Tom Atencio on the joys of working in the youth game, the growth of American soccer culture, and his move to Hawaii

Tom Atencio became the Hawai'i Soccer Academy's Director of Coaching last July, arriving after six years as director of the San Francisco Elite Academy. His three decades in the youth game, after playing for Cal State Fullerton and in the APSL, includes 15 years as the Director of Coaching and Player Development for Tualatin Hills United Soccer Club and Crossfire United in Oregon. He spent a decade on U.S. Club Soccer's board of directors and has worked in ODP, id2 and scouted for the U.S. youth national team program. He is also the author of "Anatomy of a Winning Culture."

SOCCER AMERICA: What was your initial introduction to soccer?

TOM ATENCIO: I'm from Claremont, California, a college town, and soccer was the No. 1 sport in the area when I was growing up. And the LA Aztecs were around at that time. I played at recess every day, started out in AYSO and moved on to the club scene. I played for a local Catholic high school that had a very good soccer program. The coaches were, I think, a bit ahead of their time, with the structure of the technical training, and so on.

SA: Was there a soccer background in your family?

TOM ATENCIO: My dad was into martial arts and had played American football. But in my kindergarten year at a local elementary school, after playing soccer with mixed ages at recess, I went home and told my dad about playing soccer. He got me involved right away and started coaching.

SA: What was about soccer that inspired you to make it such a big part of your life and a career?

TOM ATENCIO: This is a great question. Part of it is just the appreciation of why we call it the beautiful game. The appreciation for the technique and the detail of it, but also the fitness that goes along with it. On the global outlook, I like to travel, explore cultures, see new places. And no matter where you go in the world, as you know, you'll find the game.

I've been fortunate to do a lot of international stuff through the game.

SA: When did youth coaching become a career?

TOM ATENCIO: After college I took GREs and I took the LSAT and all that kind of stuff. But a friend of mine, David Goldstein from Claremont, who had coached me when I was 9 — one of the first mentors I had — invited me up to Boise, Idaho to help build a club. That was after I was playing for the Los Angeles Heat in the APSL. ... David passed away [in 2010].

I was trying to be a player and I got drafted indoor and played on local Los Angeles teams, playing against the San Francisco Blackhawks and all that. But there was no money in it. I was either going to get a master's or I'm going back to Idaho. I had an open invitation to go and try to be a director.

I don't mind being out on evenings, for training sessions or coaches sessions. I enjoy being on the field on weekends. That schedule is fine with me, so it was a good fit. So I went back to Boise, and then to Oregon and San Francisco. Now I'm in Hawaii.

SA: What inspired you to write the "Anatomy of a Winning Culture: A Handbook to Help Directors Build a Pathway to High-Performance, Well-Structured Teams"?

TOM ATENCIO: I've seen a lot of Xs and O's how-to books, but not how to run a club. I felt it was necessary to have a handbook or at least an option to refer to as a director or full-time club person in the American youth game. I've been collecting documents for the past 30 years, and finally, I hired publishing assistant and she helped guide me through the whole process of editing, proofreading, copyright, everything.

You’re organizing a soccer dinner party. Which four people, dead or alive, do you invite?
1. At least one actor from Monty Python (Philosopher's Germany vs. Greece).
2. Andres Cantor
3. Bob Gansler
4. Giovanni Infantino 
5. Pele
6. Carli Lloyd

SA: What were the challenges of directing a city club, in San Francisco?

TOM ATENCIO: When players got older, on the more competitive stage, they wanted to leave the city and go to Marin or toward San Jose. My first question was, why does everybody leave the city? I was working mostly on the women's side at SF Elite and I think we created a successful structure that encouraged players to stay, prepare them for what comes later, and become a more competitive club.

SA: What are the challenges in Hawaii and how will you measure success, say a couple years from now?

TOM ATENCIO: It's a really cool environment here. But we're isolated. Even if you play in San Francisco, you can go south to San Jose, north to Marin and Santa Rosa, around Berkeley, whatever, and so there are opportunities to measure up and experience cultures saying this is OK, and this isn't.

In Hawaii — I'm on Oahu — if we can establish training habits age-appropriately, if we can deliver a predictable year-round calendar that benefits the players — not just the top players — we can provide pathway options that they may not have had or known about. Some of that is facilitating access to [regional and national ID programs], college options and or even the youth national team program for the special kids.

We've created something called the Centers of Excellence, which is basically bringing players from the island together once or twice a week. Two years from now, I'd like to be able say we provide an environment and soccer culture that now they think is only available on the mainland.

Favorite Soccer Books
1. New Kids In The World Cup  By Adam Elder
2. Soccernomics  By Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski
3. How Soccer Explains The World  By Franklin Foer
4. Inverting The Pyramid By Jonathan Wilson

SA: What do you point to as an example of major progress in the American soccer since your early years in the game?

TOM ATENCIO: I would say the current model, the availability to watch games thanks to the Internet, is so much greater than 30 years ago. It's helped build the culture nationally. Back then, if you weren't from a large city, you didn't really have a soccer base, a measuring stick of what is good and what isn't.

I will say this, I want to give huge kudos to Soccer America, and Telemundo, and Univision. You guys saved the game in our era, like in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I thank you for that because it was so important to be connected to the soccer world, and I've been reading it ever since. ... Back then, to watch soccer on TV, living in Southern California, it was channel 52 on our TV, watching the Mexican league. Or watching Soccer Made in Germany.

SA: Now that pretty much every soccer game around the world is available for us to watch, which games do you try make sure to watch?

TOM ATENCIO: I'm a huge LA Galaxy fan. I like MLS. I went to lot Earthquakes games when I was living there and really enjoyed them. I try to watch whatever I can but I'd say my favorites are MLS, LaLiga and the English Premier League.

SA: Did new challenges accompany the progress of American soccer?

TOM ATENCIO: I would say that in our era, we were hungry and we did what we had to do to search out the game, so the grit and the work ethic was kind of given among players back then.

Now because it's a pay-to-play model, sometimes the soccer population wants a quick fix, and you're going to have to find the balance between developing the player and also getting them where they can compete.

• Favorite Soccer Films 
2Good Rivals
3The Game of Their Lives
4The Damned United
5Bad Parents
6The 99ers

SA: You attended 11 games at the 2022 World Cup. What did you think about the U.S. performance?

TOM ATENCIO: I was actually very proud. I was very happy with their performance and I think Gregg Berhalter did a very good job. I like the solid play we had, we attacked a lot, we outplayed Wales for most of the game. We outplayed England. We outplayed Iran. I think the Dutch were just a little more savvy on the counter. I was proud. I thought we did well.

2 comments about "Tom Atencio on the joys of working in the youth game, the growth of American soccer culture, and his move to Hawaii".
  1. Paul Knight, February 22, 2023 at 5:42 p.m.

    Enjoyed that read. Anyone who would invite a Python cast member to dinner is my kind of person.

  2. Santiago 1314 replied, February 24, 2023 at 12:17 p.m.

    Ditto... Just watch out for "The Salmon Mouse".!!!

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