"What do you do in the off-season?"
It is a question many wonder about college coaches who compete for short two to three month seasons every year.
We decided to follow Bates men's soccer coach Stewart Flaherty for a day in the off-season to gain some insight behind the scenes of a Bates head coach.
It is 9am on Saturday, May 11, the weather is steady rain and Flaherty is preparing for a big day. At 12:15pm he will coach in the Maine U17 club State Cup Final, and at 6pm he will be assistant coach for the Portland Phoenix PDL team who open their season against the Vermont Voltage.
Flaherty explained to us throughout the day how his involvement with both teams is important to the overall vision of Bates College men's soccer.
"In the upper echelons of the college game, soccer has become a very club-oriented sport." said Flaherty. "The culture of the best players being identified only in high school is shifting to involve the clubs on a more year-round basis."
Indeed, the club calendar seems very suited to college coaches. Working long hours in the fall can make it difficult for a soccer coach to get out and see a lot of high school games. Club games are played every weekend throughout the spring and summer.
The club calendar also incorporates showcase tournaments, where up to 100 teams may gather at one location for a weekend of competition.
"The tournaments are excellent," said Flaherty. "It can allow you to see 10 teams a day and quality competition. The U16 and U17 age groups are important: they're mainly high school sophomores and juniors."
And what about Bates' academic standards, should a talented player be identified? "The belief that every talented player is of a lower academic caliber is a myth," said Flaherty. "You look at schools like Harvard, Brown and Dartmouth and they have wonderful teams who have student-athletes from elite club soccer. They are not fishing in a lower academic pool than we are."
"Most Bobcat coaches I speak to send the message to an athlete that they must be organized, passionate, punctual and pay attention to detail. How does that translate to a poor performance in the classroom?"
(Interesting Bates-related side note: Dartmouth was led to five Ivy League titles by former head coach Jeff Cook '89, who is a proud Bates alumnus. Cook recently left Dartmouth to take a coaching role with the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer.)
STATE CUP FINAL
So on to today's action, and we pull into the field of Scarborough High School. Your author takes his seat in the bleachers while coach Flaherty mingles with his players, who arrive in small groups.
The game is between MCU Portland Phoenix U17 and Seacoast United Mariners U17, two of Maine's strongest clubs. The final is a best of three game series, and the Phoenix won game one 1-0 on the Bates campus two weeks prior.
The game is played at an impressive pace and tempo, and the atmosphere among the spectators a little more heated than this observer anticipated. The Phoenix win the game 1-0 when winger Tony Yekeh (Windham High School) swings a cross to the back post, and forward Sam Cekada (Scarborough High School) heads home the decisive goal.
After a brief presentation, Flaherty leaves the players to celebrate with their parents, and jumps in the car for the ride over to the PDL game at Deering High School.
"That was a fun game," said Flaherty. "We saw Seacoast a year ago, and their coach Tom Munroe has done a good job improving the team. There are players on both those teams who can perform at the NESCAC level, so it is good to be able to monitor them over the spring and summer on the club scene."
The win also guarantees the Phoenix a spot at the US Youth Soccer Region 1 Finals, a blue chip event on almost every college coach's calendar. The event is a tournament between the top teams in the region, and qualification is only ensured by winning a state championship, or placing in the top two of the elite Region 1 Premier League.
"Last year we had Dartmouth, UConn and Boston College at our games, as well as several NESCAC schools," said Flaherty. "It is a great event for seeing a lot of elite teams going head-to-head. Outside of the USSF Development Academy scene, the regional finals are widely recognized as the highest level of youth soccer in the country."
Several of the Bobcats' incoming Class of 2017 were identified at the Region 1 Finals, and Flaherty will be looking for more talented student-athletes at this summer's event at the University of Rhode Island.
It is common to see other coaches on the sidelines coaching in the club world. The Phoenix have competed against teams led by coaches from Boston College, University of Rhode Island and UMass-Lowell this spring alone. "If I am not out doing this, some of our competitors will be, and that is not an advantage we should be conceding as a program," said Flaherty.
PREMIER DEVELOPMENT LEAGUE (PDL) GAME
We arrive at Deering High School two hours before kickoff. The bleachers are empty while several MPS Portland Phoenix coaches work game day setup.
As the players begin to filter in, the dynamic is clearly different from the club game. Whereas the U17 club team is formed of elite high school players from Maine, the PDL team is a more varied group. Goalkeeper Adam Perron is head coach at Bridgton Academy in Maine. Defender Richardo Israel is an All-Big East freshman from the University of Cincinnati, and a standout for the Jamaica U20 national team. Midfielder Trevor Hoxsie plays for Division III Roger Williams, and Brazilian striker Caute Da Silva is the leading goal scorer at Division I Elon College.
"The PDL is the other end of the scale from what you saw this morning with the club boys," said Flaherty. "The U17 boys this morning are very excited about the recruiting process and looking to begin their careers. The PDL team are either current or former college players, and most have their eye on moving up to the professional leagues."
The facts bear out what Flaherty says. Over the last seven years, 71% of players drafted into Major League Soccer (MLS) have played in the PDL, including several USA national team stars. The Phoenix have also proven their ability to help players move onto the professional ranks. Strikers Charlie Rugg (Los Angeles Galaxy) and Aaron Schoenfeld (Columbus Crew) spent summers playing for Portland before moving to the MLS, and former Phoenix goalkeeper Ryan Thompson is currently playing professionally in Europe.
Last summer, Flaherty withdrew from coaching the Phoenix when Bates senior and two-time All-NESCAC player John Murphy made the team. A successful summer led to Murphy attending a professional combine in Florida, where he was picked to play against the USA Under-17 national team.
"What if we say to players that they can pursue a life changing academic career, play elite NESCAC soccer, and have this door open after college if they do want to play professionally or try to? That is a very exciting life opportunity, I believe," said Flaherty.
This summer, Bates players will play in the PDL for the Boston Rams, NJ LUSO Rangers and Westchester Flames. Two players will also try out next week for the NPSL team New York Red Bulls U23, an affiliate of the MLS franchise of the same name.
"It is a also massively different in terms of relationships, that are such a huge part of coaching," said Flaherty. "With the U17 team, we are talking about boys and families I have worked with and known for over 2 years now. The PDL team has been together a week, so we are in a very different place with regards to learning about and connecting with the players."
As Flaherty led the warmup, your author took his seat as the bleachers began to fill up with a crowd of around 500. Most of the spectators appeared to be youngsters who played for the Phoenix club team and their families, with a small traveling fan base for the visiting Vermont Voltage.
The game was a roller coaster affair. Vermont took an early lead, before Da Silva leveled the game at 1-1. Then the wind was sucked out of the home fans' sails, as Vermont took a 3-1 lead in a torrid opening half for the home team. Flaherty and Phoenix head coach Ally Bain marched to the locker room in deep conversation, looking concerned.
Whatever was said at halftime apparently had a positive impact, as the Phoenix flew out in the second half, scoring twice in six minutes to level matters at 3-3. Vermont scored again for a 4-3 lead, before a wild last five minutes would delight the home crowd.
First defender Israel headed home to tie the game at 4-4, before French defender Gilbert Manier (Martin Methodist College) volleyed home in the final seconds to seal a wild 5-4 win for the home team. The goal sparked rapturous celebrations on the Phoenix bench. (Highlights of the game can be seen here.)
"Wow," was all Flaherty could utter after the game. "We picked a good day to write this story!"
During the drive home, Flaherty was asked if his workload was unique. "Not in the slightest," was the response. "Our women's coach, Kelsy Ross, carpooled with me last week to work with a Seacoast United girls team, and our volleyball coach, Margo Linton, coaches a club team in Maine. We also just hired a field hockey coach (Danielle Ryder) who drives from Maine to Boston weekly to coach a club team.
"When we send the message to our kids that they should be passionate about the game and invest time in it, as coaches we should do the same thing. It's good to stay sharp with running sessions and learning strategies, developing player relationships, all the things a coach needs to be good at."
So after such a day, is it a day of rest on Sunday? "Not really. We have a New England Premiership game in Massachusetts with the U17 team, and I have to break down the Vermont game film ahead of the US Open Cup game on Tuesday."
What do you do in the off-season? The answer, apparently, is "keep working.
-- Story written by Cameron Omsberg