Steve McGuirk on the joys and challenges of guiding youth ball in Michigan

In 2006, the expansion Detroit Ignition of the Major Indoor Soccer League hired its first coach. Moving to Michigan, he searched for a club for his 8-year-old son. He liked the coaches and philosophy of the Northville Soccer Association. The boy – Coach Mark Pulisic’s son Christian – thrived at NSA while Mark earned MISL Coach of the Year honors.

After a couple years, the Pulisics moved back to Pennsylvania, where Christian played for PA Classics before moving on to larger, more international stages. The NSA does not tout their role in Christian Pulisic’s early development. They’re a low-key club, dedicated to serving youngsters ages 3 to 18, at five levels ranging from recreational to the competitive Michigan Rush. Northville – and even the Michigan Rush – are not as well known as the nearby Michigan Wolves. But as NSA approaches its 50th year, it epitomizes the kind of soccer organization that – more than the more well-known, super-competitive (and super-expensive) clubs -- drives youth soccer in the United States.

Steve McGuirk has been associated with the NSA since 1998. A former club player at Ohio State University, he moved to Northville in 1998 for a job in the furniture industry. The NSA was embarking on a fields project, and McGuirk joined in.

The club collaborated with the local government to develop a former prison psychiatric hospital into soccer fields. It was a win-win – until the bill for maintaining the fields came due. The township wanted the NSA to pay $140,000 a year.

“That’s a double tax on residents,” McGuirk says. “We’re already paying taxes,” some of which go for recreation.

That spurred a run for township trustee. He did not win, but his campaign sparked some changes among “the old guard.”

Steve McGuirk (right) with referee boss Howard Webb at the United Soccer Coaches Convention.

McGuirk has led the NSA for 20 years, without drawing paychecks. Juggling many tasks, including finding and keeping volunteers, is “exhausting,”’ he admits. But he loves the game. He appreciates its benefits for players of all ages. Seeing kids have a good time motivates him to continue.

The Rush collaboration has been good for the NSA. Twenty-five years after their founding in Colorado, they call themselves “the largest soccer club in the world”: 155 clubs, with over 45,000 players in more than 50 countries.

Rush provides coaches and players with services, including educational videos and online resources. A special program brings U-12 teams from around the USA to one location for a week of training and competition. Teams are mixed together, providing opportunities to meet other players. McGuirk calls it “a magical experience.”

Northville especially likes the Rush philosophy of developing local talent, without forcing players to regularly travel long distances for training and matches. Having Rush under the NSA umbrella provides incentives for younger recreational players, McGuirk says.

However, the Wolves – the team, and the metaphor – are at the door. “They’ve kind of sucked away our best players after we develop them,” McGuirk says.

Coaches, too. “We have great coaches, and we pay them well. But it’s hard to keep them when other clubs pay more.”

The Wolves have partnered with Schoolcraft College, near the Northville border, to provide an indoor playing facility. The NSA has looked into an indoor site of its own. The price tag is very high.

As with many clubs, COVID has taken a toll. The NSA had to refund money from a canceled tournament, a major funding source. Registration numbers have dropped, in part because of the pandemic, partly because of competition from other sports.

Even something as benign as a club management team is cause for concern. McGuirk is not a fan of GotSport, used by the Michigan Youth Soccer Association. “It’s laborious to work with. Volunteers have quit because of it,” McGuirk says. “We’d have to hire a full-time administrator to deal with it. I hate to see soccer go in that direction.”

But the spring season is near. The Northville Soccer Association – and its Michigan Rush teams – are ready to begin.

Who knows? The next Christian Pulisic may be out on their fields.

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