SOCCER AMERICA: What was your introduction to soccer?
PAUL RATCLIFFE: My parents are from Leeds in the north of England. My dad got transferred to the USA when I was 4. My dad was passionate about soccer. He loved soccer. He’s the one who got me involved. When I was young, he got a ball and said, ‘This is the sport.’ He would take me to games.
What really influenced my passion for soccer and my career is he would take me to LA Aztecs games. He would have me watch George Best and Johan Cruyff, and say, ‘These are the best players in the world. You’ve got to watch them closely.’
I would study them, then go home and in the driveway practice all the moves I saw them doing.
SA: What do you recall about your youth club experience?
PAUL RATCLIFFE: Another part of my development that was really important was playing with Fram, with Coach Luis Balboa, Marcelo Balboa’s dad, who was really influential. He was an amazing coach and helped me in my development.
Luis would teach things like disguising passes with the outside of your foot. Subtle things like that, which really helped my game. And I enjoyed the technical side of it. That was really good for me.
SA: When you use outside of your foot, you don’t need to break stride when you strike the ball …
PAUL RATCLIFFE: Exactly, and you don’t show your intentions. People don’t know what you’re about to do.
SA: At the time, did you realize that by playing for Luis Balboa you were being exposed to an Argentine style of play?
PAUL RATCLIFFE: Absolutely. It helped me a lot. During that time Diego Maradona was an unbelievable player to watch. I always tried to find or identify the top players in the world and watch them and learn from them. When I found that Argentine connection, that really intrigued me.
SA: You went on to college ball …
PAUL RATCLIFFE: I was fortunate. I met Sigi [Schmid], and he recruited me to play at UCLA, and I had a fantastic experience playing at UCLA.
SA: How did you get started in coaching?
PAUL RATCLIFFE: The way I really got into it is Sigi would have me do his camps through the summer. I would be the demonstrator for his camps. I was always wanting to earn money in the summer, and I lived close to UCLA. I grew up close to UCLA.
I didn’t realize at the time I was learning from one of the greatest coaches ever in Sigi and learning how to teach young kids how to play soccer.
SA: How did your career coaching women’s soccer start?
PAUL RATCLIFFE: I was going to be the graduate assistant of the UCLA men’s team. That’s when they started the women’s team. Sigi asked me if I would prefer to be an assistant coach for the women’s team. ‘Where you can really be a hands-on coach or you could do the guys, but it would be more hanging out, getting balls, and training with the guys than actual coaching.’
I knew a couple girls on the club team and they were really nice people, and I was, yeah, let’s try. It might be fun. I took a leap of faith and never looked back.
SA: Who was the women’s head coach?
PAUL RATCLIFFE: Sigi was responsible for both programs when they initially started women’s team. He hired Joy Fawcett [née Biefeld] to be the head coach. I worked with her and became really good friends with Joy. Her brother, Eric Biefeld, played at UCLA. And Joy was one of the biggest names at the time as a player.
SA: Next stop, head coach of St. Mary’s in Northern California.
PAUL RATCLIFFE: My wife wanted to be back in the Bay Area where she’s from. That really worked out. I was fortunate to have some success at St. Mary’s and the Stanford job opened up.
PAUL RATCLIFFE: I’m very fortunate to be at Stanford where we can attract the top student-athletes in the country, or in the world, for that matter. Then it's about creating the right environment and the right culture -- and be passionate about what you’re doing and putting in the hard work to become great. And then you’re always in the hunt for a championship if you have that high standard of excellence within in the group, that they work hard.
But to win the championship, you need a little bit of luck and for things to bounce your way. You need to make sure players stay healthy. There are a lot of variables that play into it. But my hope is we always work hard, create the right environment where everyone is pushing for excellence in everything we do, and continue to have those opportunities to compete for championships.
SA: How would you compare the quality of women's college soccer -- the level of talent, the number of impressive players, etc -- to 1998 when he became a head coach, to 2019?
PAUL RATCLIFFE: The game has grown dramatically. When I originally got involved, if you had three or four top players, you were in contention to be one of the top teams in the country. Now you have to have a complete team of great players to be competing for a championship. The overall level has risen dramatically.
SA: How about the growth of the youth game? Positives and negatives?
PAUL RATCLIFFE: There are just so many more people participating. When I originally got involved, the common thing was to train maybe twice a week. Now you see a lot of kids training three days a week, sometimes four days a week.
The positives are the level of participation. That there are so many young girls playing and there’s such great support and opportunities for young girls.
The negatives are probably too much focus on results and not on development, but I do think we’re trying our best to correct that. Most of it’s positive for me. Since I’ve been involved, women’s soccer is exploding, following maybe the same trajectory as men’s soccer when you look at MLS and how much it’s grown during our time.SA: One thing we now have at the youth level is the ECNL competing with the DA and the elite girls players split between to leagues. Is that a concern?
PAUL RATCLIFFE: Yes, that should change. In my eyes, they should work together. The byproduct of this is could be that we have a future of mediocrity of player development because ultimately you want to get the best players playing against each other. So that they all have to rise to the top to be able to be able to compete.
Right now, it’s divided. You have great players in ECNL and great players in the DA. You really want the elite group in one league where they’re all competing with each other to get better.
SA: It seemed to me that neither Stanford nor North Carolina played its best in the final. Is that because the NCAA has you playing the final within 48 hours the semifinals?
PAUL RATCLIFFE: There’s no doubt when you’re playing in those top-level games you spend so much energy and emotion, it’s hard to turn around and be at that same level of performance so soon after. A credit to both teams, both turned around and battled. But you don’t have that hop in your step and aren’t as sharp. We all know as former players, you think you’re doing everything right, but if you’re tired you just can’t control your body. College Cup is the quickest turnaround [Friday-Saturday]. In conference, we were playing Thursday-Sunday.
SA: The Division I men programs are pushing for a two-semester season, which would enable games to be more spread out. Do you think the women should also pursue that format?
PAUL RATCLIFFE: Absolutely. I’m in full support of the two-semester model. I think it would benefit college soccer in so many different ways. The overall experience of the student-athlete would be much more positive.
I think they would improve as players a lot more because you’d be training just as hard in the spring as in the fall – rather than just focusing on the fall. And obviously there’s the sport science and the health part -- recovery and not as many injuries.SA: Your thoughts on Tierna Davidson skipping her senior year of playing at Stanford to go pro?
PAUL RATCLIFFE: Tierna’s situation was unique. She’s an incredible student. She’s one of the top students I’ve brought into Stanford. Academics are really important to her, so I know it was a really hard decision for her. But when you’re talking about playing in a World Cup and you need to commit to that to play in a World Cup, then I’m completely understanding.
So it was a unique situation. But I know Tierna would have loved to do both. Played in a World Cup and come back and play her senior year, because she loves Stanford.
SA: Will she still get a degree?
PAUL RATCLIFFE: Yes, as far as I know. Her family is really into education and she’s a really, really bright person.
SA: Although it’s also rare in women’s soccer, Mallory Pugh and Lindsey Horan skipped college soccer altogether. Do you think that will become more common?
PAUL RATCLIFFE: It’s not something that I am in favor of. I think it’s really important to get an education. I’m a strong proponent of getting an education with your soccer ability. If you can go to a top-level college, it’s an amazing experience. It’s so good for setting out a blueprint for your entire life to be successful, and to be a well-rounded person. To me, I prefer that they go to college and get an education, and then go on to be professionals.
Women’s college soccer is a very high level and the best female players at that age in the country, if not the world, play college soccer. Maybe that will change in the future, but that’s what I see right now.
SA: What makes you optimistic about the future of American women’s soccer? What concerns you?
PAUL RATCLIFFE: I’m very optimistic about the future. I think in the United States we do a great job of supporting women’s athletics and you saw with the past [Women’s] World Cup the kind of press that we got was incredible and the support we got from around the world I thought was really strong. I think the trajectory for women’s soccer is just going to continue going up.
Concerns moving forward? We have to careful with how we guide our sports. My big concern is that we make sure to focus on the technique of soccer at a young age and the intelligence of their play. Creating the right culture and that it’s enjoyable. Not focusing so much just on athleticism and power. I know those are important factors in becoming a great player, but we want to make sure we focus on the technique and intelligence of play. Because that’s what will separate us.
I think we’re always going to have great athletes, but we have to create that culture of smarts and technical soccer.
Photos: Courtesy of Stanford University Athletics