ORLANDO, Fla. - As Major League Soccer sets out on its 20th season, you’d be hard pressed to find many people that have been as involved in the league over the years as newly-named Red Bull assistant coach Denis Hamlett.
A hard-nosed defender, Hamlett took up work in the indoor pre-cursors to Major League Soccer during the early 90’s before joining the Colorado Rapids for the league’s inaugural season in 1996. “The Hammer” played 31 matches for the side that season and won the club’s Defender of the Year award.
During a preseason workout the following year, an awkward jump on a header was later found to have caused an artery dissection which resulted in a stroke. At age 28, a seemingly innocuous play had changed his career path.
“In life things happen for many reasons,” Hamlett told NewYorkRedBulls.com. “Trying to sit there and figure out why that happened – I learned quickly it wasn’t going to be answered. Why did I have a stroke? I don’t know why. I had to make a decision -- I knew I wanted to be involved in soccer.”
Later that year Hamlett caught on with the expansion Chicago Fire, scouting and doing community work for the team before even head coach Bob Bradley had been hired.
Eventually he made his way on to Bradley’s staff where Hamlett says the future U.S. Men’s National Team boss took him under his wing.
He wasn’t the only one.
Red Bulls boss Jesse Marsch, who became acquainted with Hamlett during eight seasons at the Fire, also came from the Bradley school of coaching. In fact, a cursory glance around the league sees 13 of Bradley’s former players or assistants with the Fire working on MLS technical staffs.
“I think it’s a credit to Bob,” Hamlett said. “Not only did he teach guys how to become better players, but also in their minds, how he saw the game and how we should see the game. I think he deserves a lot of credit for how many guys have gotten into these positions.”
After 10 seasons as an assistant coach in Chicago, Hamlett was giving the head coaching reigns of the club in 2008. In two seasons at the helm, he led the side to back-to-back Eastern Conference finals and came within penalty kicks of an MLS Cup appearance in 2009.
That shootout defeat to eventual champions Real Salt Lake brought the curtain down on 12 seasons with the club as he and the Fire parted ways.
“It took a long time before I got my chance as a head coach,” he said. “I’m thankful because I was able to really study, learn and understand what goes into it. I had my opportunity and felt like I did well as a head coach.”
After his first year away from MLS in 2010, his connections made under “The Bradley Coaching Tree” brought him to the Vancouver Whitecaps where former teammate Tom Soehn had taken up as the club’s Technical Director in 2011.
When Marsch became the first MLS head coach for the Montreal Impact the following year, Hamlett joined as his assistant in French Canada and became a scout for the club the following season.
After only his second year away from the league, Hamlett officially returned for his 18th MLS season as Marsch’s first assistant when training camp convened last week.
“Jesse and I have a good relationship but at the same time I think when we get on the field I understand the things he wants to get accomplished with the group. A lot of the stuff we do is similar but at the same time, I think my experiences can help him get across the messages he wants his team to play and look like.
“I’m here as a good resource – I’ve been a head coach and now having a good assistant coach is important because he has a lot on his plate in terms of dealing with 26, 28, 30 players. I’m here trying to see little things and bring to his attention so nothing falls through the cracks.”