Coaches bring European experience to Delco

There was a time not long ago when David Knox could remember seeing an opposing soccer team come of the pitch at halftime and promptly break off into three units, coaches conferencing with the defense, midfield and forwards as though they were discreet disciplines.

It wasn’t long ago that Nick Spillane can recall asking his summer travel team who had seen the recent European Championship tournament, then watching in dismay when only two hands shot up.

And it was only recently that James Wallace sought to reinforce a lesson with his players by way of example, referencing a particular player in a recent situation in the English Premier League, only to be greeted by a quizzical response of, “those games are on TV?’

For coaches reared in the soccer-mad culture of Great Britain, those kinds of obstacles in relating the game to an American audience have become commonplace, no matter how unnatural they may seem.

For years, British coaches have made a living traversing the Atlantic and trying to impart soccer wisdom to Americans, a growing and ever more responsive audience. Last season, six coaches of high school soccer in Delco traced their roots to Britain. Their involvement in furthering the game here represents both a crucial step in the nation’s drive toward becoming an international power and offers an insightful vantage point on a pair of drastically different soccer cultures.

• • •

There are certain elements of background that don’t need elucidation for soccer coaches hailing from the British Isles. For instance, the question of how they got interested in the game is almost nonsensical. The best answer — even better than Episcopal Academy boys coach Knox explaining how he was given a soccer ball for his first birthday — is osmosis. For people growing up, like Notre Dame coach Angela Keelan did in a working-class neighborhood in greater Liverpool, soccer was essentially something in the air to be breathed in and incorporated into everyday life.

The journeys of coaching in America also retain glaring similarities. Knox, Wallace, the boys coach at Garnet Valley, and Spillane, the Agnes Irwin coach, all share familiar creation narratives to their soccer careers. It was made clear to them in the mid-to-late teens that professional soccer would not be their path, allowing them to pursue degrees in coaching. (Wallace recalls the club at which he played as a youth, St. Johnstone in Scotland, gently suggesting to his 17-year-old self that perhaps it would be best to look into some coaching courses.)

After various degrees and tutelage in their native lands, all three coaches latched onto feeder programs that brought them to the U.S. for camps and clinics several months of the year. After a few years of temporary arrangements splitting seasons on both sides of the Atlantic, time spent learning the vagaries of the American soccer setup, full-time opportunities (and often, a future wife) coaxed them into staying stateside.

That blueprint is pretty standard. Spillane, from Bradford in West Yorkshire, England, got his coaching degree from Northumbria University in Newcastle. Knox, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, was the first in his family to go through university courses when he got his physical education degree at John Moores University before being hired by Liverpool club Tranmere Rovers. His fellow Scot, Perth native Wallace, attended Dundee University before pursuing coaching openings abroad.

Keelan, meanwhile, has a more unique story. Born in the Netherton neighborhood of Liverpool, she grew up in a working-class town that was divided along sectarian (Keelan’s family is Irish Catholic) as well as soccer lines (Keelan lives and breathes Liverpool football, half of the Merseyside Derby rivalry with Everton). She developed an undying love of soccer through countless hours of neighborhood games at a time when opportunities for girls were severely limited. Her first organized soccer participation came at age 11 … on a team for girls 18-28. When her attempts to launch a soccer program at her all-girls school were rebuffed, she became an elite field hockey player before she and her husband came over to the United States in 1981, where they quickly took up coaching.

“I just died for it,’ Keelan said. “Everything I did was soccer. Even people ask me at work, that’s all I talk about it. That’s the only vocabulary I know. I can talk with my feet. Growing up, it’s just the passion.”

• • •

Even now, it’s a little difficult for Spillane to explain to his friends back home what he does.

That he coaches girls soccer is easily comprehensible. But the fact that his team is attached to a secondary school is a foreign, uniquely American notion.

Adjusting to that fact was one of the first and most profound lessons many coaches had in transitioning to the U.S.

The model in Europe is quite different. Professional clubs recruit their surrounding areas, inviting youths to their academies and footing the bill for their development until which time they determine if there is a professional future. The payoff for the club comes at the end, either from incorporating the player into their first-team squad or recouping a transfer fee.

The downside to that system is that players whose longshot bets don’t cash in during their late teens are left with little education with which to plot a career recalibration. Soccer, for many in the neighborhoods that Knox and Keelan were raised in, was the single avenue of economic mobility and escape.

Knox, who every three years gets to take his varsity team on trips to England, has seen the ramifications of that firsthand.

“We played kids in London who were not good enough to play at West Ham and Arsenal and Tottenham,’ Knox said of a recent trip. “And they beat us 7-1. And these kids were unbelievable. And these kids weren’t good enough already at 15, 16. They were a little upset at that because their shot at the big time is already gone.’

The pragmatic ramifications for the American system are obvious. When parents are shelling out sizeable sums of money for their children to be part of a club, Wallace admits there are limits as to how far you can push them on the field.

Another unique aspect of coaching Americans is their commitment to multiple sports. Back home, the vast majority of athletes pursue soccer to the fullest extent their talent allows. (Knox, for instance, switched to rugby in college.) The athleticism may be greater on balance in the U.S., some coaches reckon, but cajoling soccer players to commit to the technical demands of the sport full-time is a challenge.

“The biggest thing with the multisport athletes is that they don’t do it the whole year round, and that’s a huge difference back home,’ Wallace said. “… I’m a fan of multi-sports. I think players need to do multi-sports to use different muscles to develop, but I think when they get to the high school level, I think a real soccer player, one that’s going to be the best has to have honed in and have it be the only sport.’

“We’ve got us some athletes, some phenomenal athletes, and it helps. Without a doubt,’ Spillane said. “And I think back home, it’s soccer. Kids know everything about everything with soccer, and some of them think they’re the next Beckham or whatever. They watch it. They see it. When I first came 10 years ago, I don’t think you had many kids like that. You had some obviously, but the ratio was nowhere near what it is back home.”

• • •

The biggest takeaway from the coaches’ multi-faceted view of American soccer players is unanimous, an argument that echoes through the U.S. soccer establishment: There’s an aspect of passion for the game that Americans at large haven’t yet replicated.

Keelan doesn’t have to explain her side of it; she discusses her early forays into the sport as though it was a bodily function, whether it was playing in the living room with a balloon so as not to incur the wrath of her mother for damages to rushing out at halftime of games to replicate the moves produced by her idol, Wales and Manchester United great George Best.

Fast forward a couple of decades to have Keelan the coach hear her son Kieran, eventually a standout at Delco Christian and Messiah and the 2005 Daily Times Player of the Year, labeled as a “greedy’ player for expressing his technical ability as a 5-year-old.

“We feel like the kids here don’t know how to express it,’ Keelan said. “They’ll get called greedy or a ball hog. Of course there’s a time that comes away, between 13 when you have to start learning to pass properly, not just a short pass but a long pass. I’m not saying they shouldn’t learn to pass, but what I’m saying is let them express as much as they can.’

Knox is well aware of the stereotypes of high school and college soccer, which tend to be results oriented rather than emphasizing the process and individual improvement. His infusion of European idealism informs the way he teaches.

“Certainly high school gets a bad rep because it’s Route 1 or it’s long ball or it’s kick-and-chase or it’s get all your athletes chasing after the ball,’ Knox said. “(At EA), we get the ball down and we try to play. We try to win hearts by playing the correct way, and I think a lot of these kids really respond to that because on a Saturday morning, Sunday morning, that’s what they’re watching. They’re watching the Premier League and they’re seeing Liverpool and Man U and Chelsea and all these wonderful teams playing the right way and playing the correct way.’

• • •

The joke around FC Brandywine, the club for which Wallace is the coaching director, goes that the only reason the Scot got the job was because of his accent.

While Wallace recognizes that as colleagues being facetious, he also knows that perception was accurate for many years. Wallace realizes that more than most: For a decade, he ran Essential Soccer, a company that facilitated the arrival of British coaches to run camps and clinics, an entry point for new talent.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past that an accent and tales of youth soccer in Britain sufficed for a passport. Those days, Wallace believes, are gone.

“Five years ago, you could walk into an interview, and it was, ‘ Here, he has an accent. He doesn’t. I’m going to hire him (with the accent),” Wallace said. “Now it’s about what qualifications you have. Where have you been?’

The conversation has shifted. When Wallace applied for the Garnet Valley job two years ago, for instance, the talking point wasn’t that he sounded capable but the fact that he had his Scottish FA “B’ license.

As the coaching profession has advanced — bringing with it more rigorous licensing standards from the U.S. Soccer Federation — the accent might get coaches a foot in the door. Proving they deserve to stay has become more strenuous.

“There’s the old (mentality) that if you sound English or you sound European, than you can coach soccer,’ Spillane said. “And I think that sort of gives a bad name to the people that really do put the effort in, that are coaches. You are picking the best coach on merit, and I’m not saying that wasn’t the case before. I think now, it’s ‘ Yeah, he’s got an English accent. But can he coach?”

There was a time, Wallace said, that up to 75 percent of the coaches he’d see on the club scene had European roots. As the sport has grown in America and British coaches have helped cultivate a generation of American pupils who stick with the game as parents and coaches, the number of British coaches has waned.

There are still many prominent British voices in positions of power in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Many local clubs — like West Chester United, Penn Fusion and FC Europa — have large contingents of European coaches, while the technical director and assistant technical director of Continental FC (formerly FC Delco) are British. The Philadelphia Union’s academy setup is directed by a pair of prominent coaches from England and Scotland.

The bigger asset now for the growth of American soccer isn’t an influx of foreign coaches unilaterally imposing their brand of soccer. It’s about a diffusion of ideas, with American perspectives adapting British soccer thinkers to the new landscape and foreign coaches supplementing the burgeoning stocks of American know-how.

“It’s just a big melting pot,’ Knox said. “I think we learn from the American coaches, and they’re learning from us. I don’t think there’s any hierarchy. I just think there’s different ways of doing some things, and we have to Americanize ourselves a little bit coming in and they can certainly learn a little bit about the passion and the history and the roots of the game and how the game really should be played from us.’

Whoever is doing the teaching, there’s a unanimous lesson that is the cornerstone of what the coaches believe must be instilled.

“You have to teach them the love of it first, instill the love of the game first before you even teach them how to play,’ Keelan said. “Because if you teach them that now, then they want to learn.’

For full team-by-team preview capsules, visit

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply