Welcoming hosts, good food, a common language and fitness training in the heat and humidity. Wigan Athletic’s new head coach Owen Coyle gave those reasons for taking the F.A. Cup winners to the United States for their pre-season preparations this month.
It was Coyle’s fifth American tour in six years after two previous trips with both Burnley and Bolton Wanderers. The 47-year-old Scot has faced opponents from Major League Soccer, the North American Soccer League and the United Soccer Leagues during that time. He offered his view of the U.S. soccer landscape ahead of last Friday’s exhibition game at third-tier Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
“This will be second division,” Coyle told The Soccer Observer. “They’re USL, aren’t they? MLS and then it’s the USL?
“I don’t know if the NASL would be above the USL. Anyway, that’s about opinion. All I know is the games I’ve had against USL teams have always been tough.”
American players performing at peak condition in the midst of the U.S. season mitigates the advantage in quality that touring English sides possess, Coyle said. The challenge posed to his players in these contests and in training then gives them a solid physical and mental platform for the months ahead. For Wigan, that will include 46 Championship games, defending the F.A. Cup title and the club’s first foray into European competition.
Coyle, who said he vacations with his family in Florida every year, also touched upon less tangible benefits of visiting the U.S.
“It enhances the name of your team when you make connections and sometimes that stands you in good stead further down the line,” said Coyle, who brought Americans Stuart Holden and Tim Ream to England’s Premier League during his time at Bolton.
Wigan’s primary goal is to retain their place in the top tier after suffering the indignity of relegation last May. Grant Holt heads the club’s list of new signings after his switch from Norwich City, and further new arrivals are expected.
“We’ve still got a few to bring in,” Coyle said. “We’ve had 10 days together to get to learn each other’s character and there’s a good team spirit.”
Coyle’s Burnley overcame then USL side Portland Timbers on penalty kicks in 2009. Bolton recorded wins over the USL’s Charlotte Eagles, Charleston Battery and Orlando City during his reign at the Reebok Stadium, and Wigan trounced the Dayton Dutch Lions last week before ending their tour with a 4-1 win in Pittsburgh.
The Glasgow native’s only pre-season defeats on American soil have come against NASL franchises. The Carolina Railhawks Under-23 team toppled Burnley in 2008, and F.C. Tampa Bay, later renamed as the Tampa Bay Rowdies, beat Bolton two years ago.