Commentary

Coaching, coaches ... and me

To be given an award -- to be thus honored -- is a satisfying experience. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not a nice feeling to be appreciated. Hence my sincere thanks to the United Soccer Coaches for handing me their new award -- their Media Career of Excellence award.
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The award pleases me while, at the same time, it puzzles me. I mean, over the past three or four decades I’ve been a pretty persistent critic of modern coaching methods. But the United Soccer Coaches have evidently managed to look beyond the criticism and to find some merit in my musings.

It’s not easy to do that, to publicly make a truly generous gesture, to openly praise your critics. I am grateful to United Soccer Coaches for making the difficult move - not least because it implies that they are aware that my problem has always been with the mechanics of coaching, rather than with the activities of individual coaches.

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Some 20 years ago, in the introduction to my book “SoccerTalk,” I identified the sort of coach I did not like -- the coach “who turns soccer into a kind of chess game,” who “always emphasizes defense,” who is “full of theories and plans and charts and diagrams and set plays.” I called him a Koach.

I named no names. It was the structure of Koaching that I was objecting to, the deliberate programming that suffocated the spontaneity and the creativity that I felt (and still do feel) were vital to the health of the sport.

In fact, I quickly learned that the koach, as an individual, barely even existed -- an odd situation that was brought home to me shortly after I had written a column critical of koaches. I was at a tournament, when I saw a coach heading purposefully in my direction. Exactly the type of koach I had criticized in my column.

I prepared myself for a hostile confrontation. The koach came up to me, stuck out his hand, and with the broadest of smiles, said “Great article, Paul.” No way did he see himself as a koach.

We discussed various issues I had raised, and agreed on all of them. Which pleased me, as I genuinely liked the guy. As an individual, as a coach. But not as a koach. I find I have not used - have evidently not felt the need to use - the word koach for some years now. I’m hoping that means he is a dying species.

That makes sense, of course. At that time -- it would have been in the 1980s I think -- the topic of “overcoaching” was much discussed and much condemned. But no one ever admitted to overcoaching, certainly never claimed he did it. The uglier side of coaching -- if it exists -- is what the other guys do.

When you hang around the sport of soccer - this is probably true of any sport - the group you most frequently mix with are the coaches. This I have duly done and this is the time for me to hand out my own wee awards to a variety of coaches who I have known, admired and treasured as friends. Here are a number of them, in no particular order. The list could be much longer -- I offer groveling apologies to those I’ve left out.

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The late Harry Keough was a lovely man who led his St. Louis University team to massive success in college soccer. I was suspicious of that success because I doubted the merits of the college game. Harry and I talked a lot, did a lot of disagreeing. But also a lot of laughing. Soccer discussions with Harry were always soccer with a smile. I did a lot of learning, too - about college soccer, about St. Louis, about young American players. Harry was about as low key as you can get. He was never boastful about his team’s record, was always gracious to opponents. I never particularly liked the way his teams played, but I loved the man - a top line soccer coach and a through-and-through gentleman.

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Manny Schellscheidt was something of a problem for me. The recipient of the USA’s very first A-license for coaching, something that smacked of koaching to me. And conversations with Manny - there were many of those - tended to be long and increasingly technical. I’d be deceiving myself if I told you I never learned anything from Manny’s koaching conversations. I learned a lot, but it was always the little gems of traditional wisdom that shone through. Perhaps they shone all the more brightly against the surrounding coachtalk.

Yes, there was something of the koach in Manny, but did it matter? I think not. What did matter was that Manny’s teams - I’m thinking particularly of his Union Lancers - played delightful soccer. Whatever Manny was putting into practice, it was not soccer-as-chess. I think I can thank Manny for forcing me to realize that I really didn’t give a damn what schemes and systems a coach employed. What mattered to me was the end product, the soccer I saw on the field. With Manny, the soccer was always worth watching.

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Obviously, there will be sharp differences of opinion about what sort of soccer is worth watching. My taste, by no means a secret, is for the skill-oriented Latin American game. Which gives Arnie Ramirez, longtime coach at New York’s Long Island University, a special place in my soccer heart. Arnie insisted on a Latin style. He recruited mostly Latino players, but always had non-Latinos too - though they had to be skillful ball-players. I was lucky -- there, in Brooklyn, almost on my doorstep, I had a genuine -- and very good -- Latin team to watch. Amazingly, this was a Division 1 college team - the only one that played Latin soccer. The ever-cheerful Arnie always bubbled with enthusiasm, ever-ready to discuss the intricacies and the secrets (well, I saw them as secrets) of the Latin game. My appreciation of Latin soccer owes much to Arnie, not least because he was willing to put up with my execrable versions of the necessary Spanish vocabulary. Suddenly, instead of forever talking about English or German or Scottish teams, I was learning about Boca Juniors and Santos. I was learning how much more was out there, waiting for me to discover it.

My travels with Arnie Ramirez included annual trips to the United Soccer Coaches' Convention.

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I had decided, very early in my soccer-journalism days (which didn’t begin until my 37th year), that I would try to cover not only the pro game, but the youth game was well. I needed help, and I got it big-time from Ben Boehm, the resident youth-soccer genius at New York’s Blau Weiss Gottschee club. Ben came up to me at the end of an indoor tournament. We were all on our way out of the gymnasium, and Ben had overheard a remark of mine criticizing the team that, I think, had just won the tournament. “Too many right-angles,” I had protested. I barely recall making the remark, but Ben heard it, liked it, and proceeded to tell me what I had really meant when using it. Well, yes, Ben, and yes again, and yes, yes -- how convincing and intelligent the man could be, making me sound much cleverer than I was. Ben knew soccer, the inner workings of the game, and he knew boys and what made them tick. It was -- and it remains - sheer joy for me to listen to Ben describing how young boys should be coached (never, you understand, over-coached), and how they should not be coached. But Ben was masterly on the other face of coaching, not the “how” side, but the “what” side - he knew also exactly what should be coached and what should be avoided. I had so much to learn from this man who understood a soccer comment of mine so much better than I myself did.

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College soccer continued as an irritant for me. Something that promised so much, but produced so little. I watched, eagerly, Arnie Ramirez’s LIU, but not much else. Though I did see a lot of Columbia University during John Rennie’s years there (1973-78). While the immensely-likeable Rennie did not manage to reconcile me with college soccer, I was impressed with his knowledge of the game beyond the college scene, and with his belief that the college game, even under strict NCAA regulations, could be reshaped to move it closer to international standards. Rennie took me along with him on a number of his recruiting trips, a totally new - weird and wonderful - experience for me. Rennie knew that foreign youngsters would almost certainly be superior to Americans of the same age and, in his final year at Columbia, he recruited two very good young English players - an early move to expand the restricted boundaries of the college game. Rennie was not alone in his ideas - all thought through and well-articulated. But I was later to face the deeply saddening reality that these would-be pioneers of a more relevant college soccer would find the doorway to progress repeatedly barred to them by the NCAA.

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Then there was Lincoln Phillips. Who really did shake up college soccer with an all-black team that won the Division 1 title in 1971. The elation of that victory - the first major NCAA title won by a black college - did not last long. Complaints were made to the NCAA by ... well, shall we say, by other NCAA soccer teams ... that Howard had used illegal players. Players from the Caribbean islands. The NCAA studied its regulations, not easy to follow, and established that the accusations were true, and the 1971 title was whisked away from Howard. Phillips was devastated, both for his players and because he felt he had been lax in checking player eligibility. Maybe. But there was a nasty feeling around that the NCAA regulations would not have been so energetically enforced had it not been a black college that was on trial. Despite the NCAA’s suspension of several key players, Phillips did manage to get Howard - what he called “the remnants” of Howard - to the semi-finals in 1972. Howard returned in 1974, to beat St Louis in the final. Phillips -- I had followed his ordeal closely -- behaved with wonderful calmness and dignity throughout the trials and tribulations.

All that, while his team of skillful and athletic players showcased a bright new style for the colleges. Lamentably, the challenge of that new approach was not taken up. The dream of college soccer as the nursery for top pro players is fainter today than it has ever been.

A reunion with Lincoln Phillips at last year's United Soccer Coaches' Convention in Baltimore.

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I have been talking about American college and youth coaches. One does not get that close to pro coaches. In 1996, as MLS got underway here was the sight of American college coaches moving into the pro ranks. I had serious doubts about that. I did not believe that coaches with no pro experience at all would ever be accepted by pro players. Whoops. Bruce Arena immediately proved me utterly wrong, Sigi Schmid and Bob Bradley followed to show that Arena’s success was no fluke. Arena and Schmid I got along well with. Bradley was not so easy. We had strong disagreements, but I need to stress that I have the greatest admiration for Bradley’s decision to plunge into overseas coaching. A risky venture, a brave one, which has resulted in a rather changed Bradley returning to the USA to coach a predominantly Latino team - a team that, on its day can play soccer as attractive and exciting as anything that MLS has ever seen.

Bora Milutinovic and Steve Sampson, who in the 1990s preceded Bruce Arena as U.S. national team coach.

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Among international coaches, I greatly enjoyed a number of chats with Dutchman Rinus Michels, the man who could lay claim -- but to my knowledge never did -- to having invented total soccer. A genuinely modest man with a suitably subtle sense of humor. When he was the coach of the Los Angeles Aztecs in 1979, I once asked him about his policy of playing the ball out of the back -- it didn’t seem to me that he had the players who could manage that. “We must try to do it,” he answered, then, after a pause, adding “But sometimes I am closing my eyes.”


Meeting Dutch coach Rinus Michels at Giants Stadium.

I rate Argentina’s Cesar Luis Menotti very highly for resisting calls to populate his 1978 team with physical players and preferring to go with smaller, more skillful men ... who justified his judgment by winning the world cup. I had a short locker room conversation -- just one -- with Brazil’s Tele Santana. But I rate him probably at the top of my list of favorites, for his 1982 and 1986 world cup teams. Neither of which won the trophy. You will, I hope, allow me that one example of a successful non-winning coach.


World Cup-winning coaches: With Brian Glanville I interviewed Cesar Luis Menotti in 1978 during Argentina's victory on home soil. Franz Beckenbauer's time with the Cosmos was sandwiched by World Cup wins as a player and coach. Carlos Alberto Parreira guided Brazil to the 1994 World Cup title in the USA.

For sure, coaching -- especially youth coaching -- should be about more than winning. But it must not be about everything. When it is spread so wide that the coach takes on a quasi-parental role ... can that be right? I don’t think so. That youth coaching must involve a good deal of incidental and basic psychology seems obvious, but the keyword is “incidental.”

But I have had my largest disagreement and disappointment with coaches -- American coaches, that is - over their long-standing refusal to gleefully embrace the Latino game. This, mind you, in a country with a huge Hispanic population, the majority of which is already sold on the sport itself.

I do see signs of change here. MLS seems finally to have discovered that Latino playmakers can work wonders for their teams. And young American-born Hispanic players are beginning, finally, to get on to the various U.S. national teams.

But the pace of change has been painfully slow. Please guys -- can we not speed things up while we develop a style of play that accommodates, that actually welcomes, Latinos?

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Aberdeen, Scotland, the 1989 U-17 World Cup. For whatever reason, the coaches of Australia and the USA did not provide a productive interview.

8 comments about "Coaching, coaches ... and me".
  1. John Polis, January 13, 2021 at 10:49 a.m.

    I first met Paul Gardner in the summer of 1975. I was a sportswriter for The Oregonian newspaper in my late 20s, assigned (most probably by default because no one else wanted to do it) as the beat reporter for the new Portland Timbers franchise. Paul had come out to the Pacific Northwest from New York to explore this phenomenon called the Timbers, which from an opening night crowd of around 6,000 had caught fire and was drawing mid-season crowds in the teens, on the way to an NASL semifinal in Portland (with the St. Louis Stars) that would draw around 33,000. The numbers were unheard of for the pro game at that time and he was curious to speak with me about what was going on. That was the beginning of a friendship that lasts to this day. As a rookie soccer reporter I had so many questions and Paul answered them in an understanding way to help me along. That was part of the fuel that fired me up about the sport and resulted in a career for me that touched various high level of the game over the next 40+ years. There was a time when I worked directly for Paul when he was editor of Kick, the official program of the North American Soccer League and he often asked me to write stories on NASL personalities. As a baseball-football-basketball guy for the first 28 years of my life, Paul was one of the many wonderful people who helped me grow an appreciation for the world game that lasts to this day. His book The Simplest Game is a classic that still stands on its own. Paul's number has been in my address book all these years and we stay in touch through occasional phone calls. Once when I was in NY City we met for breakfast and several years ago we were able to spend some time together at the coaches convention. Paul, congratulatons on this award and thanks to the folks at United Soccer Coaches for choosing someone who through his articles has educated, entertained and cajoled us for so many years. The choice has particular personal meaning for me because the recipient was a guy who helped me during the earliest days of my soccer writing career during the 1970s when -- to be honest -- there were times that this rookie wasn't sure whether the ball was stuffed or pumped. Through the years there have been many conversations where, depending upon the job I was in, his knowledge of the game continued to help me along. To this day there isn't a conversation with Paul where I don't in some way add to my knowledge of and appreciation for the game. Again, all good wishes, Paul, on being presented with this soccer journalism honor. No one is more deserving.  

  2. Dan Woog, January 13, 2021 at 12:24 p.m.

    Congratulations to Paul Garnder on this well-deserved honor. No other journalist has done more to chronicle, push, prod, promote, kick, caress and educate readers about the game over the past 50-plus years than he.

    This column is so typical of Paul. It's entertaining. It's honest. It's personal. It's passionate. It's deeply knowledgeable, with references to people and events both well-known and long-forgotten. It's superbly well written. It takes the reader in many directions. At its core, it's about a game Paul loves, and is never satisfied with. He always wants it -- and everyone involved witih it -- to get better.

    I am honored to call Paul a friend. I always look forward to getting together at United Soccer Coaches conventions, to hear his insights, listen to his latest complaints about the game, and -- because he knows everyone in soccer -- to be introduced to a parade of interesting people as they stop whatever they're doing to say hello.

    Two of my greatest memories in soccer involve Paul. I was part of a legendary trip to Brazil with him, for the first (and only) Pele Cup youth tournament. Chatting with Paul on buses and in the stands, being with him on a side trip to Belo Horizonte for a small ceremony at the site of the US' wildly improbable 1-0 World Cup victory in 1950 over his native England; visiting Pele's house in Santos -- learning something new every day about the game, from his authoritative yet encouraging voice -- was one of the highlights of my soccer life.

    A few years ago, I was invited to his birthday party in New York. It was a who's who in soccer -- including US Soccer president Sunil Gulati -- and everyone was there to play tribute to Paul. He did not let anyone off the hook. But again, what came through was his love of the game, and his desire for it to be played and administered "the right way."

    One final story, this from my role as a high school coach. A few years ago, one of my players was being honored at the national convention. I introduced him to Paul in the hallway of our Indianapolis hotel. "What position do you play?" Paul asked. "Goalkeeper," he responded. "Ah, so you're not actually a soccer player then, are you?" Paul said. Taken aback, my players said, "Yes I am!" "Why?" Paul asked. When the teenager offered some reasons -- pushing back against Paul -- he was delighted.

    After some more give and take, my player and his father left.

    Paul turned to me. "I like him," he said. "He has spunk."

    Paul Gardner has spunk, and a lot more. Here's to many more years, making us all think, respond - and be better soccer people.


  3. David Kilpatrick, January 13, 2021 at 12:40 p.m.

    Congratulations, Paul! #Legend

  4. Kent James, January 14, 2021 at 12:52 a.m.

    A well-deserved award, and given your generally critical attitude towards coaching, a very diplomatic (and generous) column.  I have never had the chance to meet Paul, but he has been a part of my soccer life since I began reading SA in the early 1980s.  While I sometimes disagree with him (some day, I hope he'll recognize that it also takes skill to play good defense!), I always enjoy his columns and value his insights.  I was fortunate enough to experience two of the coaches on the list (Rennie, briefly as a player in his first year at Duke, and Phillips, as a coach in a coaching clinic), and he is certainly right about their quality.  May I get to read many more of your columns...and maybe someday do one on good defense (you know, emphasizing things like transitioning to defense quickly after losing the ball, reading the game, making play predictable, identifying and covering the most dangerous attacks, working as a team, not being decieved, reacting quickly, winning the ball and starting the counter before they can recover!).  

  5. Bob Ashpole, January 14, 2021 at 6:39 a.m.

    Paul, it amuses me that you never miss an opportunity to promote better soccer. Even today. Congratulations. Well deserved.

  6. beautiful game, January 14, 2021 at 11:08 a.m.

    Thank you Paul for your soccer passion that you have shared with us for the past five decades.

  7. Arnold Ramirez, January 15, 2021 at 9:10 a.m.

    Congratulations Paul. Well deserved award.

  8. Jogo Bonito, February 5, 2021 at 2:10 p.m.

    I loved this piece. Thanks again for another wonderful read. My old youth coach introduced me to Paul's writings in 1976 and he called him "the conscious of American soccer" ... I haven't missed a column since. 


     


    His books "The Simplest Game" and "Soccer Talk" I still pick up now and then (especially during lockdown). It's amazing that many of the challenges our sport was facing 40 years ago still exist today. Paul shows his love for our beautiful game through a consistent, caring message over such a long period of time. He's like the "Bernie Sanders" of soccer.


     


    Congratulations, Paul! Well deserved!

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