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Owen Coyle's Clean Slate: Reversing the Narrative

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The Dynamo's new head coach, Owen Coyle, arrives from a very tumultuous era of his career. With the club and coach looking to redefine themselves, Dynamo Theory takes a look at where he came from and what questions he'll need to address.

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"There's two things which happen to football managers -
you do well and you move on or you don't and you're moved on."
Owen Coyle, 2010

Owen Coyle loves soccer. Since his professional career began in 1985, he has incessantly hunted for minutes on clubs throughout the multiple divisions of Scotland and England, including stints with three clubs he would go on to manage; Falkirk, St. Johnstone, and Bolton Wanderers. He's never quite retired, either. After player-managing Falkirk in 2003, he would take up coach and player duties for each club thereafter. At Burnley in 2009, he played in a pinch for the Reserves and lobbed a goal over Accrington Stanley to help win the Reserve League title. In a 2010 Bolton friendly, at 44, he registered his first start for the Wanderers in 15 years, scoring with a chip in a 2-0 win.

It is this kind of unusually active role Coyle takes with his teams that former players cite as his biggest strength. Amidst a strong 2010 start, former Dynamo midfielder Stuart Holden (then under Coyle's leadership at Bolton) talked about the enthusiasm in training, with Coyle sometimes playing in the small sided games that emphasized passing. Bolton defender Sam Ricketts lauded his positive attitude and thinks it helped prevent factions from forming on the training ground during difficult stretches of the year.

Coyle shares a moniker with the departing Dominic Kinnear that comes up most every time one of their players are talked to: "A Player's Coach". Both coaches draw upon their past experiences to help motivate their squad, to share a mutual respect and understanding, and to inform their own tactics -- sometimes to a fault.

The Dynamo organization is in unfamiliar territory. Coyle is entering his first club outside the United Kingdom -- a club that has just completed its first coaching search aided by its first technical director, Matt Jordan. No one has any clear indication quite how this will play out and that uncertainty feeds the dread of the Dynamo faithful. Coyle's track record is checkered with incredible highs (Burnley's 2009 promotion to the Premier League) and miserable lows (ousts at Bolton and Wigan after a six-month stint). His tactics at either of his two most recent clubs leave much to be desired. His aversion to data analytics in favor of the traditionally British "nothing can beat the naked eye" creates conflict with the public direction Matt Jordan is headed. And yet, the positivity of Owen Coyle endears.

THE ASCENSION OF BURNLEY F.C.

Coyle took over Championship side Burnley F.C. in late 2007 after a string of results subjected the club to mid-table obscurity. With one of the smallest squads of the league (and cash flow to match), Coyle assembled a hard-nosed team that, in 2008, would overcome Fulham, Chelsea, and Arsenal in a "Cinderella run" of the Carling Cup. Coyle had gradually crafted this team and the very same year, Burnley would clear the Championship playoffs and reach the Premier League for the first time in their history.

In his first EPL season, Coyle would continue to post impressive victories as the Clarets toppled Manchester United and a top-six Everton by 1-0 scorelines. The team had been built around the individual talents of Robbie Blake, Chris Eagles, and Wade Elliott; the three of which would act as the engine, driving the attack down the wing and lobbing a ball into the box for a waiting striker to convert. When compared to the style of play that Dom Kinnear crafted, it all rings quite familiar.

BOLTON WANDERING

Midway through Burnley's first year in the top flight, Bolton Wanderers F.C. were able to lure Coyle away with their bigger budgets, talent-filled roster, and facilities. He would coach Bolton into their 10th successive top flight year, despite a frustrating five months that left Bolton 14th, just 9 points clear of relegation.

For his first full season, Coyle aimed to bring in talent that would bolster Bolton's existing Johan Elmander, Kevin Davies, and Lee Chung-yong. Much to Houston's dismay, this would mean parting with Stuart Holden. Manchester City's Martin Petrov, as well as the loans of Jack Wilshere and Daniel Sturridge (two of the EPL's most exciting players) would also reinforce the Wanderers and give Coyle an enticing squad to make a run for European slots.

The 2010 season began in wondrous fashion. By Christmas, Bolton had only lost 4 of their 19 matches. The English media heaped praise on Coyle after watching Bolton play attractive football and string together delightful goals. All of this hype made the rest of the season much harder to swallow as Bolton would go on to record 12 losses over the next few months. Coupled with a humiliating 5-0 defeat to Stoke City in the FA Cup semifinal, Bolton fans' hopes began to sour. Finishing 14th (again), Coyle would need to recpature the glimpses of greatness that Bolton seemed capable of.

But just how great were Bolton? As the season drew to a close, Zonal Marking, a soccer data analysis site, ran a feature examining Bolton's year. The aim was to see if the Wanderers had, in fact, played "attractive football" in the way the English media fawned over Coyle. The results were not encouraging. The team had a bad rate of possession, played long ball far more than most teams, owned a significantly lower-than-average pass succession rate, and was possibly the most physical team in the league. When Coyle was asked about these statistics, his response was stubbornly British:

"Your facts and stats will tell you anything you want but nothing can beat the naked eye in football."

The offseason was not kind to Owen Coyle. Stuart Holden, sidelined since March, was bound for a strenuous rehab program that would leave him out of Bolton's lineup for several months. Lee Chung-yong had his leg broken in preseason, putting him out for most of the year. Various injuries throughout the season (including the shocking cardiac arrest of Fabrice Muamba), would leave Bolton struggling to perform. By January, the Wanderers registered just four wins and fourteen losses. Despite an effort to rise from the relegation zone (earning Coyle EPL Coach of the Month honors for March), Bolton were dragged under, thanks to a 2-2 Stoke City draw on the final day that rendered them one point shy of escape. All told, Coyle had employed as many as five formations throughout the season, trying to cope with the various losses of players.

After thirteen years of top flight soccer, Bolton started the Championship season with disaster. Through the first few months, the club had collected several losses and saw an early second round FA Cup exit at the hands of lowly Crawley Town. Bolton sat 18th in the Championship and Owen Coyle was out of a job in the first week of October.

Looking back on Coyle's Bolton years, fans held onto the Wilshere-Sturridge season as one for the ages. The criticism, however, was laid upon Coyle as never having the ability to find the right pieces for the team or even recognize which pieces needed to be found. Though he clearly demonstrated a passion for the club, his tactics were often too inflexible, trying to force players into positions or make a certain starting XI work, despite dropping point after point. In short, there was never a Plan B -- only more opportunities to make Plan A work.

WIGAN, IN BRIEF

For six months in 2013, Owen Coyle coached the newly relegated Wigan Athletic F.C. in the Championship. Coming off relegation and, curiously, an FA Cup championship, Wigan were poised for a poor year after cleaning out their roster. Coyle began work on assembling a new squad, and even posted a 4-0 win to start the year, but a string of lacking performances would leave Wigan sitting in the all-too-familiar 14th place. In the first week of December, Coyle left the club by mutual consent. Later, he would reveal he had left thanks to a very contentious relationship with the currently embattled chairman Dave Whelan. Unable to cooperate, Coyle exited and chose to spend the next year away from the game he loved so passionately.

Over the course of that year, Coyle would receive offers and politely decline, looking instead for a fit that was more about the people he would work with than the team he would coach. Then, just a week ago, a rumor emerged that Coyle may be on the shortlist for the Dynamo coaching job. Certainly, without having to deal with the active presence of an owner, Coyle felt as if this might be the fit he was waiting for.

THE NEW OWEN COYLE

With the unveiling of Coyle, the Dynamo bring to a close their very first major step in evolving the organization. It's a major evolution for Coyle, as well. A tumultuous spell in England that began so well at Burnley has come to a close and America represents a fresh start. As the offseason begins, Coyle will have a full period, in consultation with Matt Jordan, to determine what personnel he requires and where. That, too, is the crux of the new Owen Coyle. In an organization that is trying to do things in a new way, will he also be ready to shed the inflexibility that became a staple of his coaching?

Much of his tactics are not unlike Dominic Kinnear's but the Dynamo have been clear that they are ready to move on from that era. Coyle will inherit exceptional individual talents that would go to waste if long-ball tactics are employed. There were glimpses (the August home-stand versus DC, for example) of how brilliant the Dynamo could be when playing traditionally "attractive" soccer. The question remains if Coyle will be able to tap into that.

And, while European coaches have an incredibly poor track record in MLS, Chris Canetti has made it clear that the their choice will need to be prepared for the intricacies of the MLS Rules and Regulations. Certainly a different beast for Coyle, he will need to trust in his advisors (like Jordan) to make critical decisions -- particularly in the coming months. Further, considering Coyle's stance regarding statistical analysis, that relationship will be tested. The Dynamo are doubling-down on data analysis in Matt Jordan and Coyle will need to buy into that system if he is to serve out his full three-year term.

His personality is infectious, unwavering and is sure to be likeable for most of the Dynamo fanbase. His history of tactics and coaching raises questions that will go unanswered for months to come. With Kinnear situated elsewhere, the Dynamo are ready to create a new brand of soccer. Canetti and company are betting on Coyle defining that style for the long haul and Coyle is betting on the Dynamo to redefine his career. For the Houston fanbase, one thing is certain. With a chance to reverse so much of what has been said about Owen Coyle's career, everyone moves into the unknown together.