Commentary

Mark Krikorian on DA vs. ECNL, Florida State success, the NWSL and the Women's World Cup

At one time, Mark Krikorian  was a history teacher not far from where he grew up in New Hampshire. He has worked his way up the coaching ladder and down the Atlantic Coast since then, coaching Franklin Pierce University (winning two Division II national championships), the University of Hartford, the WUSA's Philadelphia Charge and now Florida State, where his teams have won ACC championships six of the last eight years along with the national championship in 2014 and 2018. He also has coached at the youth national team level, leading a U.S. U-19 team with Megan Rapinoe, Amy Rodriguez, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rachel Buehler, Yael Averbuch, Stephanie Lopez and Ashlyn Harris  to a third-place finish in the 2004 U-19 World Cup.

SOCCER AMERICA: How were you first introduced to soccer?

MARK KRIKORIAN: My first introduction was growing up back in New Hampshire. The junior high school that I was attending had soccer. There was no club soccer in my community at the time, so I somewhat randomly took a chance to go out and play. I wasn't the biggest, strongest kid, so football didn’t look it was going to be a part of my path. I went out and joined the junior high school soccer team and very much enjoyed it and continued on from there.

SA: What made you want to be a coach, and did anyone in particular inspire you?

KRIKORIAN: My high school coach -- we had two coaches, and they were kind of co-coaches -- one of them was named John Mitchell, who was really influential in exposing me to so many different aspects of the game. I think at that time he was a teacher at the high school and somewhat new to the game also. They started the high school team when I was a sophomore. What I’ve learned over the course of many years is that when he gets involved in something, he gets very deeply involved. When he decided to get involved in coaching, he just wanted to see and learn and grow as much as he could. I just happened to be, along with my teammates, around at that time, where he would take us to watch college games and the Cosmos and some of those teams.

As I look back, his influence is greatly appreciated, of course. He was very significant in my introduction to the game. He took me and some of my teammates on international trips. He brought different teams to Europe to play. By that point, I was in college, and he still dragged me along to have the experience and assist him and have a chance to see the world game.

SA: Is youth soccer in the USA developing enough players for the professional and international game?

KRIKORIAN: I would say that the answer is yes, we're developing enough. Are we all -- myself included and my colleagues in the college game, coupled with the youth coaches -- are we doing a good enough job to help keep the U.S. women’s national team on top on the global scale? I don't know. We'll find out this summer.

It appears that our senior national team has continued to perform at an extremely high level, and I think all of us are thrilled to see the continued success. But I think all of us are little concerned that the youth national level, at recent events, hasn't shown as strong in the last eight or 10 years. Hopefully, we can get back to being a more dominant country in that arena.

SA: In the 2004, you coached what was then the U-19 team to a third-place finish. Obviously, the U.S. results have not been as good in the past cycle of youth World Cups. Is there anything in particular you can put your finger on that makes a difference there?

KRIKORIAN: I think at the end of the day when it comes to player development, we have to have our best coaches coaching the young players. We have to really invest in those players, making sure that we are out and identifying what's important to us as a country, looking at the whole development path for the player and then exposing them to very good coaching and creating a winning environment for them. That will, in my mind, be really important as we continue to grow as a country.

SA: College coaches seem to be less involved with the youth national programs than they have been in the past. Is that a bit of a problem?

KRIKORIAN: I think it's certainly a problem for the player development. In the college game, we have a lot of wonderful coaches. For me, I look at it and think our best players should be coached by our best coaches.

It’s such a political discussion and debate about how to involve the college coaches with U.S. Soccer and how all of those pieces fit together. There’s no easy solution for it. My hope as a purist is that we can get this right, and at the end of the day, the best players and the best coaches are on the same field working together.

SA: Back to youth soccer -- costs have been going up, and travel demands have been going up. Does that make it too exclusionary? Can underprivileged kids still get through the system to have opportunities in college and beyond?

KRIKORIAN: I think some of the underprivileged kids are having opportunities. There are some scholarship opportunities I think clubs are offering. But clearly, we’re not giving 100% of the population an equal opportunity. I do agree with the premise that at this point, we’re still more of a white-collar sport. It is more among the haves than the have-nots. For us to truly find the best players and play at the highest level we can, we have to include everyone. And making it affordable to all will be a key part in being able to let everyone have an opportunity to go out and play and develop and be exposed to all the great things we have to offer in this country.

SA: Is there an effort among yourself and other college coaches to go out and find people who either can't afford or aren't close to an ECNL or Development Academy team?

KRIKORIAN: There are so many NCAA rules tied to what we can and what we can’t do -- providing extra benefits to players, and things like that. I think all of us feel to a certain extent we are a little bit handcuffed in how it is we could help some of these players. I think our hope is that the clubs are identifying some of these very talented players and finding ways to bring them into the most competitive environments and giving them the opportunities to be successful.

With the NCAA restrictions, all of us have to be cautious about how it is we proceed in that area. Honestly, I think probably it’s the right thing for the NCAA to mandate and try to regulate how involved we are with young players and placing them into different situations.

SA: At the top level, there is what's perceived as a turf war between the ECNL and Development Academy. How does that affect you from a recruiting standpoint?

KRIKORIAN: Well, it’s separated the talents, which kind of waters down the talent. If they could find the same page and figure out a way to work together and get all the best players in the same environment ... we all know that if you have 20 top-level players, their growth and development is going to be significantly better than if you only have 10 top-level players. The whole training environment will be better if all the players are in a top-level group. What's happened now is you have competing interests. Both of the organizations are pulling in their own direction, and it's separated the talent. There is no top league. Both of the leagues, in my mind, are reasonably split in terms of where the best players are playing.

For us as college coaches, if we go to a game and we're watching and trying to recruit, and there’s a top-level kid but the quality of her teammates and the opponent isn’t as great, it's much harder to identify and evaluate them in that situation. If we were able to somehow get the ECNL and the DA into the same room and have them combine their efforts and get the best 20 kids on the same team, it becomes much more apparent much quicker who the top kids are, and it becomes easier to identify.

They shouldn't make their decisions based on what's in the best interests of college soccer. They should make the decisions based on what's in the best interest of players and player development. We haven't hit a home run with that yet.

SA: You’ve managed to bring together a mix of players from all over the world and get them to come together, even given the restrictions of time you have as a college coach. Are there any particular secrets to that you would care to share?

KRIKORIAN: In our recruiting, we're looking for three things. We’re looking for a talented player, a committed student and a good person. Those three areas -- they're not mutually exclusive. You can find a lot of players around the world that hold all three of those different principles to be part of their core.

As I say to our team every year when we get together, we have players from all over the world, but those players have a lot more in common than they have differences. As soon as they start to realize what they have a lot in common, first and foremost being a love of the game and a desire to develop in the game, they start to realize they're in a special place and they can have a special experience.

I think our players here at Florida State have grown to very much appreciate the diversity that we have in the team and the unique nature that we have here. That goes from the American kids to the Chinese, the Venezuelan, the Costa Rican -- it doesn't make any difference. All of the players look at their teammates and look at each other as part of our family here, and they're willing to sacrifice for the family.

SA: You’ve put several players in the NWSL. What do you see from that league now, especially in terms of the quality of play?

KRIKORIAN: It’s getting better and better, as you would expect it would. I think all of us in the college game are hoping to see continued expansion and give more players the opportunity to go and follow their dream of playing as professionals. We've been very fortunate to have a number of our players, after graduating from Florida State, go and join the NWSL. We've also had an awful lot of players choose to go and play somewhere in the rest of the world as professional players.

I’m a big fan of the NWSL. I think it will be a very important piece in the development of some of these players. We know that sometimes our national team players are identified at the U-15, U-16, U-17 age, but other times, these players emerge as they continue to grow and mature, even post-college. My hope is that the league will provide that opportunity for these young women, and some of them will have that chance to go and play in a World Cup or Olympic Games or whatever it might be.

SA: Looking ahead to this summer's World Cup: How does the U.S. team look to you, and what do you see from the rest of the field -- favorites, dark horses or dangerous teams to play?

KRIKORIAN: I think the U.S. looks like they’re ready. It appears to me that Jill Ellis and her staff have done a very good job. It looks to me that they've tested a number of different players in a number of different spots. They’ve tinkered a little bit in terms of playing in some different systems throughout the buildup to the World Cup. My hope for them is that they are healthy and fit, and that they have their entire roster available to them. The quality of depth that they’ve identified and developed is pretty good also. They’re in a good spot. Some of the different events and tournaments they've had and some of the opponents they’ve had a chance to play certainly will prepare them for the World Cup and what lies ahead.

Some of the other teams that would be interesting to focus in on: It’s hard to believe France in France won’t be a very difficult and challenging opponent. I’d have to imagine they’ll be ready to play on their home soil as their men were.

One of the other teams that is no longer a surprise that continues to develop in a great fashion is Australia. They continue to grow and to impress. I don’t know if there are too many young women out there that have out there who have the quality that Sam Kerr has shown in the past number of years. When you have a top top-level young woman like they have, she can change the game.

The Asian countries are always wonderful to watch. You can’t bet against Japan. China has rejuvenated their quality as well.

I'd say England looks pretty good also. So those are a few of the ones that have shown well.

The other group -- I guess I'm going to name every country out there before we finish -- that continues to impress me in their development is Canada. They could be a bit of a dark horse, but no surprise to us watching them regularly with a player of (Christine) Sinclair's quality and all of their supporting cast that they've developed -- Jessie Fleming and Kadeisha Buchanan and the rest of those players. They've done a really good job with their development also.

Mark Krikorian's advice for ...

Parents who want their children to play college soccer:
As of May 1, all of us college coaches can no longer have any communication with any kid before June following their sophomore years. You’ve been hearing and reading about these seventh-graders committing and eighth-graders committing and so on. The NCAA has -- probably very appropriately -- put in legislation that now restricts that, so none of us can have any conversations with anyone until, in essence, they're going into their junior year.

If you didn’t know that, that’s going to change the landscape of recruiting in a much more favorable way for these parents and for their kids. It’ll kind of go back to how it was 10 years ago, where maybe juniors are being recruited or kids at the end of their sophomore year, as opposed to seventh- and eighth-graders.

My advice in all of this would be -- take your time, make sure that when that time comes that you can get on campuses and speak with college coaches that you’re taking the opportunity to look at all the different options that are available and then making the decision that feels right and works for the player and the family.

Youth coaches preparing players for high-level college soccer:
Probably all of us hope the clubs and the coaches will continue to recognize the importance of player development over team results. Our hope is that every day when they show up to practice, the goal is to help the players get better, not just to help the team get better.

Coaches at the youngest ages:
Please provide an environment where the players can feel and experience joy in the game. Make it so it's fun for the kids and they want to come back and have an environment that's positive and brings a smile to the kids' faces.

Mark Krikorian's bookshelf ...

With a lot of the reading I do, it’s a combination of leadership and coaching. I've read a number of soccer books, but I want to preface this by giving you a little bit more information. Most of the reading I do is about leadership, first of all. Secondly, I’m very interested in hearing about other coaches outside of just soccer. I'm interested in Geno Auriemma, I'm interested -- of course, Bill Belichick, being a New Englander as I am -- and so on.

In terms of the soccer books, Alex Ferguson’s "Leading: Learning from Life and My Years at Manchester United" is a book I found quite good. Pep Guardiola's "The Evolution." Clive Woodward's "Winning!"

One of the books I’m actually reading now which has caught my attention -- I was a history teacher before I became a full-time coach, so one of the books I've just started to read is "Soccer Under the Swastika: Stories of Survival and Resistance during the Holocaust." I've just started to crack into it, but it looks like it might be a very interesting book. The author is Kevin Simpson.

And the last book is Michael Calvin, "Living on the Volcano." It's about the challenges of being a manager and all the things that come with it, the pressures and so on. It's quite interesting.

Photos: Florida State University Sports Information Department

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