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SF Deltas’ gamble on unproven coach paying off

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S.F. Deltas head coach Marc Dos Santos high fives a fan at Kezar Stadium after a game in April. (Courtesy Robert Edwards/SF Deltas)
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The San Francisco Deltas entered this year as an unknown commodity.

Their coach came with a similar lack of fanfare.

Marc Dos Santos entered his first season in charge of San Francisco’s pro soccer team with experience in the U.S., Canada and Brazil. But without top-flight experience in North America, he also arrived with much to prove.

When interviewing for the job, Dos Santos told Deltas CEO Brian Andres Helmick he wanted to meet adversity. Helmick, hoping to excel in a difficult San Francisco soccer market, offered a position marked by challenges.

In six months, Dos Santos and Director of Soccer Operations Todd Dunivant, a 36-year-old former defender with five MLS championships, have led the Deltas to second place in the NASL despite a newly formed roster and ongoing attendance struggles. San Francisco is on track to qualify for the NASL playoffs in its first year of existence, as the division winners of the fall and spring seasons, as well as the two runners up make it.

“[Dos Santos] truly understands what a start-up club requires,” Helmick said in an interview with the Examiner. “Other coaches talked about how great they were and the number of championships they’ve won. Marc spent more time in our three-hour FaceTime call … talking about challenges [he’s faced].”

Dos Santos’ career has been cumbersome.

He grew up in Canada — not known as a soccer hotbed — and drew inspiration from his father, a semi-pro Canadian manager. Dos Santos didn’t have a successful playing career to boost his stock. Instead, he toiled in Portugal’s third and fourth divisions until his mid-20s, when he realized he would never accomplish his lofty goals as a player.

Dos Santos said his first coaching break — a managerial post with the Montreal Impact’s reserve team — arrived only after the first-choice candidate backed out for personal reasons.

“When that opportunity came, I felt this is exactly what I need,” Dos Santos said. “I needed a door to open, and when it opened I got in right away.”

Over the past decade, Dos Santos has used stops in three continents to glean information from a diverse range of coaches. He’s learned to hold players accountable – even when some have been older than him. And he’s embraced the winding road that led him to the Deltas.

“The only the growth you have in your life is when you have the chance to persevere,” Dos Santos said. “A lot of coaches … don’t go through the process enough. They are ex-players and they have one year as an assistant and then they become a coach.”

Now that Dos Santos has made it to San Francisco, he’s worked closely with Dunivant to assemble the team’s roster. They agree strong defensive play is a priority. Dos Santos describes his tactical style as pragmatic, while Dunivant spent his playing career as a left back. Through 19 NASL games, the Deltas maintain the league’s third-best defense, allowing 22 goals. That’s enabled the team to earn at least a point from 79 percent of its games.

Dos Santos and Dunivant have also brought together a group with fiery on-field intensity and loose off-field energy.

On Aug. 5, in a match against the New York Cosmos, there were 32 total fouls, six yellow cards and a number of altercations. But the Deltas avoided a red card and scored a game-tying goal from a free kick. They won, 2-1, via a penalty conversion from forward Tommy Heinemann.

In other settings, however, the Deltas display a calm demeanor. In practice last Wednesday, an open-net miss sent a group of players on the sideline, including captain Nana Attakora, into hysterics. While they haven’t been together long, they seem to work well as a unit.

With San Francisco’s on-field product impressing, Dos Santos and Dunivant have cemented their status as rising stars in their respective roles.

But, can the Deltas, still in their first year, keep them around?

Turning an expansion team into a contender is a good enough reason to buy into a project. Whether it’s enough to keep rising profiles at a second-division club remains to be seen.

Dos Santos spoke openly about his long-term ambitions. He wants to lead an MLS side, and ultimately, the Canadian national team. For now, though, he said satisfied with his work as San Francisco’s manager.

Talk of a future outside the Deltas doesn’t bother Helmick, who understands personnel turnover is an inherent part of an expansion club’s existence. While he praised both Dos Santos and Dunivant, and said he hopes they stay long-term, he knows that isn’t necessarily how the business works.

“The way that I view people is I want them to be as successful as possible,” Helmick said. “I want – whether it’s Marc or anyone else – to be in a place that makes the most sense for them at that point in time.”

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