The LA Galaxy got quite the coach to lead their club in the inaugural 1996 season. Lothar Osiander was a German-born immigrant who had lived in California for decades, winning an NCAA title as a player with USF and rising through the coaching ranks in the original NASL.
All that was capped off with his tenure as U.S. Men’s National Team head coach from 1986-88, a period in which he was credited with helping to bring the program out of its decades-long doldrums, before they went on to qualify for the 1990 World Cup. That 1990 team, in turn, helped usher in what’s popularly known as the “modern era” of American soccer.
After leaving as the senior USMNT coach, including at the 1988 Tokyo Olympics, Osiander coached the U.S. U-23s/USMNT B team through 1992, leading them at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He was fired after he benched Steve Snow in the opening game, reportedly because he did not like the, uh, confident striker.
Remarkably, Osiander’s coaching exploits until the early-1990s were part-time, as he worked at a San Francisco restaurant, Graziano’s, for decades as his day job.
Here’s a video feature of Osiander ahead of the 1992 Olympics.
In 1996, he got the nod to lead the Galaxy. His Spanish-language skills seemed to tip the balance in his favor in getting hired in LA, and Osiander had big words for managing international stars.
‘’I won’t have a problem with [Jorge] Campos,’’ Osiander says when asked if there might be a power struggle between him and a goalkeeper who likes to score goals as well as let them get chipped over his head. ‘’I’m 6 feet, he’s only 5-6.’’
Things worked out pretty well in that debut campaign, with LA finishing atop the Western Conference and making it to the inaugural MLS Cup, where a golden goal winner from Eddie Pope delivered the title to D.C. United in the end.
But 1997 started badly, and Osiander was fired in June with the team 3-9. Octavio Zambrano took over and led the Galaxy to the playoffs that year, and had the league’s best record with one of the very best attacks of all time in 1998, before getting knocked out early in the playoffs.
After the Galaxy, Osiander just kept coaching. He moved to the Tampa Bay Mutiny as an assistant in 1998, then took over the Project-40 team in 1999. Project-40 was basically the American development squad, a precursor to the current MLS/USL partnership, but the Project-40 team was an actual barnstorming team that came together every weekend to play in the A-League.
This recent feature on Project-40 is a good crash course in the whole shebang, but Osiander, under difficult conditions, managed to lead the team to a playoff berth in 1999, and they beat the Vancouver 86ers before falling to eventual league champions Minnesota Thunder.
As someone used to the rough-and-tumble era of American soccer, one could argue Osiander was made to deal with difficult projects like the debut season of a brand-new league, or a collection of prospects who never represented a consistent roster for the manager week to week.
“One week Jan sends me this group and when I put them out on the field, I realize all 11 of them are left-footed,” Osiander said in the Project-40 profile on MLSsoccer.com. “I had spent my whole life looking for lefties and then I put out this lineup, and every single one of them is left-footed. All 11 guys. But we didn’t care. We had five balls and 10 bibs, that’s all you need.”
After his season with Project-40, Osiander moved on again, to the San Jose Earthquakes in 2000, where he lasted just one season. More recently, the now 80-year-old has remained active in the youth soccer season in Northern California, where he still lives.
In the end, Osiander was a key figure in the transitional era of American soccer, and found some success in MLS, notably in that debut season with the Galaxy. It’s probably not a stretch to say if LA had won the 1996 MLS Cup, he’d be remembered far better and his tenure would have probably lasted longer, too. But as the foundational figure, and someone who paid his dues and then some working in a restaurant while coaching before MLS came around, Lothar Osiander helped set the scene for LA to be a juggernaut in MLS for 25 years.
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