Kevin Crow, pro star and Olympian in 1980s, on his youth club homecoming and new academy landscape

Kevin Crow, a two-time U.S. Olympian who was one of the few American starters in the 1980s NASL, is the Technical Director of Ballistic United, the Northern California youth club that launched his career. Crow is also the Technical Director of the California Youth Soccer Association (Cal North), one of USYS's 55 state associations. Formally a U.S. Soccer DA club, Ballistic United's elite boys teams have joined MLS's new development league.

Ballistic United, which launched in 1968, is based in Pleasanton, which lies 30 miles north of San Jose. Former Ballistic player Cade Cowell  became the San Jose Earthquakes' youngest Homegrown signing, at age 15 and 102 days, in January of 2019. The previous youngest was another Ballistic player, Jacob Akanyirige, who signed his MLS contract in 2017 shortly before his 16th birthday. Another Quakes' Homegrown signing, U.S. international Nick Lima, played for Ballistic during his early youth days. Ballistic United's Academy Director is Mike Nieto, who played at Ballistic before starring at Cal with Ballistic teammates Mark Deleray and Mike Deleray, the latter of whom was on the Lothar Osiander-coached 1994 Greek-Americans, the last amateur club to win the U.S. Open Cup title.

Crow, who starred at San Diego State, played for the Ron Newman-coached San Diego Sockers during the NASL's final two seasons of 1983-84, and for the Major Indoor Soccer League Sockers through 1992, winning seven MISL titles. He spent the next decade of his career as a business manager outside of soccer before becoming general manager of the Women's United Soccer Association's San Diego Spirit and served as the WUSA's COO until it folded in 2003. He returned to soccer and his hometown club as Technical Director in 2009.

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SOCCER AMERICA: You’re technical director of Cal North, a USYS state association. Your club also fields teams in NorCal, which is sanctioned by U.S. Club Soccer. And Ballistic’s academy teams have moved from the defunct DA to the MLS youth league. These governing bodies are often considered rival organizations in the midst of a turf war …

KEVIN CROW: I’m trying to do what’s right for kids and their soccer experience at all levels and ages. I’m not concerned with market share. We shouldn't be trying to put each other out of business when you have kids at stake. We should be working together for the benefit of the kids.

SA: How was Ballistic’s experience in the DA?

KEVIN CROW: Academies in my view are meant to be like regional all-star teams. But instead of playing once a month together, you’re basically playing together daily. The intent to garner all the top players from a geographical area to play against other like-minded players and teams from other geographical areas is good. I think it's good for development.

Mustang had been the DA team in our area, then moved to the San Jose Earthquakes. When that happened, I thought, the kids in the our region deserve to have that type of program available to them without having to go down to Santa Clara or San Jose or somewhere. I thought our club was the best one to provide it.

SA: How do you feel about moving from the DA to the MLS-run league?

KEVIN CROW: We heard rumblings for a couple years that MLS was looking to do their own thing. So, when MLS stepped in I wasn’t really that surprised.

I think it's better that it's under a private venture than a nonprofit. Because I think at the end of the day, a nonprofit like U.S. Soccer has a hard time justifying investing the kind of money they put into it. And I think some positives will come out of having a private venture, MLS, run the league. I think it’s going to be a better product and experience overall going forward.

SA: You don’t view MLS teams, in your case, the Earthquakes, as rivals that take away your players?  

KEVIN CROW: Sometimes what you need to do is let players grow outside your program for their individual best interests. I've always believed our job is to look after the best interests of every player in the club as individuals and never hold anybody back from anything. That could hurt your team in terms of results but that's not why you should be in youth soccer.

I should be able to look at every parent and tell them I'm doing what's best, in my opinion, for your son.

It’s been a long education process that we're truly about player development over winning. If you want to win and that's your ultimate thing – trophies – then we're probably not the club you should be playing for.  

We have a relationship with Earthquakes. I’ve told them you can have our players anytime you want, I just don’t want them sitting on your bench.

Your coaches can come and watch practices. I just I think there's a right time and place to join programs. If they think one of our players belongs in their program and he's going to play meaningful minutes, then they can have him any time. That's where he should be going. If he's not quite ready, then let him stay with us. Go down there and train once a week, once a month, whatever it might be, until he is ready. Our job is to incubate and push on that type of player.

SA: Do you know how the switch from the DA to the MLS youth league will affect the costs to the clubs?

KEVIN CROW: Referees are going to be a push-down cost to the clubs. They did say they do want to try and minimize travel costs, but they don’t have the details yet. My read on it is that MLS was also a little bit surprised at how quickly U.S. Soccer made its decision to end the DA, so they took over maybe sooner that they anticipated.

But they’re doing a great job in communicating and being inclusive in their decision-making process. They're creating committees with regional representation, which is very good.

SA: Will, as in the case of the DA, players in the MLS league forego high school play?

KEVIN CROW: My understanding is high school play is not an option. I go back and forth with that. But I understand that when you're running kind of a national league and the high school seasons are not the same across the country -- it gets problematic real quick just from a scheduling standpoint.

SA: And the elite players in your club are used to skipping high school ball because of the DA experience …

KEVIN CROW: It’s a sacrifice. We educate them. We talk to them. We tell them, hey, you don't have to get into it right away.

I’ve always said, if you’re a talented player, you don't have to play six years of DA. If you want to have a high school experience for a year or two and then pop into the DA, you’ll make that determination on your own.

We try to educate, inform and make sure that they know what you're getting into.

Ballistic United, founded in 1968 with seven teams, fields more 150 teams with 1,600 registered players. It has recreational, competitive and futsal programs, and adult co-ed.

SA: What kind of communication with parents do you expect from your coaches?

KEVIN CROW: You have to educate the coaches. And I always try to hire coaches who are good people first and foremost. Even more so than their license or their playing background or anything. I want to be surrounded by good people and I want the players to surrounded by good people. I always err on that side. And then I just talk to them about how communication is key and the customer is the parent. It's not the player.

We ask for twice per month team e-mail updates and what have we call Ballistic “press conferenes.” Those are more impromptu. Like after a game, or after training, you talk to the parents about how the week went. Developing relationships is what we try to preach.

Some coaches do it better than others.  Some are afraid, thinking a parent conversation is going to lead to a confrontation. I try to get them past that.  Parents are coming to you because they love their kids. Yes, parents think their kids are a little bit better than they are generally, but it's coming from a place of love. You've just got to start with that.

It's easier for coaches who are parents. And for the most part at Ballistic, we don't have a lot of full-time coaches. Just a few out of 30. I believe there's a better balance that comes with coaches who have jobs outside of the game. And if they're parents, they're more likely to see things from a parent's perspective, which is very important. And if you're a full-time coach living in the Tri-Valley area you're going to struggle financially for the rest of your life.

SA: When you look back on youth soccer now compared to when you played, were there aspects that were better then?

KEVIN CROW: Gosh, that's a tough one. Everyone from time to time has those conversations like, can we just go back to the way it used to be? Which is lower cost, less stress, less parent involvement -- all that kind of stuff. But you can't.

When I grew up, the rules were written where you have to play for the club in your city. No open boundaries. You had to work out your differences, if you had them, with your local club, because you couldn't go anywhere. You couldn't say, "You're not playing my son, we're going across the highway to another club."

It was a lot more sane. There wasn't so much money running through where people's jobs were at stake -- because those people were volunteers. If you had a director of coaching, it was a volunteer.

So that was kind of neat. When you look back, right? Clubs still have a large volunteer base that helps them do a lot of stuff, but a lot of people, like myself, are now getting paid for what people used to do as volunteers. It's very difficult to imagine being able to go back to that way.

Kevin Crow's father, Wayne Crow, played quarterback at Cal and running back and punter for the Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills.

SA: How did you get started in soccer in the beginning? Was there a parental influence?

KEVIN CROW: My dad didn't know anything about soccer. He was an ex-NFL football player who played for the Oakland Raiders and the Buffalo Bills. We were a traditional football family. He didn't know anything about a crazy sport where you kicked and chased a ball. But I hung out with my older brother and his friends playing sports, and they started playing soccer. I got into it.

I fell in love with soccer. I think because it's the ultimate team sport. I love it from the standpoint of sharing responsibility. Everybody gets to be the quarterback.

SA: When did realize you could reach the higher levels of soccer?

KEVIN CROW: I played all the sports until I was 14, 15, and then I started focusing on soccer. I had people who came from other countries and would watch me play, say, "You have something if you want to stay with it." Which was nice to hear.

When I jumped from U-14s to U-16s, I had a coach named Ian Lang, who was buddies with [Earthquakes star] Johnny Moore. He was the type of guy who could still play with us and be the best one on the field. He stoked the passion in me. And we just played a lot. It was back when you learned by just playing.

But I didn't decide until the summer between my sophomore and junior year at San Diego State that I’m going to go for this. I'm going to give it a hard two years to make a run at this.

SA: How so?

KEVIN CROW: The San Diego Sockers were down there and I knew about the NASL because as a teenager I used to go to San Jose Earthquakes games. During college, I went to San Diego Sockers games. I've always had a pretty good ability to look at something and see if I can do it or not. I thought, "I can play here." I may have been naive at the time, but I decided I'm going to give it a go.

Kevin Crow (top row, fourth from the left) with the USA's 1984 Olympic team.

SA: Were you already a defender?

KEVIN CROW: I didn't play a minute at defense until I made that decision that I wanted to go pro. I was always an attacking player. I went to my San Diego State coach, George Logan at the time, and said I'd really like to play midfield. He said, "I've got a better idea. I could use you at center back. That's best for the team."

And it just clicked, because I had played the center forward or the attacking midfield position my whole life. So I knew what he should be doing. I knew the run he was supposed to make and the ball he was looking for, so I was always a step ahead.

I use that as an example to kids. Don't get caught up in your position right now. Just learn the game and have a passion for the game. That will make you more valuable and you don't know what position you're going to end up with as you keep going up the chain.  

SA: After you got drafted, you went straight into the starting lineup ...

KEVIN CROW: The Sockers like many teams were playing playing indoors and outdoors. And the year I got drafted, they were still finishing the indoor season because they were in the playoffs, and the NASL outdoor started. I got an opportunity to start from day one, did well and never came out.

There was also a rule that they had to play three Americans. I was one of the three who got to play, from the first minute of the first game, was fortunate not get hurt, and did well enough to stay in there.

Kevin Crow (top row, second from the left) with the USA's 1988 Olympic team.

SA: There was a gap between your playing career and you returning to soccer ...

KEVIN CROW: When I retired, the was no outdoor pro league, there wasn't a lot of opportunity in the youth game like there is now where you can make a living. And not many opportunities in college soccer because coaches would stay at program for 20 years or so. I quickly realized, while I was still playing, that if I was going to provide for my family I'd have to pursue other opportunities.

I also wanted to work while I was still playing to learn and make some side money. Because we weren’t making a lot of money, and we were also asked to take pay cuts every year to keep the league alive. The first time we were asked to take a pay cut, I thought this is short-sighted. This isn't going to last if their answer is to cut wages, because it was a revenue problem. It wasn’t an expense problem. In my view.

I had worked a deal out for the last five years of my playing career that I would work for the Sockers' owner's business.

SA: Which was?

KEVIN CROW: Ron Fowler [also owner of the San Diego Padres] owned a Miller Beer distributorship. After training in the morning, after lunch, from one to five or one to six, I’d go work at his business during the season. I would do it full time in the offseason. I said, "Just put me wherever you want. I want to learn the whole business." Accounting, merchandise, warehouse, marketing.

SA: You ended up back in soccer with the San Diego Spirit as general manager. How'd your return to Ballistic come about?

KEVIN CROW:  The San Diego Spirit opportunity felt perfect: I'm going back into the game that I love, that I’m passionate about, can bring my business background -- and still take care of my family financially. We moved to Atlanta where the WUSA headquarters was when they asked me to be COO. We stayed in Atlanta after the league folded so my daughter didn't have to move during high school. I did business consulting and some coaching there. When she graduated, I had a business opportunity in Sacramento.

After a couple of years, I decided I wanted to get back into soccer and the game I'm passionate about. I started reaching out. I was going to go back to San Diego. Then I thought, I'd rather work for the club I grew up with and played for, and go back home. I made a phone call to Ballistic and two weeks later, in 2009, I was back.

7 comments about "Kevin Crow, pro star and Olympian in 1980s, on his youth club homecoming and new academy landscape".
  1. Ginger Peeler, June 11, 2020 at 7:12 p.m.

    I always considered the San Diego team as "My Soccers"
     I was devestated when we had to move and I moved to Arkansas where soccer was considered a "communist sport". I'm forever delighted to hear of the successes of those players I loved as they carve out different careers in life. I do miss Ron Newman's bright star.

    Congratulations Kevin!!!

  2. Johan Aarnio, June 12, 2020 at 10:17 a.m.

    As Ron Newman's assistant I drafted Kevin out of SDSU. I said to Ron; " We take Kevin second round only because Cle Kooiman is being courted by others." So we got both. Kevin was talented, strong minded and helped us win championships. it is refreshing to read this interview and see how he has evolved as a person.
    Congratulations Kevin.

    Johan Aarnio

  3. George Billauer replied, June 13, 2020 at 1:59 a.m.

    Johan,  long time no see or talk

  4. humble 1, June 12, 2020 at 2:04 p.m.

    Thank you.  Good to hear stories about individuals who grew up with the sport - took it for what it was and take it for what it is - not perfect - evolving - and focus on giving back to the youth - and - put the kids first.  Keep it going!     

  5. George Billauer, June 13, 2020 at 2:02 a.m.

    Kevin,  Glad to see you have continued to live your dreams. Hope you and yours are safe and well!!
    George, former Sockers Team Chiropractor

  6. R2 Dad, June 14, 2020 at 8:23 a.m.

    I am very curious how this new MLS league will roll out. One of the observations about the DA was that it created sterile robots. The matches, while officiated well as the league filtered out some of the less-able referees, were oddly stress-free. The players seemed on a short leash, the coaches especially so and completely different from some of the nutbag coaches I'd seen towards the end of tournaments (state cup and otherwise). Not that it was a bad thing, but the DA took the edge off of play. For any kids good enough for the national pool, this was a kind of disservice as they might end up playing CONCACAF kids who knew every trick in the book and weren't afraid to do nasty things. CONCACAF condones that type of play through their permissive officiating, bad fields, bag-of-urine-throwing fans and other Home Field Advantage garbage. (Side Note: CONCACAF, oddly, has picked up on a homophobic chant/double-entendre as the worst thing CONCACAF fans do and have cracked down on that. It seems sticks and stones would be worse than mere words but I guess I'm just not woke enough). 

  7. Santiago 1314, June 15, 2020 at 9:42 p.m.

    Kevin; Always a Class Act and Thoughtful Person... Keep up the Good Work.!!!

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