The American youth coaching ranks now include more former pro stars than ever thanks to the influx of retired MLS players, opening a new chapter in youth development.
"The first thing I did was take a year off to become a pro golfer," Jeff Baicher says with a chuckle when asked about his initial venture upon retiring after four seasons of playing in MLS. "I thought if you're good at soccer, you'll be good at golf. … That didn't really turn out."
Baicher played in the very first MLS game, back in 1996 when San Jose teammate Eric Wynalda's goal defeated D.C. United, 1-0, at Spartan Stadium. Baicher would play 115 MLS games before moving on at age 31.
Baicher, a skillful midfielder, spent two years after his golfing experiment with a financial planning firm his friend owned. Then Eric Yamamoto, a teammate of Baicher's on Santa Clara University's 1989 NCAA title-winning team, asked him to help coach a youth team. Baicher enjoyed being back on the soccer field and saw a career opportunity. He became the Director of Coaching for Northern California's De Anza Force and eventually its president. The Force now has about 600 players from U-9 through U-18 and competes in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy.
The Force's coaching staff includes three other former players from MLS's San Jose franchise (Ian Russell, Ronnie Ekelund and Shawn Medved), two from the NASL's San Jose Earthquakes (Chris Dangerfield and Joe Silvera), and Shaun Tsakiris, who was drafted out of UCLA by the New England Revolution and spent most his pro career in the USL.
With MLS now 13 years old, plenty of players have been retiring and seeking second careers. As is often the case for professional athletes, many want to stay involved in the sport. The phenomenal popularity of youth soccer and the ever-increasing number of clubs using paid coaches create plenty of opportunities.
Dan Calichman played five years in MLS, starting with 1996 runner-up Los Angeles Galaxy, and retired at age 32 after his last two seasons, with New England and San Jose.
"I cried for a while," Calichman jokes, when asked what he first did upon retiring. "I was sad. And then I came back to Pasadena [Calif.]."
He became the men's coach at Division III Claremont McKenna College, and, in addition to being a vice president of the CATZ performance and physical therapy centers, headed to youth soccer. He's the Director of Player Development for Los Angeles FC, and with former New England Revolution teammate Teddy Chronopolous coaches LAFC's U-16 U.S. Soccer Academy team. He described a recent Academy showcase event in Lancaster, Calif., as an "MLS reunion."
"All the Academy teams were in Lancaster and every field you go to it's a who's who, so you to get see all these old friends of yours," Calichman says, "Everyone's coaching!"
To name a few, there's Giovanne Savarese (Met Oval), Jim Rooney (IMG), Eric Dade (Birmingham United), Clint Peay (North Meck) and Brian Haynes (Real Colorado). And the youth teams of MLS clubs often employ their former players, such as John Maessner (D.C. United) and Billy Thompson (Columbus).
The Los Angeles Galaxy's Greg Vanney, upon retiring from a long MLS career at age 34, moved back to Arizona to coach Sereno SC. Four years after U.S. Hall of Famer Tab Ramos and fellow former MetroStar Rob Johnson founded the New Jersey Soccer Academy 04, Ramos guided the club to the 2008 U-14 USYS National Championship. Ramos says there are ways that playing experience can help make one a good youth coach, but …
"You don't want to bore the kids to death talking about yourself," says Ramos, who played in three World Cups and one U-20 World Cup. "But there are situations when your own experiences can help. We've had players called into national team camps at 14, 15 years old. It's important to make them understand that doesn't mean they've arrived. You can explain to them what the path is really like."
And when Ramos hires coaches for his club, resumes packed with playing experiences aren't enough to signal a solid coaching candidate. Ramos advocates coaching education -- USSF coaching licenses – and he stresses that the ability to connect with children can't be measured from a resume. Baicher agrees that playing experience alone isn't enough.
"I tell my coaches they have to be the CEO of the team," he says. "That encompasses a number of different things. You have to be able to get the most out of the kids. And it's going to be something different for 14-year-olds than for 10-year-olds.
"You have to motivate, you have to be able to relate. You need the field stuff, relating to the game, the tactical side.
"And what is a huge breakdown with a lot of coaches, is dealing with parents. Communicating with the parents. If you have a problem in one of those areas, you're not going to be coaching at my club for long."
But Baicher says that the credibility of a coach who has impressive experience can be particularly valuable when parents use game scores to judge coaches while the coaches are focusing on developing talent.
"If you look at my club's younger teams," Baicher says, "they're not at the top of the standings at all the divisions because teaching these kids to play soccer is more important than winning games. The parents say, 'I want to win games.' But when you have an Ian Russell, who's the assistant coach of the San Jose Earthquakes and played professionally, explain what we're doing, they're more likely to appreciate the approach."
Baicher says the biggest advantage coaches with playing careers have is in mentoring young players.
"When you've played that long, you've been there, done that," says Baicher. "And there's nothing a player in your club will do that will surprise you."
Experience comes in handy when helping players cope with setbacks, such as injuries, or how to view victory and defeat.
"Kids can get real excited about big wins, which is OK, but we remind them to see the big picture," Baicher says. "The same goes for losses. It's not the end of the world. Here's the big picture."
Baicher, who earns more running the De Anza Force than he did as a San Jose Clash player, says he was 17 years old when he first had a coach with a deep background in the game. Now, although it comes at a cost, children get experienced coaches at younger ages.
Manny Schellscheidt, the technical director of the USSF's U-14 boys program, coached New Jersey's Union Lancers to two U-19 McGuire Cup national titles in the late 1980s as a volunteer coach.
"The years of the army of volunteers is long gone," says Schellscheidt, who worked at a tool and die factory at the time when he coached the Lancers. He's not pleased with the fact that American youth soccer is a pay-to-play game, but believes the influx of experienced coaches marks a new era.
"There was a stretch early on when we didn't have many players but fairly good players," he says. "And then came this era when we had a lot more, but they're not so good. They're all average."
The first era was when Pele's arrival to the USA in 1975 sparked the youth soccer boom. The kids who entered the game then "got taken care of by adults, parents mostly, who had played, mainly ethnic people, who were volunteers -- they could still afford to be volunteers," he says. That era lasted for more than a decade.
"Coaching was then taken over by typical American moms and dads who had no clue about the game but were necessary to jump in so that this great number of kids could be taken care of," Schellscheidt says. "And I don't think that worked as well because it was textbook soccer and the product was textbook kids coming through."
Now the children of the first soccer generation are coaching, and bring a feel for the game.
"That they have played the game, and know the game, at a good level, and get involved, I see that only as a plus," he says. "But rather than coach and instruct and lecture, they should come out and play with the kids, and be good models because they can play.
"Playing is the best part. Keep your mouth shut and just play. And be the best player every time. The best thing for kids is having a good model."
(This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue ofSoccer Americamagazine.)