Seven years on from leading Donegal to a remarkable All-Ireland Gaelic Football championship, Jim McGuinness has taken the reins at the Charlotte Independence in his first professional soccer head coaching position. | Photo courtesy Charlotte Independence
It’s well known that the 2019 crop of head coaches in the USL Championship is the strongest in the league’s history.
There are the USL Cup winners in Louisville City FC’s John Hackworth, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s Bob Lilley, the New York Red Bulls II’s John Wolyniec and the Charleston Battery’s Mike Anhaeuser. There are those who have claimed MLS Cup like Nashville SC’s Gary Smith, or those who have won the MLS Supporters’ Shield like Birmingham Legion FC’s Tom Soehn and North Carolina FC’s Dave Sarachan.
There are also those like Sarachan, Hackworth, Austin Bold FC’s Marcelo Serrano and Loudoun United FC’s Richie Williams that have worked at different levels within the United States National Team set-up.
But none of the other head coaches in the USL Championship this season have what the Charlotte Independence’s Jim McGuinness does on his resume; an All-Ireland Gaelic Football championship.
And that’s what makes McGuinness the most interesting head coach in the USL Championship.
“There’s a saying in psychology that ‘fear lies in the unknown,’” McGuinness told Balls.ie’s PJ Browne last December after his appointment. “There is a fear in the unknown and I’m going into an environment now, I’m going in as a head coach, something I’ve never done before, but I had the exact same experience when I was going into the Donegal job, it’s the exact same feeling.”
Friday night’s game against Indy Eleven marks McGuinness’ first official contest in charge of the Independence, and his first as the head coach of a professional soccer club, but his reputation as a sideline leader has preceded his arrival in Charlotte. His work to take Donegal from an also-ran in national competition to the country’s champions in just three seasons – only the county’s second after it had won when McGuinness was a player in 1992 – was so remarkable it was detailed in an RTE documentary.
When he was appointed the Independence’s boss – after previously spending five years on the staff of legendary Scottish club Celtic FC and a short stint as an assistant in the China Super League – the media interest in his home country was extensive. The 46-year-old native of Glenties in Donegal is going to be closely watched as he takes on his new role.
So, what should Independence fans expect from their side as McGuinness takes on the task of returning the club to the USL Cup Playoffs? Well, as someone whose influences beyond his own experience in Donegal include Brendan Rodgers from his time at Celtic and former Bayer Leverkusen manager Roger Schmidt when they worked together in China, the energy level from his side and willingness to commit to the cause is going to be front and center.
“A lot of the things we were doing in Donegal will be relevant. We were trying to build a system on intensity and overwhelm the opposition, create and be aggressive on the transition,” McGuinness told Browne. “At the same time, possession-based football, like Brendan plays at Celtic, and having the capacity to break teams down will be very important. There’s the capacity to force the game and that’s what Roger did brilliantly. The game was played continually on the transition.
“It’s a fusion of all my experiences as a Gaelic football coach and my experience in Celtic and in China.”
Charlotte Independence Head Coach Jim McGuinness and two-time Championship Most Valuable Player nominee Enzo Martinez could make for a potent combination at the Sportsplex at Matthews this year. | Photo courtesy Charlotte Independence
McGuinness certainly has pieces that will fit into that style. In addition to the return to the squad of two-time Championship Most Valuable Player Enzo Martinez from a season with the Colorado Rapids there has been the acquisition of former Major League Soccer forward Dominic Oduro, whose speed in transition should provide a serious threat for Charlotte going forward. There’s the arrival of former All-Championship selection Hugh Roberts in the back line to play in front of 2015 Championship Goalkeeper of the Year Brandon Miller.
In an ever-improving Eastern Conference, the Eleven’s strong lineup will provide an ample test for McGuinness’ new charges. But as he takes the reins as a head coach for the first time since departing Donegal in 2014, McGuinness is ready to take the Independence into a new era and build the combination of spirit and strategy that brought that county a historic championship seven years ago.
“Six years is a short period of time when you are involved in something like this, but it’s a long stretch as well in terms of the experiences that I’ve had,” McGuinness told Browne. “I think I’m out the other side of it now and I’m ready to stand on my own two feet now and move forward.”