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Looking back at San Jose Earthquakes’ third coach, Lothar Osiander

The German-born manager paid his dues and then some.

Lothar Osiander Galaxy

Lothar Osiander has one of the most interesting stories among MLS coaches all-time. The third coach club history for the San Jose Clash/San Jose Earthquakes, Osiander was a longtime Bay Area native with a backstory that was emblematic of his era but totally unheard of these days.

Born in Germany, Osiander settled in San Francisco with his family in the late-1950s and made that his home base for decades. In college at the University of San Francisco, he won the NCAA title as a midfielder in 1966, and eventually embarked on a soccer coaching career in the area.

By the mid-1980s, Osiander’s status had grown to such an extent he got hired to lead the U.S. Men’s National Team. In truth he had been training coaches through U.S. Soccer for over a decade, but his number was called in 1986, and Osiander helped usher the program into its modern era, helping them qualify for the 1990 World Cup, the USMNT’s first World Cup in 40 years.

Osiander finished his stint with the senior team in 1988, but he helped drag a program out of the doldrums and into relevance once again at a critical point. And he didn’t leave U.S. Soccer altogether, as he led the U-23s from 1988 to 1992, including at both the Seoul and Barcelona Olympics. Famously, his stint with that side ended after the 1992 Olympics because he benched striker Steve Snow for the first game because he reportedly didn’t like the player’s attitude, and that basically sunk the U.S.’s hopes of advancing in the tournament.

Remarkably, throughout Osiander’s entire tenure with the USMNT program and coaching elite teams around the Bay Area, he held down a day job, working for an Italian restaurant called Graziano’s in San Francisco. On one hand, in the days before MLS came along, soccer in the U.S. was still largely amateur/not enough money flowing to make a living, but on the other hand, it’s incredible the USMNT manager was literally pulling double duty as a maitre d’.

Here’s a video of Osiander in this period:

After 1992, the restaurant let him go under new management, and Osiander turned to coaching full-time. In 1996, he was hired to be the first coach of the LA Galaxy, where he led the hated California Clasico rivals to the 1996 MLS Cup final, where they fell in extra time against D.C. United.

But LA started the 1997 season in poor form and Osiander was shown the door in the middle of the season. He was the first of many figures to move between the Galaxy and San Jose.

He became an assistant coach at the Tampa Bay Mutiny, then took over as the Project-40 coach in 1999. This was one of the strangest experiments in MLS, with a group of prospects who would get together each weekend from around the league and play as a barnstorming team (meaning with no home venue) in the A-League. Somehow, even with a pretty chaotic setup and no set home to establish a rhythm at, Osiander led Project-40 to a playoff berth and postseason win, before losing to eventual league champ Minnesota Thunder.

And that’s where the Clash/Earthquakes come in. After the loss in the playoffs San Jose hired Osiander to replace Brian Quinn, helming the Clash in the final three games of the season, in which they didn’t make the playoffs.

In 2000, it was a new season and a new name, as the club opted to go retro with the Earthquakes moniker and never looked back. But the results remained poor, with Osiander publicly telling the press he wasn’t to blame for the rough season in which they finished in the cellar.

“At the end of the day, I’ll probably get blamed for the season we’re having,” he told the San Jose Mercury News midseason. “But at the end of the day, the players I wanted I didn’t get.

“Whether they were available or not available, we didn’t pursue them hard enough to bring them in.”

That dour attitude really permeated the team, with the Quakes finishing last in the league in 2000. After the season, Osiander was fired, and his MLS days were behind him.

Remarkably, the next Quakes coach, Frank Yallop, led them to their first MLS Cup triumph the very next season. Sometimes, it just doesn’t come together for a coach and an organization, and seemingly that happened with Osiander and San Jose. Still, you could perhaps argue he did help pave the way for the title win the next season, even if it clearly wasn’t apparent at the time.

Osiander continued to coach amateur and youth soccer for many years after he left the Quakes, and eventually retired. Now 80, he reportedly still lives in Northern California.

In the end, he was a nearly man in many ways, coaching the U.S. to a World Cup but not in one, leading one MLS team to an MLS Cup final where they lost, and having a stinker of a season with another club which won the title the year after he exited. At the same time, Osiander’s experience in the rough-and-tumble world of men’s soccer in the 40-year gap between World Cups for the U.S. and in a pre-MLS world gives us an insight of how tricky it was to navigate through it in the first place. You can fairly say Lothar Osiander made the absolute most of the opportunities he got in American soccer, and coaching in the highest level in MLS, among many other accomplishments, is worth hanging your hat on.

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