U.S. World Cup veteran John Doyle chose the youth game over coaching in MLS.
When John Doyle looks at youth soccer today and his own experience as a kid, the differences he sees are profound.
"Girls commit to college programs when they're sophomores in high school!" says Doyle, the Director of Coaching of Mustang Soccer in Northern California.
Doyle was a high school senior when he started pondering his college options. An alum from his Fremont, Calif., youth club, Grant Clark, who went on to star at UCLA, talked to him about joining the Bruins. Coach Stephen Negoesco from nearby University of San Francisco asked Doyle to play for the Dons.
"I didn't send 50 letters to colleges," says Doyle, who chose USF. "I didn't get 50 letters from college coaches."
At age 22, Doyle represented the USA at the 1988 Olympics. He started at the 1990 World Cup, then played professionally in Germany, Sweden and for five years for MLS's San Jose Earthquakes before retiring after the 2000 season.
Near the end of his playing career, Doyle became head of Mustang Soccer, an organization with more than 5,000 players in the wealthy Danville area.
"Mustang Soccer was a great league," says President Scott MacDougall, "but we had a lot of problems before John came in. We were always bumping heads on one thing or another."
Fielding highly competitive teams for elite players with big ambitions without short-changing recreational players - while dealing with youth soccer politics - was the challenge that Doyle took on.
"We had a terrible time managing problems," says MacDougall. "Things like the issue of players from outside the boundaries. The gift that John has is he knows how to keep the interest of the kids at the center of every discussion. And he's just as focused on the recreational players as he is on the ultra-competitive player."
Mustang's elite girls teams are among the top in the nation - ranked No. 7 by Soccer America Magazine in 2007 - and its boys side will field teams in the new U.S. Soccer Development Academy.
When Doyle was 17, he tried out for the West regional team under Coach Lothar Osiander.
"He told me, 'I really like you but you didn't make the team,'" says Doyle. "I thought, yeah right, you really like me." But Osiander meant it. As U.S. coach, Osiander gave Doyle his national team debut at age 21, and Doyle was soon starting in some of the most crucial games in American soccer history.
In Doyle's first competitive U.S. game, he marshaled the U.S. central defense in a 3-0 win over Canada in 1987 that erased a 2-0 first-leg loss in Olympic qualifying. Osiander started Doyle in the first qualifying game for the 1990 World Cup, and under Bob Gansler, Doyle started in the 1-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago that clinched the USA's spot at Italia '90.
"I was so young, I wasn't nervous thinking about how important that game was for American soccer," says Doyle. "If I played that game understanding its implications as I do now, I don't think I could have done it."
After retiring, and while already working with Mustang, Doyle served two seasons as assistant coach to childhood friend Dominic Kinnear with the San Jose Earthquakes. Then the Quakes were moved to Houston. Doyle decided not to uproot his family - wife Kaarin, daughter Kathryn (now 15) and son, Jay (12) - and stayed with Mustang.
He was choosing youth soccer over the pros - something he couldn't have imagined back when he was contemplating his post-playing career.
"I wasn't comfortable with the idea of making money from youth soccer," says Doyle, who changed his mind after talking to his youth coach, Hugh Kinnear, Dominic's father.
"I said to Dominic's dad, 'You did it for free,'" says Doyle. "He told me, 'You have the expertise of playing in Europe, of playing for the national team, in the World Cup. If you don't do it, somebody who doesn't have your perspective will be the one who does it.'"
(This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)