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Reflecting on Philly; Perhaps It’s Our Time to Lead

Posted by Robert L. Kehoe III on Feb 4, 2015 0 Comments

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Robert L. Kehoe III is a writer who lives with his wife and sons in Madison, Wisconsin. You can follow him on Twitter at @robertkehoe3 and read his essays for The Point Magazine, Howler, Eight by Eight, and other journals on his personal website.

Was Philadelphia in 2015 the best NSCAA Convention in the history of the association? That’s what a recent survey asked members and email subscribers to consider, and while it’s an impossible question to answer, it was certainly one more confirmation of soccer’s remarkable growth in the United States.

Consider for a moment that it wasn’t too long ago when soccer was the fancy of a truly marginalized sporting population. People with foreign accents generally got a pass in the eighties and nineties, but if you were born and bred in the States and you weren’t dedicating yourself to basketball, baseball or football – or if your parents weren’t exclusively coaching you in any of those sports – there had to be something wrong. Maybe you weren’t a very good athlete, or were socially awkward, or you came from a family of communists who didn’t understand American ideals and needed Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter’s guidance to steer you back to more sane and patriotic athletic endeavors.

However absurd these dismissals of soccer were, to play or coach the game was still, in part, an act of rebellion against a preposterous narrative. Harnessing the American spirit of innovation and independence – something apparently lost in the talk radio echo chamber – soccer players and coaches forged ahead into the wild wild west of America’s sporting consciousness. And even though the game was starting to boom in the eighties and nineties, mainstream TV, radio and print media could leave you with the lonely feeling that soccer was something that really only happened once every four years.

So if you were out in the desert before Fox Soccer, ESPN FC, soccer blogs and podcasts, the NSCAA convention was like an oasis in a barren wasteland.

Almost twenty years ago I made my first visit to the annual sanctuary, travelling from a small town in Wisconsin to Nashville, TN. At the time, if you walked down the street in any American city you’d be hard pressed to find any signs of soccer or soccer culture. Walking into the Nashville Convention Center it was soccer everything; people, products, presentations, promotions and on and on and on! As a teenager who plastered his wall with black and white Soccer America cut outs, this was like having your birthday, Christmas, New Years and 4th of July packed into one weekend.

Now, in 2015, the convention is still exciting but as signs of soccer culture are covering our national landscape, it’s all grown up.

In the past you might get a little giddy when European coaches ran field sessions. Now there are representatives from top international clubs and federations running multiple sessions every day.

In the past if you saw a fellow convention attendee wearing a Bayern Munich warm up suit you might think, “that’s a cool warm up suit.” But you wouldn’t assume it was a former World Cup champion and current Bayern Munich ambassador like Paul Breitner.

(Rene Meulensteen - Photo Credit: Robert Kehoe III)

In that past when you saw someone who looked like the former assistant coach at Manchester United it was just a coincidence. But now it’s actually Renee Meulensteen who’s currently working for the Philadelphia Union. And this year the guy at the convention who looked like Alex Ferguson was actually Alex Ferguson.

While celebrity run-ins were always bound to happen in conventions past, the presence of Breitner, Meulensteen and Ferguson points to a growing celebrity status – both national and international – that fills the hall. This year I crossed paths with Maurice Edu, John O’Brien, Preki, Claudio Reyna, and, well, Raul (yeah, I took a selfie with him and so would you). Then, of course, Pele showed up too.

(Robert Kehoe III & Raul - Photo Credit: Robert Kehoe III Selfie)

Furthermore, twenty years ago MLS was a fledgling enterprise that felt kinda high school’ish up against the NBA, NFL and MLB. Now it’s a burgeoning institution gaining traction in the national landscape, and holding the SuperDraft at the convention brings a circus-like atmosphere to an already energetic gathering. On Wednesday and Thursday night, the lobby bar was a dizzying collection of America’s soccer elite, where in one direction Alexi Lalas is holding court with onlookers and, maybe, admirers. In the other direction Coby Jones and Jason Kreis are discussing respective pre-season accommodations. Right in between it might look like an interloper’s trying to sell his audience on a new mobile data plan or hedge fund, but that was actually Jay Heaps discussing his MLS Cup runner up New England Revolution.

This year the NSCAA convention was also home to MLS’s renaming their MVP trophy in honor of Landon Donovan. The announcement was marked by a unique celebration of his career, in a room filled with some of the greatest managers and players – in some cases now both – in our nation’s history. Standing by were Bruce Arena, Ziggy Schmidt, Pablo Mastroeni, Gregg Berhalter, Chris Albright, Jason Kreis, Chris Klein and Josh Wolf among others all paying homage to an individual whose talent, quality and loyalty helped MLS transition from a nebulous startup to a respected league around the world.

               (Don Garber - Photo Credit: Robert Kehoe III)

All of which added to the buzz of this year’s convention, but the novelty – or the sense of being a part of a club with a secret handshake – has slowly been replaced by a growing sense of professionalism and responsibility mixed with a feeling of accomplishment. After MLS’s announcement, Donovan’s brief comments captured the moment, and the growth of the sport, perfectly when he said, “I know we get caught up in what’s next and where we are going, but we can all take a moment and be appreciative of what’s happened along the way and what we’ve been able to accomplish.”

The night before, during NSCAA President George Perry’s reception, Anson Dorrance’s words offered a foreshadow of Donovan’s. “When I was a young coach,”he said, “I was trying to find my way and was also a little insecure about where America stood internationally. But the NSCAA convention was one of my gateways to building the confidence I needed to be a successful coach. In that sense I was a product of the convention.”

As he shared with a room full of fellow pioneers, “at one point I realized that because I grew up in India, Kenya and Ethiopia I often referred to my international pedigree in press conferences to gain respect, but eventually I found myself contradicting that narrative and when our women qualified for the World Cup in 1991 I emphatically stated in that press conference; ‘I learned how to play soccer at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and I learned how to coach from the US Soccer coaching schools and the NSCAA convention.”

Afterwards Dorrance shared with me that, “we weren’t born on the mountain. We climbed it. And I’m proud to be an American coach who has helped define an American way to win.” 

With the words of Donavan and Dorrance in my mind I attended a field session conducted by FC Barcelona’s Head of Methodology, Joan Villa, and Head of Institutional Relations, Pere Gratacos, on the last full day of this year’s convention. The title of the session was “FC-Barcelona – How to Teach Our Style of Play.” Naturally the room was full of eager and energetic coaches, excited to do just that.

But as the session progressed – with drills that reminded me of what my assistant coaches in college would run in training – I couldn’t help but shrug my shoulders and think, isn’t a key to Barcelona’s style of play that they’ve employed players like Johan Cruyff, Rivaldo and Lionel Messi? Jokingly I texted a friend that the session should actually be covering how to secure Xavi and Iniesta by the time they’re four months old and never let them leave your sight, or it should have been titled, “You Can’t Do This!”

Of course, “You Can’t Do This!” probably wouldn’t have made it in the convention schedule, but as I thought about where soccer in the United States has come from and where it’s going, I was simultaneously satisfied to be in the presence of FC Barcelona’s coaching staff, while asking the question; what do the Spanish, Germans, Brazilians, English or Argentineans really have to teach us after all? What do their federations, leagues or clubs do that’s so much better than what we’re doing, besides having done it for a longer period of time or having more financial resources dedicated to the game?

Obviously there’s no clear answer to these questions, and they shouldn’t be confused with a xenophobic desire to have a reduced foreign presence at the annual convention: quite the contrary. As Dorrance said, one of the benefits of the NSCAA convention has always been its unique ability to attract international voices and perspectives. But he also pointed out that as the game is gaining momentum in the United States, it now offers foreign coaches an opportunity to discover what American soccer and coaching is all about.

As I watched the Catalan ambassadors carrying on, it occurred to me that perhaps it’s time for us to get past our soccer insecurities. Perhaps it’s time that we take Landon Donovan’s advice and truly appreciate what we’ve accomplished. Perhaps it’s time to reflect on the mountains we’ve climbed, and the heights we’re yet to reach. Perhaps it’s time for us to lead.

Naïve-crazy talk? Perhaps. But when NSCAA CEO Joe Cummings introduced “the incomparable Pele,” at Wednesday’s President’s reception, one of the greatest players in the history of the game said, in a humble and reverent tone, “I wish more countries were doing what you do here.”

       (Pele - Photo Credit: Robert Kehoe III)

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