Afshin Ghotbi, the globetrotting Iranian-American soccer coach whose career has seven countries and 35-plus years, says he always knew he was going to be a soccer coach.
Becoming a professional player wasn't exactly an option for Ghotbi, who emigrated with his father from Tehran to Southern California when he was 13 years old in 1978 and played at UCLA from 1981-85 under head coach Sigi Schmid and assistant Steve Sampson. Post-NASL and Pre-MLS, there weren’t many opportunities to play after college.
“We were the lost generation of American soccer players,” Ghotbi told Soccer America. “We had no path of playing pro. But I started coaching at age 14. I made $10 an hour coaching kids as a side job.”
But playing at UCLA — and the connections he made with Sampson and Schmid — would prove to be important for the career that lay ahead for Ghotbi. Known to be a shrewd tactician in American coaching circles, Ghotbi made a name for himself by being one of the first coaches to use software for tactical purposes.
He was on Sampson’s staff at the 1998 World Cup and helped Dutchman Guus Hiddink prepare co-host South Korea’s national team for the 2002 World Cup at which it finished fourth. He remained in South Korea after the World Cup, assisting with the K-League's Samsung Bluewings, before reuniting with Sampson at LA Galaxy during its 2005 MLS championship-winning season.
He returned to Asia, where has he spent more than 15 years coaching clubs in South Korea, China, Thailand, Japan and Iran, whose national team he coached in 2009-11 after winning winning the 2008 Iranian league title with Perspolis.
After helping Shijiazhuang Ever Bright reach promotion to the Chinese Super League in 2021, he moved back to Los Angeles with a desire to be closer to home.
“It was time for me to come home,” said Ghotbi, who describes himself as a “global citizen who's homeless.”
But he couldn’t stay home for long. Rob Friend, the former Canada star now Vancouver FC's president, invited him to be the Canada Premier League club's first head coach, an offer Ghotbi couldn’t turn down.
“We have a blank canvas that we can build from bottom up,” said Ghotbi, whose first coaching stints after playing at UCLA were as head coach of La Canada High School and the UCLA women's team.
SOCCER AMERICA: What’s your first memory of playing the game?
AFSHIN GHOTBI: Maybe when I was 3 or 4 years old, playing soccer in the street. I was born in Tehran, and my family moved to Southern California in 1977. I was born in 1964. I remember it clearly: socks rolled up into balls, bricks as goals, having neighbors chase us down the street. That's my memory.
SA: Who got you into it?
AFSHIN GHOTBI: My siblings were the plastic balls that we were able to get. Anything that rolled — or even that could slide, like a bottle cap — we used as a soccer ball. The love of the game was in my veins from the moment I can remember.
SA: So that was your first coaching experience?
AFSHIN GHOTBI: In the streets in Tehran I was bossing everyone around, to be honest. I had the personality to boss people around, tell people what to do. Even if they were older and bigger than me. I was a playmaker — very good with the ball.
SA: Did the fact that your parents were teachers help you be comfortable in a teaching role early on?
AFSHIN GHOTBI: My mother was actually my first grade teacher. She taught me how to read and write at age 3. At 4, I was in first grade. My eyes were barely above the desk but she was really hard on me: how to sit, how to listen, how to learn.
My father was an English language teacher. Between his classes, I would come in and copy his writing on the chalkboard. I think they influenced me a lot about the importance of education and teaching as a combination of knowledge, communication, delivery, and breaking things down so the student can understand it.
Because I was working with kids, the first thing I had to do was get the passion to them, to pass it onto my players so they love the game as much as I love the game.
SA: I take it that, graduating from UCLA with a degree in electro-engineering, you didn’t always want to be a soccer coach?
AFSHIN GHOTBI: No. It was always the game. My father was a teacher, my mother was a teacher, my stepmother was a dentist. They told me I could pursue my dreams but there's no money to be made in soccer in America at that time. The NASL had folded — we were the lost generation of American soccer players.
SA: How did your studies at UCLA help you as a coach?
AFSHIN GHOTBI: What we learned more than anything else was not engineering but how to think, how to solve problems, how to take what we have and find solutions using principles. I think that really helps me as a football manager: how do I make the most out of the players I have? In defense and in attack?
I was also a pioneer when it came to technology. I was always looking for ways to improve my players. Before desktops could capture live images, I used VCRs to edit films and used them to educate my players on playing styles.
A software called MasterCoach was introduced to the market in 1997 and only two teams in the world were using it: USA and Norway. When I was working with Steve Sampson on preparing the U.S. national team for the 1998 World Cup, he knew how tactical and technologically savvy I was, so I prepared something using that.
Later I used Sportscode, a video analysis software, and began using it on laptops. I was the first person in the world to use Sportscode for football.
Steve Sampson and Afshin Ghotbi during the Los Angeles Galaxy's Open Cup-MLS Cup double-winning season of 2005.
SA: Given your knowledge and experience in the use of software and statistics to increase a team's performance, what are your thoughts on xG, expected goals?
AFSHIN GHOTBI: Of course, it's a nice number; for the media, it's a nice number. It gives us a number that quantifies how goal-dangerous a player or team is in a particular game. But I do believe at the end of the day there's only one number that counts: how many you score and how many you give up.
Football is like life: sometimes, as in life, 1+1 in football doesn't add up to two. There are many different shades and dimensions of the game — it's not as simple as just putting a number on it.
I do think it was Brad Pitt and "Moneyball" — those kinds of things that motivated these numbers. For me, the game is a combination of art and science. That's what makes it special and an unpredictable game.
SA: What sort of technology did you find most successful in your coaching when you were one of the few who used it?
AFSHIN GHOTBI: To be honest, I was more interested in creating pictures than numbers. Players don't relate to numbers. I'd take a high camera angle that shows all 11 players, with the distances between players, how they move as a unit in defense and in attack. What positions do they take to create the most amount of space and support for each other?
SA: As an American coaching in Iran — first at the club level and then internationally — what was returning to your home country like?
AFSHIN GHOTBI: It was the first time in 30 years. It was very surreal — a combination of a lot of emotions. For anyone who leaves their country at a young age and migrates, it's a challenging life — you're an outsider, you're different, English is a second language.
Going back, I still remember the feeling I had on the flight. There were a few thousand people in the airport waiting for me to come. I had tears in my eyes, goosebumps on my arms, I felt really emotionally touched. Seeing my mother, my real mother, who I hadn't seen in 30 years, was quite special. It was an amazing feeling.
At the same time, I really didn't recognize my country. You had the revolution after my departure, an eight-year war with Iraq, and a regime with a completely different ideology than what we believe in in the West. It was quite a culture shock, to be honest. I felt like a foreigner. I wasn't treated well by most of the football people because they were kind of jealous of me coming back and having the success that I had made it even worse.
SA: Were there times you faced any serious hostility? Or when you weren't allowed entry to the country?
AFSHIN GHOTBI: There was a period when I was working for U.S. Soccer, and Iran had a friendly against Jamaica. And I was supposed to go an scout the game — because I had an American passport, they didn't let me in.
When I was South Korea's coach in 2007, we had a game against Iran and in Dubai they stopped me because I didn't have an Iranian passport. I'm kind of a global citizen who's homeless.
SA: Professional Asian club soccer is one the least-followed soccer areas in the U.S. — for you, after those years you spent coaching in Thailand, Japan, China, South Korea — what makes Asian soccer unique or special? Would you like to share some of your most-memorable experiences there?
AFSHIN GHOTBI: I think the continent of Asia has the biggest potential in the development of the game in the last 20 years, starting with the World Cup going to South Korea and Japan. To go there, be part of the host nation in 2002, was very special. We ended up playing the USA in the group stage. To see the investment and groundwork that was being done not only in Korea, but also Japan, was a great experience to see firsthand.
SA: Why don't you think Asian soccer has caught on in the USA?
AFSHIN GHOTBI: I think the reason it's not followed as much is the lack of English media in those countries and the language barrier in general. We are so involved in the bubble of soccer in America itself. If we look outside, we look at the World Cup or maybe the English Premier League or Bundesliga.
But, I mean, some of the best coaches in the world are coaching in the Super League in China. I coached against guys like Sven-Goran Eriksson, Jordi Cruyff, Rafael Benitez.
In the Japanese league, the whole structure they built with promotion and relegation across three tiers, how communities and companies got behind building a culture in that city — that was amazing. It's very well followed and probably the best and most organized league in Asian football. Maybe not the most funded, but probably the quality of the players and the parity between teams.
SA: Your new adventure is with Vancouver FC. How is that project going?
AFSHIN GHOTBI: It was time for me to come home. My parents are aging, and my stepmom passed away in December. Being in China during Covid was emotionally difficult for me to manage the distance and not seeing my wife and children.
So I came back to Southern California, and Rob Friend [Canadian international, now retired], who I once tried to recruit to play over in China, told me about his new project. It was very close to my heart: on the West Coast, close to my parents, in a city that's dynamic and has so much potential.
We have a blank canvas that we can build from bottom up. It was very intriguing to come into a project where we can be part of the development of the game.
I think the team has done extremely well — we're the youngest team in the league and I believe as the season goes on we'll challenge for the cup. At this point we're competitive, and that's all you can ask for from a team that's only 5 months old.
SA: How do you hope to compete with Major League Soccer's Vancouver Whitecaps for fans and attention?
AFSHIN GHOTBI: We want to be a community-based football club that uses players from within the community and then creates a platform and atmosphere for them to develop for the future of the Canadian national team. That's one of the strategies. The other is how hard we're working off of the field to meet people that are in the game — youth clubs, etc. — and making ourselves available for education, motivation and connection to bring people together.
SA: Looking back on your career, who were some coaches that taught you and helped you along the way?
AFSHIN GHOTBI: In college I played for Sigi Schmid and Steve Sampson, who are icons in American soccer. I learned a lot from each of them. Bora Milutinovic became the national team coach and I learned a lot from him. Then I started to reach out to the international market and created a connection with Ajax. Louis Van Gaal was the head coach at the time there and I worked for Guus Hiddink in South Korea for the World Cup in 2002.
As a student of the game and as humble as I've always been, I try to learn something new from them.
SA: Do you have advice for coaches who are just getting started?
AFSHIN GHOTBI: The best way to develop as a coach is hands-on: roll up your sleeves and work in the trenches. Try and work with people who know more than you. And learn from them.