THE RENAISSANCE MAN
From the shores of the Bay Area to the the banks of the Black Sea, American Dennis Lukens is making waves for coaches from the United States.
Lukens, from Glen Cove, New York, has taken the scenic route - one which also includes a stopover in the tiny island of Saint Lucia - before taking over as head coach for Ukranian team Krystal Kherson.
"I ended up in Ukraine by luck," Lukens recalled. "I visited Ukraine on a chance vacation nine years ago and liked the country. When my job with Saint Lucia ended I returned to visit again and ended up living here."
"I met with the President of Krystal about one year ago and he hired me as Technical Director in July. I signed the contract and went to America for eight weeks in July and August, and in my absence the team got one point in their first eight games."
That run of results landed Krystal in last place out of 11 teams in the Druha Liga, the third division of Ukraine. Ending at the bottom of the Druha Liga generally spells death for Ukrainian teams, many of whom are struggling just to stay afloat during the season. Below the third division of Ukrainian soccer is regional amateur clubs, which is where Kherson spent numerous years before making it back into the big leagues.
"The president fired the head coach and named himself [to that role]," Lukens relived. "[After returning] I observed training for about one week and I asked him if I could take over training. I did training for three days and we won the next game."
"[After that,] I did 100% of the training and worked with the president/head coach on all decisions. After the team went 4-4-1 for 13 points, I was officially named head coach. Since then we have gone 2-2 for six more points and have gotten to seventh place at the break."
The US-born coach took time to compare the players he sees day in and day out in the Ukrainian League with players that he has coached or seen play in the USL Pro league. Many Ukrainian Premier League teams have their second teams playing in the second division, with the benefit of their league being an "Ukrainian Only" player model.
"Only Ukrainian players can play in the Second League as part of it's purpose is to develop domestic players," Lukens explained. "There are multiple U-19, U-21 Ukraine National Team players in the Second Division. I would say that compared to the USL Pro League, the Ukraine second division players are better technically while the American player is better prepared physically."
"Coaches here are very good as everyone who coaches has played professional soccer and has experience at a high level. Our tactics are very European. Many teams end up playing a 4-2-3-1, looking to win at home and draw away."
Due to his initial success of leading his team to a respectable place at the midway break, Lukens believes he might have overcome the initial skepticism that faced him upon his arrival.
"I think people in Ukraine were surprised that I am coaching here and did not know what to make of me," Lukens laughed. "American coaches are still looked down upon as not knowing the game. We in America know that this is not true but that is the beliefs that I feel are held throughout Europe. Can you imagine an American coach applying for a job in England, Italy, Spain, or Germany? What would be his chances?"
"Once people get past the initial curiosity they treat me very, very well and treat me like any other coach. The people of Kherson know that the team has improved greatly since my arrival and that to them is what is most important. Anywhere in the world if you win your games, you will be accepted. The same is here in Ukraine."
And winning games is exactly what Lukens is focused on doing now that he has a full preseason with his squad. At the start of his tenure as head coach of the team Lukens had basically resigned to the fact that just the day to day operations needed to be addressed immediately.
"Coming in at essentially midseason of the first half of the season to a team that had lost seven out of eight was really, really difficult," the New Yorker admitted. "Psychologically, tactically and from a preparation standpoint things were done really badly. Making big changes when you are just trying to get points and win games is difficult. I had to make big changes on how we trained and the psychological approach.
"I could do that on a daily basis. However, I made much slower changes from a tactical standpoint as I felt any huge change tactically that resulted in disaster would damage the team even further and would be the end of my time training and coaching the team."
"I really believe we can really rise up the table now that I will have a preseason in January and February. I will be able to have more influence on the team."
The turnaround job done in Kherson is enough to gain publicity, but Lukens is keeping his eyes on the field in Ukraine. Being in Europe provides the Krystal coach with plenty of visibility, but staying in Ukraine is on the top of his list right now.
"I would like to go as far as I can within Ukrainian soccer," Lukens said. "Here it is like any other European country. Everything stands still on game day and the whole country watches and talks about the games the next day."
"When the National Team plays there are no cars on the street as everyone is at home or in a pub watching. Every man has played football at sometime in his life. Football is far and away the biggest sport in Ukraine."
All across Europe the head coach shuffle is in full effect with coaches trading posts if the job is not done to the right standard. Lukens is aware that his job is result driven, and that the right results might bring offers from foreign eyes all across Europe, and maybe even Major League Soccer.
"Breaking into another big [soccer] country in Europe would be really difficult, it would be like starting over," Lukens said. "Certainly, if the right opportunity was offered to me in America I would be interested."
"I was born and raised in New York and while I am treated extremely well here and currently live here, I have always loved America and always will."
The team and coaching staff take a break during the frigid end of December, but are straight back into the swing of things at the turn of the new year. Kherson currently sit just below the halfway mark in the league, but are 10 points behind sixth placed Real Pharm. The ambition of third place isn't impossible, but making up 15 points to overtake current holders Ternopil' will take some hard work.
Work that Lukens' and company are ready for.