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The World of Club Soccer

Introduction to the Cult of Club Soccer

After a few successful years in the rec league, I started looking into coaching in the world of club soccer. One night, I brought over a few of my more promising players to a local club where I was reacquainted with Cherif Zein. He was happy to see me, and never mentioned me leaving the high school program. For a few weeks, I watched him train. He was exceptionally good in training the players skills, and used a mix of charisma, fear, humor, sarcasm and authority in his training style. After a few weeks, he asked me if I wanted to take a boys u10 team to State Cup. I did not really know about the State Cup, but it sounded good, so I said yes. Without training the boys at all, I was the sub-coach for the weekend out in who knows where…Lancaster, Bakersfield, Apple Valley….it’s all the same.

I could tell right away that the parents were not too happy that Cherif was not there, but I found that in club soccer, it was not an uncommon scenario for a coach to miss his team’s games (or practices) to be with one of his other teams. The boys were fine during the State Cup, but it was obvious that they were used to having an extremely vocal coach during the games. I was mostly quiet during the game and only gave directions as needed, not all the time, and of course a few reminders before and during half time. But this was club soccer, and sometimes parents seemed to think if a coach wasn’t yelling on the sidelines, then the coach was not doing his job, and isn’t that what parents were paying for? My thoughts were that practice was for teaching and guiding players and the games were for the players to show if they were learning the game in a more competitive environment…or not.

At some point in my coaching career, one of the parents nicknamed me the “Soccer Whisperer” because I seemed to get a lot out of the players without having to joy-stick every move they made on the field. The players need some direction, but they need to begin to learn to make decisions on their own. No different than any other sport or even musical events like a piano recital. During a performance, could you imagine a piano teacher yelling, “Sarah, whaaaaat are you doing, don’t just sit there, hit the G-note… no, not the B, the Geeeeeeeeeeeeeee”. During this State Cup, I did notice many of the boys always looking to the sideline for some instructions. Cherif had them well-trained, but without him around, the boys were lost. We did not make it out of our initial group, and right them and there, I decided that I was going to do everything I could to make that this game was about the players and they had to be responsible for the decisions on the fields. 

Afshin Ghotbi, the Persian Soccer King

Cherif and I talked about careers in coaching soccer, and it was pretty overwhelming how to make a living out of just coaching, especially if a wife and a family were in the plans one day. From what I know, Cherif was never married, never had kids, and was always jet-setting around the world for soccer. It sounded great, but I wasn’t quite the risk-taker as maybe I should have been. State Cup was quickly over. My first u10 club team moved on. Cherif was off to Costa Rica with his older teams, and I was back to my rec all-star team doing some summer tournaments. The year before, I met up with a wonderful family, the Weinbergs. Their son, Phil, had just started training with Afshin Ghotbi… yes…Cherif’s side-kick at those Cherif soccer camps my brother and I attended 15 years earlier.

At the same time, Phil was also on my rec all-star team, and our team that year had a blast. This was the year I started to travel a bit further with my soccer team. Our first tournament was called the Lake Arrowhead Classic. I assumed the games would be near Lake Arrowhead and the team could make a fun weekend in between the games. Little did I know the games were based in downtown San Bernardino, which at the time, was a very rundown area. Although the games all blur together, I do remember folding hundreds of newsletters in my hotel room. One of my jobs I volunteered for in the rec soccer league was to create a newsletter for our families. We also had to put stamps on each newsletter as the internet was not quite ready for mass emailing.

I wrote about events in our youth league, but more so I tried to educate the parents about the soccer world, such as World Cup news, and… well actually, back then there was no professional league, no US women’s team that I knew of, so all I could write about was the US men’s team which was really just a blip on the American psyche. The internet was in its infancy in the early 1990’s, so I had little information about foreign teams. I knew about Leeds United and Liverpool because of my mom, but saw little coverage of other teams.

This was the same time I became closer to the Weinbergs and they introduced me to Afshin Ghotbi, who coached the only club team I had heard of in our area – AGSS (Afshin Ghotbi Soccer School… which he later renamed to American Global Soccer School).He was looking for respectable coaches, and the Weinbergs thought I was a good candidate. I tried my luck, soon became a real club coach and was now getting paid to coach soccer. What a dream!

Afshin was born in Iran and emigrated to the US when he was 13, just before I met him at one of Cherif’s first soccer camps at Glendale College. Besides AGSS and other youth clubs, his illustrious resume includes stints coaching the Iranian World cup team, as well as positions with the US and Korean National teams, the LA Galaxy and other and professional teams in Korea, Japan, China, Thailand and Canada. See Afshin’s story.

I learned a lot from Afshin in my brief time with AGSS. He was a fabulous trainer and he helped me improve tremendously as a coach. I learned a lot more from Afshin than from any soccer courses for licenses that I earned. This was probably because Afshin was enamored with the Dutch style of possession. Afshin and I were both introduced decade earlier to “total football” when Johann Cruyff and Rinus Michels brought Dutch football to the LA Aztecs. It was fun training my first team, and I was also challenged to become a better coach.

Early Thoughts About Club

When we played other clubs, I saw a vastly different world of soccer. The culture of club soccer was completely different than rec soccer, and this is where I first understood that the “pay-to-play” model was an entirely different beast. There were two types of clubs. One was the suburban club which ran the club like business. These team had the best jerseys. All their soccer balls were the same brand. The coach, dressed in his stylish training gear and colored cones, usually with some type of British accent, tended to play a direct style of play and always seemed to have a lot of fast players up front for their team to kick the ball to. Not always, but for much of the game, the suburban parents were either reading the newspaper (no cell phones in those days) or yelling for their players to kick the ball up the field. Parents tended to focus on their own child that they were paying lots of money to play.

The other type of club also had some deeply passionate parents, but the feeling was quite different. There was usually a more greater family interest in the team playing, but it appeared like the parents had a deeper understanding of the game. Whether that was true or not, I don’t know, but it just seemed so.

For one set of parents, if a ball was passed back, the sideline would erupt in frustration as they yelled at the small players to kick the ball forward as far as they could. From another club, the parents would cheer in unison at a pass back to show their approval of the players connecting several passes together in possession. Generally speaking, one group was all about winning the game. The other group wanted to win too, but making sure the players played correctly was more important.

I happened to inherit a more suburban team. Afshin and I taught a possession style of soccer and the boys played pretty well. The pay-to-play model, however, had its problems. Parents felt they had a say in playing time, or where their son played. They would never say it straight out to us, but with some of the families, there was a hint of entitlement in both the parents and the players. I never change a player’s position or playing time due to a parent’s request, but, for me, because of the money parents were paying, there was definitely a sense of guilt when the “less experienced” players did not play much.

Although I did have some entitled players, I also had some real passionate players like Joshua Moreno whose father was from Ecuador and mother who was from Cuba. Joshua was really good in soccer with a fiery attitude and I convinced him to try out club soccer. He was very athletic but he also was an excellent baseball player which sometimes caused conflicts between sports and also with his parents as they tried to maneuver through the confusion of youth sports. Fortunately, Josh stuck with soccer and ended up playing at Loyola Marymount and Azuza Pacific, which also gave him the opportunity to go Spain to teach English. While in Spain, Josh played in adult league which he said had an extra excitement built in due to the the thrill of being promoted to a higher level of soccer.

Although my time with Afshin lasted only two years, it was here that I learned more about soccer training than any book, video, clinics or course that I had taken. Afshin was harsh with the players but was one of the best trainers I had seen. He was teaching me how to be a better coach, and at times, I felt demoralized by his bluntness when he held made accountable for my own training shortfalls. Usually, he was spot on, and Afshin did toughen me up as I learned that club soccer was much more cut-throat than recreational soccer. However, to this day, I still have conflicts in my own coaching style that questions how tough to be on players, when a the pay-to-play structure in this country creates an environment where naturally many parents focus on their own on a parents son or daughter, wins and losses are desired over player or team’s development, and there is an unrealistic expectation for a players success in soccer (whether to be on a higher ranked competing pay-to-play club, or the lure of college scholarships) without the sacrifice that players have in other countries. The reality is about 5% of players who play youth soccer end up playing in college. Those who get scholarships is even less. I wasn’t until later that I really began to questioned the multi-billion dollar pay-to-play youth sports industry.

Afshin Dethroned: Love-Love

One thing Afshin was proud of his was the soccer field he tended at Woodbury University in Burbank. In the 1990’s, any soccer club was lucky to have a soccer field for their own. Usually, you snuck training on to a small in a local park, as Cherif often did before being booted out, or you shared with other teams, or you begged for field time from the local high school program. It was rare to have your own field. Afshin was very smooth, and somehow, he made a contract with Woodbury University to use their field each night. Afshin was out every day and after every practice session meticulously maintaining “his” beloved pitch.

Afshin was never more proud of his field than when he was able to host a practice session for the 1998 US World Cup team. Afshin happened to be friends with Steve Sampson, who was now the coach of the national team, which was having a pre-World Cup friendly at the Rose Bowl a few days later. With one day to prepare, Afshin and his small staff did everything it could to make the Woodbury venue a world class training field. After the grass-trimming, clearing out the trash, and placing welcome banners around the field, Afshin suddenly pulled out some spray cans. We were a bit baffled when we saw Afshin go over to a few spots on the field and sprayed some bare areas with GREEN spray paint. From far away, you couldn’t tell, but up close you could easily notice the green paint on the underlying dirt. Nobody there said a thing.

We were allowed to invite out players and other fans to watch the training session, and the next day we were ready to welcome our national team to our field. Two large buses pulled up, the players came out ready to train, did a few jogs and started a short warmup on the field. All of the excited fans looked on in awe when suddenly one of the US trainers yelled at all the players. The players stopped what they were doing, picked up their gear, walked back to the bus, signed a few autographs for some of the kids, and as soon as they had arrived, they were gone. We asked Afshin what was going on and he didn’t really say, so went all went home a bit dejected.

But I had the inside scoop. Because I worked for the City of Pasadena, I knew that the US team was staying at the Doubletree Hotel which was a block away from City Hall. At lunch, the day after the Woodbury field incident, as most nerdy soccer fans might do, I took a short walk over to the Doubletree, with my soccer friend Patrick Clarke, to see if we might catch one of the players just “hanging around”. To our surprise, we turned a corner and almost ran right into Tom Dooley, one of the German born stars of the team. He was all by himself, so we said hi and I mentioned to him that the US team had come over to our soccer field to do a practice last night but had not stayed very long. With the most pleasant German-accent, he told us they were extremely disappointed, the field was in very, very bad shape and that they could have sprained an ankle or worse, so they could not stay. I straight out laughed when he said, “And what waz weeth the green paint on the turf?” And just like that, Tom said good-bye and walked on by. As he passed, we yelled good luck tonight and I laughed all the way back to work as I updated my friend about the miracle grow green paint.

As much Afshin as taught me, and he was not given the credit he deserved for being the main inspiration for Pete Vagenas, who later starred with the LA Galaxy, after a year it was clear that I had to part ways. I was working special hours for the City of Pasadena to be able to get to the AGSS practices and my work was putting pressure on me to standardize my hours. Since soccer was only a small source of my income, I had to leave AGSS and club soccer for a while.

The saddest part was, soon after, a short-sighted Woodbury broke their contract with AGSS and Afshin had to give up his soccer sanctuary so the university could build more tennis courts. That was the day I realized that control of your field was one of the most important aspects of running a soccer club.

Afshin was not one to be held back. He went on to a successful career in managerial in Iran, Korea, and Japan with technical positions with the US and the Korean national teams. To this day, I give him credit for helping me the most with my coaching knowledge.