My time in the US – Lessons learned

Having come through the American College system with a successful three seasons at East Tennessee State University, I headed back to Ireland wide eyed hoping for a chance at what I had been working for, a break in the professional game. That was December 2013, just over six years ago. The time since then is water under the bridge, with some amazing times along with some forgettable moments. But finding myself now in 2020, as part of the Houston Dynamo organization of the MLS, I can only smile knowing all the tough times were worth it. My duties are with their USL affiliate, RGV Toros where I will continue in a dual role as a goalkeeper coach/goalkeeper for the 2020 season.

The journey begins
The 2017 league of Ireland season had come to a close, my mind had been made up weeks prior to the last competitive kick of the season that I would head to the States to begin the green card process and to hopefully finally achieve a goal of mine, playing professionally in the USA. I had endured a lot of ups and downs in the League of Ireland, and after a couple of non eventful seasons in my career I found football and my love for the game had become strained. For two seasons I had travelled stateside in the off season on trial in the hope of signing, but the foreign spot came back to bite me on each occasion.

A fresh challenge and new adventure was the right choice for me, so off I went to Tennessee, back to my girlfriend after spending 3 years working through our long distance relationship.

With the restrictions on working, I had to remain optimistic during several months of individual training at the local gym with no sign of a playing contract on offer. This was a mental struggle more than anything else, but like I would tell myself, if I lose the belief that this will happen, why should anyone else believe in me?

Coaching education in the USA
Already having began my coaching education back in Ireland, I decided to make the most of this free time and seek out any available licensing I could apply for, be accepted to, or take part in. Being productive was something I could control, so with a view to coaching once I retire, I figured this would only benefit me in the long term. After some research, I found a schedule from United Soccer coaches and an opening for the Advanced National Goalkeeping diploma. I emailed immediately, explained my situation and current level of UEFA licensing and within the day I was signed up for the January course in Florida.

Excited, eager and ready to learn I packed my bags and landed in Ft.Lauderdale, beyond fascinated to see what coaches may be part of this elite coaching course. I was hungry to learn, to see the differences between the content of the UEFA courses and the United Soccer Coaches most advanced GK course. After 4 days, I found myself feeling empty, disappointed and somewhat shortchanged. Yes, it was a GK course with GK education, my issue was it provided nothing more than extremely basic level content for a course set out to be for the highest level. For me, having come through the course, there 100% should be a further level to the course that really breaks down the role of the GK in the game, and runs through the requirements of the coach at the highest level. Where I currently am in my career, I can honestly say that if the United Soccer coaching course was my only preparation for professional coaching, I would be in a pretty desperate situation. Even for coaching the college game, I felt the course was behind in preparing coaches for the next step. The tutors had the experience and ability, I just look back and feel that with the lack of vetting those who got accepted to the course, the information was kept to an overall basic level. In my eyes, it was a hell of a lot of money wasted. They have access to people who can do a fantastic job of GK education, and at a time where US goalkeeping is failing to produce at a rate of years gone by, I just think it’s opportunity lost. Educating coaches, and educated coaches are the best way to attain success. It’s no surprise licensing in Spain, Germany, Italy and France is a fraction of the cost seen in the US. Its about educating the future, not just a money racket. The more educated, qualified coaches out there is the best way to improve from the grassroots level upwards. I think the US soccer education does not lend itself to be successful.

International Goalkeeper Coaches Conference
I was fortunate to take part in the 2018 IGCC conference in Florida with Phil Wheddon. I was one of the training goalkeepers taking part in the conference over three days where the likes of Jose Sambade of Monaco, John Achterberg of Liverpool, Thomas Schlieck of Dortmund and Andrew Sparkes, currently of Southampton were all in attendance. Simply put, this was an extraordinary few days. Listening to the presentations from each coach going into intricate detail about their session planning, training beliefs, coaching methodologies and reasonings was priceless. It was eye opening to see how these coaches at the top of the football pyramid live and work on a daily basis. It set alarm bells ringing off in my head when it came to really looking at the roll of the GK coach, and all that is required. The coaches were all incredible and so uniquely different. The philosophy, the coaching methods and the manner in which each of them delivered their messages were entirely different from each other but all delivered similar messages. It was great to see different mannerisms and styles deliver the same objectives. It just showed me that there is always a place for a coach to be themselves, rather than conforming to what they believe they should be, or trying to be someone else.

My passion is goalkeeping, it always has been and will be. Its an obsession and I feel this is why my coaching style is enthusiastic, energetic and upbeat. This experience at IGCC was instrumental and opened up my eyes to so much more than goalkeeper sessions. It showed me the value of content rather than the drills themselves. It showed me the detail that is required in being a successful coach at the pinnacle of the professional game. It gave me a burning desire to improve as a coach and to reach the highest level of coaching possible. This was the most priceless experience in the US I have had. It blew the United Soccer Coaches diploma out of the water in terms of content and information and professionalism.

Keeping the dream alive
In the following months, I decided to keep myself playing games and signed into the NPSL for a team in Knoxville, TN, the Emerald Force. Not much of a Force however as we finished near bottom of the conference that summer! However, taking a positive spin on the experience, I accepted it for what it was and moved on. I had played games, kept fit, and the dream was still alive as far as I was concerned. The phone call from my agent came about a week after the season. I was due to head to Tampa Bay Rowdies for a week long trial. Nothing came of it however, despite it being a great experience. This left me back to square one pondering my next step.

University of Central Florida
I touched base with my college coach from my time at ETSU, and rejoined him on his coaching staff at University of Central Florida for the 2018 D1 mens soccer season. Effectively working as a full time coach during the season, and for me my first time as a full time coach, I fell in love. I had experience coaching before this, but to fully immerse myself in it was a new feeling for me, and I dove in head first. Planning, designing and executing sessions. Reviewing and analyzing games. Developing plans for each GK. Breaking down opponents and planning sessions around what we would likely come up against. It was brilliant from beginning to end. We had an extremely talented squad and the starting goalkeeper was exceptional. He had a fantastic attitude to work, enthusiasm to learn and ultimately reaped the rewards come the end of the season. I can look back on that time and really see that as the point in which the burning desire to coach was set alight. In the space of a few short months the season had come and gone, but I was obsessed. I lived & breathed football for those few months. Obsessing over every recorded session, not only to analyze the goalkeepers, but to see what I could do differently, how I could change things, to see what worked and what failed. My biggest take away that season was realizing that things are not always going to go according to plan, sometimes we need to adapt, and sometimes sessions and their outcomes will fail. But the learning for me over the course of the season was noticing when things need adjusting before the session went south and objectives were lost.

Once the season flew by, I was blessed to receive my Green card and once again begin to look at what was next on my seemingly never ending adventure.
I found myself in Houston in December 2018, one month after receiving my green card. My agent had recommended I head to this Dynamo Pro goalkeeper training camp to fine tune and get myself best prepared for the opportunities that were hopefully coming my way.

Five days in Houston and my mind was absolutely blown. We had roughly twenty goalkeepers attending from multiple backgrounds, experience levels and stages of their careers. Freshmen to seniors, graduated players and a couple of professionals. The sessions were crisp, meticulously planned out, thought provoking and at a great tempo. Although finding myself back in the goal, my coaching brain was soaking up everything. From a goalkeeping standpoint, the few days were exceptional. They focused on the basics, hammered home technical efficiency and overall kept everyone engaged. The sessions were perfect for keeping people sharp, or in my case, helping get me to that point after being out of the professional game so long.

This was my first time ever meeting Paul Rogers & Jason Grubb. Ive been fortunate to work with many great keeper coaches, but I left Houston with a belief that these two were the two best id ever seen. No debate, no second guessing. I was so impressed with the detail, the level of information, the technical breakdowns, the mannerisms, the coaching points and the overall content. It was the best possible place for someone to train, I didn’t have a single doubt about it.

Forward Madison FC
January came around and I got the call again from my agent speaking about a dual role on offer with Forward Madison. Not knowing where it was, I jumped onto google and soon discovered I’d be trading the flip flops in for a warm winter jacket!

I took the deal and relished the opportunity not only to begin my professional career in the USL, a goal of mine for years, but also to dive into the professional coaching world. It would be a task to manage both for sure, but one I felt I could do a good job of.

With an experienced goalkeeper group at the club, I found myself working with Brian Sylvestre, now of Miami FC. Brian had lots of experience across all spectrums of the professional game in the US and had just signed from LA Galaxy. Being a first year professional coach, setting out to coach a keeper with MLS experience, and for a head coach with MLS experience I knew I would have to work tirelessly to prove myself.

We developed a great working relationship as goalkeepers competing to play, while he also had a great level respect for me as a coach. Like anywhere there was an initial settling in period for me and for Brian. Testing the water to figure out what I my coaching style was, what my character was about, and what my beliefs were. He was fantastic from day one. Worked hard, asked questions and performed at a good level through the course of the season. Even through a time where I had a run of games in the team and was up for USL player of the month, his attitude remained faultless.

It wasn’t all plain sailing though, as when I was eventually put on the bench I felt quite hard done by. I had been playing well, training well and overall was happy where my game was at. With results not going our way, the manager made changes and unfortunately I was one of them. But how do I handle this? Can I show my frustrations? Can I ask questions?

It was such a bizarre situation for me as I was a player but also member of staff. I had to treat it as two separate issues. From a playing standpoint I made sure to explain my concerns and disappointment with the decision that had been made. And from a coaching standpoint reviewed video etc to justify my opinion. But like I learned, as a GK coach you work for someone. You have an opinion but at the end of the day it is merely your own opinion. There were no tears shed, no arguments, no backlash. I was professional about it because I knew if I let the issue fester, it would negatively impact me as a coach which would be doing a gross disservice to the goalkeepers at the club. With the nature of the dual role, I found it essential to establish separation between the two positions to best allow myself execute both in a professional manner. I could enjoy having a laugh with the players in the dressing room, but there were things I had to steer clear of to avoid losing respect from the group. I had to manage it carefully and just make mature decisions.

The hardest part of the season was balancing playing frustrations while being a coach. With maturity and experience I was able to put the two aside. I could be frustrated, for sure, its only natural. However, being frustrated and having it show would be a lack of professionalism on my part given the dual role. We had regular video sessions breaking down our games, sessions and opponents. We had individual sessions as well as GK group ones. I felt the inclusion of the third keeper kept him onside and part of the group. For me the third keeper is essential in the group. This was something I never had really given much thought about, but as the season developed, my mind constantly thought about maintaining balance in the group. Without their enthusiasm and work ethic, a session can fall apart. It is in the interest of the group that the third GK stays positive, so for me, I found ways to make that less of a concern by keeping him fully integrated in everything. I even designed a season long development plan for him focusing on several areas for improvement which he was delighted with. It gave him a realistic focus on a daily basis rather than having the burden of not playing weigh him down.

When it came to analysis of my own performances, I was happy to listen to feedback from the other GK’s as it gave me an understanding of what they saw from a technical and tactical view. This made it a benefit to the entire group as it showed me their tactical limitations and what areas we needed to address. Looking back on the season, it was extremely productive and full of many learning moments in which I had to put lots of thought and reflection into. Not only from a playing standpoint, but as a coach. I had to learn how to say things to the manager on the bench without coming across the wrong way. I had to learn to curtail emotions, and had to slowly learn how to be integrated properly into a full time coaching staff. The expectations on a goalkeeper coach are far more than most people could ever imagine, but I loved it!

Houston Dynamo FC/ RGV Toros
The season passed by and I was ready to further my time in Madison until I got a call to come to the Houston Dynamo. I had kept in contact with Paul and Jason, and the timing for a move just worked out. Getting the opportunity to come to an MLS organization and work alongside two of the best in the business was impossible to turn down. All of the countless hours of doubt and uncertainty I had endured at different stages in my career were all in the rearview mirror once I got the deal over the line. It’s been the biggest step forward for me as a coach, with a view to being an MLS coach further down the road. It’s an opportunity people would bite my arm off for, and one I am determined more than anything to make a success. The hard work, hours planning sessions and money invested into coaching licenses has culminated in me being where I am today.

Getting to be a part of an MLS pre season was one of the most amazing experiences of my football career to date. Standing on the training pitch on a sunny January afternoon, I had to stand back and think for a second, this is the premier league of America! Im grateful to be surrounded by such quality and by coaches that are so open to questions and feedback. Getting to help the first team in pre season was extraordinary. Watching how Paul and Jason execute the sessions, seeing the tempo they work at, the information they give to the keepers and even the technical breakdowns they spot. Its mind blowing stuff. For me, if I cant get better as a coach in this environment, surrounded by these coaches there is something massively wrong.

Working with the USL team allows me to work with the first team GK that gets sent down to me from time to time. Again, this poses another challenge. Can I keep them happy, can I live up to the expectations they have from a GK coach? These are all things I have to consider when setting foot out on the training ground, or when planning sessions in the office. Its not easy, but if it was there wouldn’t be the same level of satisfaction when things go according to plan!

Take aways
Nobody can put the work in for you. Nobody will believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself. The coach education is a decision you can make to invest in your own future. Im fortunate to be nearing the end of my UEFA A GK license, with my UEFA B outfield license already in my back pocket. These are investments in your own future. Not for anyone else but yourself. Im extremely grateful for having got these done in the last couple of years and for what they have allowed me to accomplish so far in my career. I have dreams of where I want to be in the coming years, and those dreams remain just dreams unless you do something about them. My goal is to be an MLS goalkeeper coach, so i’m in an extremely fortunate position to be surrounded by two of the best in the business where I can watch, learn and grow and see where this beautiful game takes me. The coach education journey is far from over for me, I want to continue to soak up as much information as possible take the bits that fit with my coaching style to better myself as a coach. When it comes to investing in my coach education, I simply say “id rather have it now than be looking for it later”

Ive had my fair share of setbacks through my career, but if there is one thing i’ve learned its that failure isn’t final unless you give up. Im excited for the future, to learn, to fail, to grow, and to succeed as part of the Houston Dynamo family.

By Ryan Coulter | RGV GK Coach | @Coultergk1