go your way, but when things don’t go your way is when you see the real true test in character of people. Do you have a good organization full of good people that are there to support each other and ultimately share the same common goal which is a successful organization? Success can mean many different things, it can mean on the field, off the field, as a business, developing players, selling players, winning trophies, all of those things are barometers of success. Like Key Performance Indicators – what is your playing style, is your playing style what you say it is, does it translate statistically? – all of those things are barometers of success.

McAULEY: Yeah, same, but winning obviously ultimately determines whether you've been successful or not. That’s the nature of the beast. Underneath that winning is the work we do, and if we do the right work, then we’ll be rewarded with the results of the weekend. Like I said earlier, when we play Vegas, I’m going to say we want to win, and Dennis is going to say he wants to win. So, one of us is going to be disappointed, and if it’s a draw, we both lost anyway. So, it’s going to be one of the things where winning ultimately is the measure of how successful you are. But what we’ll try and do is put in the process through the week and the body of work that you do with the players. Hopefully, you get your reward.

You’ll never get rewarded with a win every weekend. So, you’ve got to make sure that while we’re measured by the wins and losses that we also don’t move away from the fact that, let’s respect the opponent. When they win, they might have deserved that, and we need to get back to the drawing board and work harder and harder and try and make sure that we've put ourselves in a position to win the next game.

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