By Mike Woitalla, Executive Editor
Soccer America Magazine
In 1967, a 10-year-old Greg Ryan was tossing a football around with his brother in the park across from his Dallas home.
A man approached and asked, ''Hey, do you want to play soccer?''
''What the heckÆs soccer?'' Ryan responded.
The man was Felix Heredia, a Bolivian immigrant who wanted to start a team for his son. Ryan joined. He remembers being able to juggle the ball three times his first practice, but doesnÆt recall the teamÆs nickname.
Twelve years later, he played on a team everyone recognizes: the New York Cosmos.
Last year, Ryan became the head coach of another world famous squad: the U.S. womenÆs national team.
RyanÆs coaching career had started when his pro career ended.
''The first job I heard about was the University of Wisconsin womenÆs soccer,'' he says. ''I applied for it and got it. I had no significant coaching experience. It was a great place to start. It was a program that had the ability to be successful.''
The transition from player to coach was more difficult than he had imagined.
''I just didnÆt understand why people didnÆt understand what to do,'' he says. ''And I hadnÆt had enough coaching background to know how to take them through the steps. But being from a playing background gives you that resource to draw from in terms of how to make a team successful. But I had a lot to learn, and obviously I wasnÆt used to coaching women.''
Ryan recalls an office visit from one of his players shortly after he took over.
''She came into my office and started crying,'' he says. ''I thought IÆd killed her. I thought I damaged this person forever. Then I realized it was just her way of dealing with frustration or anger. After that, I just made sure I had Kleenex.''
Despite RyanÆs late introduction to the sport, he earned a scholarship to SMU. ''There werenÆt as many players around then,'' he says. He earned all-American honors his senior year, in 1978, and was drafted by the Tulsa Roughnecks, for which played 14 games before getting traded to the Cosmos.
''American players were the minority,'' he says. ''ItÆd be two American players and nine international stars. Playing alongside players like [Franz] Beckenbauer and Johan Neeskens was fantastic. It was the one benefit for American players in that league that we were able to learn from those kinds of players. It was a humbling experience, but a great learning experience.'' Not that all the experiences would translate into methods he could apply in the coaching career that followed.
Ryan remembers that before a team meeting, the great Yugoslavian playmaker Vladislav ''Bogie'' Bogicevic walked up to the chalkboard. ''He drew a soccer field on the board,'' Ryan says. ''He drew a five-yard circle in the middle of the field. He said, 'IÆm going to stay here. IÆm not going to come out. You give me the ball, IÆll give it to Giorgio [Chinaglia], and heÆll score the goals.' Then heÆd smoke a cigarette.''
Ryan played six games for the Cosmos, then moved to the Chicago Sting the following year and saw more frequent action. He played in its 1981 Soccer Bowl win over the Cosmos. He saw action in 81 NASL games before turning coach.
After his Wisconsin stint (1986-1993), which included two final four appearances, he coached womenÆs teams at SMU (1996-99) and Colorado College (1999-2002), then became a U.S. Soccer staff coach. He became April HeinrichsÆ assistant coach in 2004, when the Americans took the gold medal in Greece.
When Heinrichs retired in February, Ryan took over on an interim basis and guided the team to the Algarve Cup title with only five starters from the Olympic champs. The interim label dropped in April, and under Ryan the USA finished 2005 with a record of 8-0-1 and did not allow a goal.
''He gave us the game back, in a sense,'' says team veteran Kristine Lilly. ''He told us to go out there and enjoy it. Some players were worried about making mistakes, and he said, 'DonÆt worry, enjoy yourself.'''
On the horizon is the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Olympics, and Ryan must rebuild a team that has bid adieu to veterans Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Joy Fawcett and Julie Foudy.
''IÆm not naive,'' Ryan says. ''This team exists for one reason ù to win championships.''
(This article originally appeared in the February 2006 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)