Marc Dos Santos Aims To Keep ‘Breaking Ice’ For Canadian Coaches
It’s no secret that Marc Dos Santos has had quite a career path, rising step-by-step up the ranks from coaching an amateur team to reaching MLS heights. Now a free agent within the coaching world, he’s set sights on breaking barriers for Canadian coaches throughout his next steps.
The former Vancouver Whitecaps head coach found himself ousted from the MLS side following a 4-3 Canadian Championship loss to Pacific FC last month, though he insists that he left the side in a very good place.
While his brother Phillip Dos Santos took an early opportunity with Valour FC, Marc is in the midst of obtaining his UEFA Pro license, the proverbial cream of the crop when it comes to coaching badges. It’s an invite-only course, with Dos Santos having already completed the first segment for this in Northern Ireland.
The reprieve from active coaching has allowed him to hit a reset button of sorts, spending more time with his family and allowing him to undergo a period of self-improvement before his next steps. He’s hoping to trailblaze where no Canadian coach has gone before, which leaves a lot of possibilities as to where he could go. He just wants to prove that a Canadian can get there.
I want to keep opening doors for coaches that are born in Canada, that went through the system here, that went on to coach in other places in North America. I think that’s the next barrier for Canadian soccer. You have the Davies, the Jonathan Davids, the Cyle Larins, but coaches you don’t have. It’s very hard, it’s very hard for Canadian coaches.Marc Dos Santos
While the 44-year-old’s career highs include USL and NASL wins, the past two-and-a-half seasons with the Whitecaps proved to be a difficult time for him. Still, he says reaching MLS heights was everything he thought it would be, remaining grateful for the opportunity to lead Vancouver through a significant rebuild and, of course, being entrusted with them throughout a pandemic too. In doing so, he became one of only a handful of Canadians to coach within the league, despite the fact that there are three Canadian teams within it.
To understand Marc’s drive to play a role in opening opportunities for Canadian coaches abroad, one needs to look back and see that he underwent an against-the-odds, years-long journey to get a sniff in MLS. He coached at progressively higher levels from amateur to professional, assistant to head coaching, and even abroad in Brazil, a Canadian foreigner tasked with raising the next generation at Primeira Camisa, Palmeiras, and Desportivo Brasil.
Marc’s coaching career began with humble roots, with top amateur Quebec team Lac St. Louis before jumping up to the CSL’s Trois-Rivieres Attak, which came with CF Montreal affiliations to consider. He recorded an Open Canada Cup victory with the side, coming second for a National Division that he would go on to win next year while obtaining his UEFA-B License in the process.
He then joined CF Montreal in an assistant role under John Limniatis, already demonstrating a managerial path based on results from the get-go. The Canadian head coach turned an interim head coach position into a full one in 2009, leading Montreal through three different leagues in just as many years: he won the USL First Division in 2009, reached the semi-finals in the USSF Division 2, and then had a tough end with a year in the NASL before the team was due to jump to MLS.
He believes the team could have done a lot in that period, describing it as a time in his life when he was very tough on himself. In the years since, his footballing journey has seen him win both the NASL and USL, while also finishing runner-up in both those leagues on separate years. His ability to reach cup-winning moments is what ultimately earned him a spot assisting with LAFC and then, of course, leading the Whitecaps. It is an opportunity that less than a literal handful of Canadian coaches have ever earned.
To that end, Dos Santos says that Canadian coaches face a tough environment in the global game, with the smaller footballing stature of Canada meaning that the country’s coaches must over-excel to even be considered opportunities at the professional level. In a sense, he wants to champion these coaches to prove that it can be done.
Dos Santos describes that Canada’s own coaches are not so protected here, which has resulted in a very limited number of them being given opportunities to win trophies within North America, never mind outside of the it.
We need to do things out of this world to get the next opportunity, you know? You know how much it took for me to get a coaching position in MLS? I had to win the USL. I had to win the NASL. I went to a final of the USL with Swope Park Rangers, final of the NASL with Ottawa. With the US coaches, it’s already difficult to get a head coaching job for any head coach in Canada, never mind winning the USL.Marc Dos Santos
Even in the CPL, he points out, the majority of head coaches in the eight-team league came from outside of Canada originally, and that’s a league built on furthering domestic opportunity. That’s not to say it isn’t doing so, but the split at the top exemplifies the barriers in place for Canadian-grown talent. He isn’t the only one to point out how hard it has been for Canadian coaches who rose through the Canadian system, either.
The result, he says, is that Canadian coaches are forced to excel consistently if they’re going to reach the next rung on the proverbial ladder. They are given multiple opportunities to fail, but they need to keep rising even when the odds are against them. In a sense, even ‘doing well’ is not ‘doing enough’.
In the country’s own borders, however, there are only so many coaching opportunities in the professional game. It’s a limiting factor at a time when the country finally looks set for a big period of internal growth at all levels of the game.
I think you have to do a lot as a Canadian coach to break through, and this is why I feel that it needs to make sense when coaches do their B License in Canada, their A License in Canada, now they’re talking about doing a Pro License in Canada. Well, that has to make sense for opportunities, because you’re going to start to have coaches asking why they’re doing this if there’s no opportunities for us. That’s why I want to keep going, and I’m doing this not only for me, but I’m doing this to make Canadian coaches dream that there is an opportunity to say ‘Marc was able to get there, do this, and do that’, so I want to break the ice for other coaches who could come behind me.Marc Dos Santos
Even the American coaches deal with a similar stigma, albeit at a higher stage of the game: they’re well-accepted in MLS and USL circles, but Bob Bradley’s appointment with English Premier League side Swansea City caused an uproar from fans. It’s the same reason Edgar Davids told Dwayne De Rosario he had no chance while he trialed (successfully, mind you) at AC Milan: the Canadian reputation isn’t there yet.
Bradley’s time in Swansea was short-lived, recording seven losses in his eleven matches before being fired. Marc, who assisted for Bradley when he returned stateside with LAFC, is not scared about the possibility of a similar thing happening to him abroad.
One thing that I’m sure about it is that I’m incredibly courageous. Incredibly courageous. When I left Montreal for Brazil, I was in a flight with my three kids, twins of two months, with a wife that said ‘okay, let’s do this.’ A daughter of two years old. We’re going to Sao Paulo with Canadian passports to coach soccer. That is almost impossible. It takes courage. I always tell young coaches that it takes courage, because it takes your family to be able to endure a lot of things and your kids to be open. If I would choose always the comfort in my life, I would maybe still say with Bob Bradley in Los Angeles as an assistant coach and just wait for what is next, or stay in the reserve team of the Montreal Impact. I never chose the comfort.Marc Dos Santos
While many fans thought that Dos Santos could be a good fit in the Canadian Premier League – particularly with Atletico Ottawa, who are struggling at the bottom of the table in a city in which Marc has history – he admits that his Pro License comes with aspirations to join a club abroad, rather than looking inward to places he’s already been.
I’m doing it to learn and I speak four languages, so I don’t want to limit myself to any kind of market. It could be Europe, yes, it can. It’s not a secret for no one that I want to coach in Portugal one day, so it can be Europe. But, I’m the kind of guy that you if you read tomorrow that I end up in Dubai or Japan, don’t be surprised, because it’s my nature. I want to do things that are different, that no other Canadian coach has done. I want to break the ice for others. This is something that I have in my heart. I always thought that sometimes you go through things of ‘why are you doing this’ – you could pick comfortable positions for your family and stay in place ten years. I always think that in the years from now, I want people to remember me as someone that had the courage to break the ice, to do things that are not done before, for Canadian coaches and by Canadian coaches.Marc Dos Santos
Obviously, getting his UEFA Pro License will be a big step in that regard. The group of students alongside him include former Premier League athletes Bruno Saltor and Luis Garcia, with Dos Santos stating that he’s learned a lot from the first segment of his elite coaching course. By the time he steps forth back into coaching, he intends to do at his best, wherever and whenever that may be.
If there’s one piece of advice he could offer young coaches looking to rise through the ranks like he has, it’s that the realities of sport can be a lonely business. They have a big impact on family life, and that’s something he says no coaching course will prepare you for.
I coached U-17, U-19, I was assistant coach, reserve team coach, I was coach and analyst, head coach. I could tell you, that is a huge difference when you become a manager from any other position. There’s a lot of lonely moments where you want to be alone, and a lot of time away from the family. A lot. I tell young coaches they better think of that very, very, well, before they choose where they’re going to.Marc Dos Santos
With all of these barriers in place, it’s perhaps no surprise that former York United assistant coach Carmine Isacco stated that Canadian head coaches are often overlooked in professional circles, and Dos Santos says he agrees with aspects of that statement. He doesn’t think that people do it on purpose, but suggests that people fall to prejudices about where Canada lands on the proverbial totem of football quality.
Things take time. Today, the value of Canadian coaches is very low. It’s nonexistent in the market, and it’s going to take Canadian coaches who have the courage and the balls to make moves that open doors and break the ice. One day, people will say ‘maybe a Canadian coach can coach at this level or that level’, and that’s what I’m trying to do, and that’s my mentality.Marc Dos Santos
It’s a struggle that is familiar to many footballers from Canada, too. While Les Rouges are enjoying a golden generation with the likes of Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, and Cyle Larin making waves, in the years prior it was hard for any domestic talent not to be overlooked abroad – and that was the only place they realistically had to go.
Where Canadian players were ten-to-fifteen years ago in terms of global respect, Dos Santos suggests, is where Canadian head coaches currently find themselves. Looking at the trajectory of players, however, shows that things can change once coaches are given the opportunities to succeed. Dos Santos believes people need to stop putting disproportionate value on the flag next to a manager’s name.
You have very good American coaches, and you had very bad ones. It’s the same for Canada and South America. You cannot tag a country and say, oh, he’s Portuguese, he’s very good. It’s not very true – there are a lot of good coaches in Portugal, and some that are not. I think people should start taking the flag of the country next to the coach and just look at the work. It’s not an easy one. Talking about Canadian coaches breaking through, we still have a lot of work to do and still have to break a lot of a barriers, I will tell you.Marc Dos Santos
While Marc appears to be aiming overseas, getting those opportunities remains an issue that still manifests itself close to home. Between twenty-one head coach hires from Canada’s three Major League Soccer clubs, only two were given to Canadians in non-interim roles, three counting Wilfried Nancy, who has called Montreal home for ten years now and likely has permanent residence.
The top flight US division is in the midst of a period of significant growth, and that has fans pushing for elite, sometimes unrealistic, coaching hires. It’s another barrier for domestic coaches looking for further opportunity, says Dos Santos.
I remember when Maurizio Sarri was fired and he was free in the market. I was reading some people saying that Toronto FC should hire Maurizio Sarri. If fans are pushing for a profile like that, it makes it very difficult for a sporting director to say ‘I cannot bring Sarri, because he first of all does not want to come, he wants to coach in Europe. How do I go from Sarri to a Canadian coach that is trying to break the ice’, you know? The MLS has grown a lot. The perception is that we have a high, elite manager. But what is that high, elite manager? I say this all the time: there are coaches in Europe that are very, very good, and there are coaches in Europe that are very, very bad also. That is everywhere in the world.Marc Dos Santos
Not long after Dos Santos used that Sarri example, rumours surfaced about Toronto FC bringing in Italian legend Andrea Pirlo, fresh off his coaching stint with Juventus. With fans clamoring at the idea, it’s hard to see a positive reaction if someone like back-to-back CPL winner Bobby Smyrniotis was given a chance.
As for himself, Marc doesn’t like to comment on what could happen in the future, preferring to talk about things that are certain. He’ll be doing the second portion of his UEFA Pro License in November, with the final portion set for Switzerland in April. He is not in a rush to jump on the next opportunity, preferring to return after maximizing this rare window of uninterrupted self-improvement.
It was good to go to Europe and to return there soon. I’ll be in Portugal and Spain, and I’m excited about what’s in the future. And then, I don’t know. I’m not in a rush to coach before 2022, but if something really special comes in 2021 I will assess. For now, I want to take time to grow as a coach, and to be come a better coach, and write what I think was right and what I think was wrong in Vancouver, to think on how I can get out of this better. That’s what I want to do.Marc Dos Santos
While Whitecaps fans remain vocal about the team’s status under his reign, he’s adamant that he did all he could under less than ideal circumstances, where he played 32 games on the road during a pandemic, underwent a sixteen-player rebuild for a low-spending team in a salary cap league, and left them on a stretch of eight games undefeated.
Like him or hate him, that’s a feat that will turn heads – perhaps enough to grant him further opportunity abroad, and allow for him to break the ice a little more.
For Marc, he just wants the opportunity. If he does well enough, little by little, this could eventually open doors for other Canadians, too. Someone just has to knock first.