Interview by Mike Woitalla
Few individuals have had as great an impact on American youth soccer as Derek Armstrong, who three decades ago pioneered the fully staffed, multi-team club model now prevalent throughout the USA. Armstrong, who is celebrating his 30th anniversary as head of the San Diego Nomads, was also a founding director of US Club Soccer and coached the 1987 U.S. U-20 World Cup team. We spoke with Armstrong about the evolution of the American youth game and the Nomads program that has featured future stars such as Steven Cherundolo, Frankie Hejduk and Jovan Kirovski.
SOCCER AMERICA: You’re believed to be the first full-time, paid coach in U.S. youth soccer. Now, of course, paid coaches and full-time club directors are the norm. What was the reaction to your arrival back in 1981?
DEREK ARMSTRONG: Everybody was mainly a mom-and-pop operation. Back then, people didn’t like the idea that someone’s getting paid to be doing this and competing against their team.
SA: What did you think of the youth talent in the USA when you arrived?
ARMSTRONG: That’s what tempted me. I was on vacation in San Diego visiting Joe Hollow [the real estate developer who founded the Nomads] and helped train players for six weeks. There were players like Jeff Duback, Arturo Velazco, Steve Boardman. The talent is what tempted me to give it a go and we went from there.
The youth potential was obvious. The problem was in administration. I started to run into state associations and that kind of thing.
I didn’t have a clue in the beginning and as I got integrated, I had to fight everybody over common sense things like soccer balls and stupid rules.
The high school thing hit me in the face in the first season, when I was told I couldn’t have the players for four months. What? Why?
SA: You had fights over soccer balls?
ARMSTRONG: To the very first State Cup game, I brought a brand new ball from Blackpool [the English club where Armstrong had served as reserve team coach]. The best ball in the world at the time. I told the ref, I don’t mind you using this today. And he’s got a Coca-Cola plastic ball in his right hand, and he put the two in each hand, and said, “I’m using this one.” Which was the plastic Coca-Cola ball. Welcome to America. Oh my, what’s going on here?
SA: How did you create a coaching staff at the Nomads?
ARMSTRONG: The first four years we weaned away from volunteer and parent coaches. In 1982, I started coaching at UC San Diego. I started using graduating seniors as coaches.
Joe Hollow was bit of a visionary. He had a vision of what an American soccer could look like. He was ahead of his time. In other countries, professional clubs took care of youth development, but we didn’t have that here, so the youth clubs had to try and create a similar structure.
[Note: Armstrong coached the UC San Diego Tritons for 26 seasons (1982-2007), winning three NCAA Division III men's titles.]
SA: How would you rate the youth coaching in the USA today?
ARMSTRONG: First class. Young guys start coaching at an early age and have gotten really into to it.
I think we’ve got some really good coaches who are way ahead of the young people in some of the other countries. These guys get into coaching when they’re in college. They’re looking for a coaching job almost before they finish college. They get a head start. I think it’s quite good.
SA: What are you most proud of?
ARMSTRONG: I think being out in front and setting an example. I’m proud of that. That we stood for something. Running the thing properly and professionally at the time when it was amateur.
I think we were a bit of a leader at that. People started looking at what we doing. Like Tahuichi [the Bolivian youth club] was for what we were doing.
Tahuichi going to the Dallas Cup I think educated a lot of people in the United States who had never seen a decent standard of soccer at the youth level.
It took us to a new level. Tahuichi took our game, the expectations of what is possible with youth to a new level. To a lesser extent, the way we went around was an inspiration to people about how to play the game, certainly in California. …
Half of the coaches in San Diego worked for the Nomads. I think we were a good influence on soccer.
SA: You coached the U.S. team, which included Tony Meola, Kasey Keller, Jeff Agoos and Marcelo Balboa, at the U-20 World Cup. What notable memories do you have of that stint?
ARMSTRONG: It was a two-year spell and I enjoyed that immensely.
That was when the Federation wasn’t as organized as it is now. It was fragmented, and I enjoyed the period because it allowed me to travel around the country and meet everybody.
I’ll never forget walking into St. Louis for a regional event with [my assistant Steve Heighway]. There were 60, 70 people and you could almost feel the animosity. By the time we finished we got everybody relaxed and everybody smiling.
Everybody had their own little empire and you were trying to put together a national program. It turned out to be an enjoyable experience.
SA: How would you compare the USA’s youth talent today compared to the mid-1980s?
ARMSTRONG: There’s a lot more good players. I’m not at all sure if the diamonds are any larger, the special players. We’re not producing enough special players. For special players, there’s a different set of stuff that has to go on for that to happen.
SA: How do we produce more special players?
ARMSTRONG: There isn’t one answer, because there are so many different things needed to make up that environment. ... It’s such a big issue. I think everybody who’s anybody in the United States should be involved in that question.
(Look for Part 2 of this Youth Soccer Insider interview, in which Derek Armstrong expands on the challenge the USA faces in producing special players.)