Thank you Alice and Sallie
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be here today. Mr. Lombardi and Ms. Beniretto told me I could choose my topic for today. You can guess, I’ll be talking about the sport of……soccer.
I want to tell you story about Bruce Arena, one of the greatest modern day soccer coaches that most people have heard of, and the one of the best 7th grade St. John’s soccer teams that a few here can still recall. Believe it or not they both have something in common. It’s called real talent, or some call it finding a way to get it done.
Since you might have thought this would be a lacrosse story you also might be asking yourself like many people ask me “what do you know about soccer?”
I have been coaching soccer for about 30 years. That doesn’t make me an expert but one thing I do know about soccer is that it is the sport that got me to where I am today. Starting at the Post Oak Y with my nephew’s team to coaching a girls’ high school team in Virginia to a state title, I could not escape soccer. Because of soccer I quit my day job as a geologist and enrolled at UVA grad school to learn more about coaching, sport psychology and soccer.
SOCCER got me hired at St. John’s. As a matter of fact when I met my wife for the first time, she was coaching. What else? Soccer. And a few years later, under the romantic lights of Lee field, I proposed to her right after one of my soccer games. Colt McCoy would have been jealous!
Soccer was also the sport that put me in touch with one of the greatest modern day coaches of the game: Bruce Arena. I was a rookie coach at St. Anne Belfield in Charlottesville, and Arena was on the cusp of greatness at the helm of the UVA Mens soccer team in the late 80’s.
Trying to get to the next level in coaching I started to go to his practices and pick up drills and tips from what was at the time, but not forever, one of the best soccer programs in the country. We ended up being friends and played a lot of hard ball squash together, and I still have scars on my back from some of his shots that did not make it to the wall. Arena was an all American lacrosse player and all Ivy soccer player at Cornel. He also played in professional leagues in both sports. By the time he was done at UVA he had won 5 NCAA championships in soccer (4 in a row from 1991-1994). He went on to coach the US men’s national team, the MLS DC United champions, the NY Red Bulls, and is the now the coach of the defending MLS champions, LA galaxy.
These are all impressive stats. But it was the way he got those titles that intrigued me, and that is what real talent is all about.
When Arena first showed up at UVA in the late 70’s he was hired to coach lacrosse and was told to baby sit the men’s soccer team. According to him “UVA wanted a nice healthy program where the kids had a good time.”—- and they were not very good.
Arena however was raised to believe that if he did a job there was a correct way to do it. It did not matter if it was making his bed or coaching in the pros.
Without a budget and no coaching reputation, Arena combed the East Coast for players that might have been overlooked by the power houses of college soccer. The kids with great physical skills were taken, so Bruce dug for the less obvious treasures of athletic ability. He was mining for real talent.
These lower echelon players compensated for their lesser physical talents with their attitude, discipline, desire to improve, will to win, and how well they meshed with their teammates. LET ME REPEAT THOSE QUALITIES: Discipline, Desire to improve, will to win, & how well they meshed with their teammates. Bruce Arena was looking for kids that were there on their own initiative. Most of the time there were players who played more than one sport, not necessarily the all state variety.
Arena devised a way to tell the difference between the kids with real talent and those that did not have it. He would watch kids and find out what they were made of on days when things weren’t going well—The players that replaced their stale offense with intense defense made his list. The players that found themselves up against a good defender and passed instead of taking a shot made the cut. The players that dove for balls and seemed to be fearless got a second look. These were traits of real talent and Arena built his program around them.
He saw them in games when they lost badly and watched how they reacted to adversity. The ones that dropped their shoulders and quit he didn’t take. The ones who fought to the end found their way to Charlottesville.
Candid conversations with recruits and their families proved valuable as well. If they were honest about their game—their strengths and their weaknesses, he could work with them. Those who could not admit any faults in their game were not very coachable and he never saw them again.
Arena’s final rule on real talent was to only keep 1-2 star players on the team no matter what their attitude was. Beckham and Donovan fit the bill in LA.
In 1998, ten years after I met Arena, I coached the St. John’s 7th grade boys’ soccer team from the class of 2004. They were a group of guys that fit the profile of real talent, and Arena would surely have taken a second look at them. It was a blend like many of our teams at St. John’s. We had a star or two. Bradley Eiseman and Connor Booth, they were the Joe Faragunas and David Lu’s of the day. The rest of the gang included fairly coordinated guys. They were more or less average Joes: Caven, Finnegan, Wilson, Glass, Thomas, Allison, Jewell, Danzinger, Kahle, Sinclair, Brantley, Lukens, Hines, Lake, Shepard, Blanton, Prabhu, Payne, Jennings, Holmes, Blondeau, and our third string goalie Elder.
They called themselves the “freak show.” Like Arena’s teams of real talent, they found ways to get it done. We not only won games by big margins, but nobody could score on us. After we kept recording shut out after shut out, the team started to become aware of how scary good we really were. We got this idea that no opponent would get a ball in our net. We played Kinkaid in the ROB tournament and beat them 9-0! The heads of schools were calling Lombardi, and rightfully so, to make sure we weren’t trying to run up the score. Everyone was playing, and you can’t tell 7th graders to not shoot on goal. The last game of the season was at Kinkaid and I thought the last blowout might come back and haunt us. I sort of felt bad, but not really. I think the HJPC committee was in the stands to make sure we did not run it up. We were leading 5-0 in the second half and a light drizzle started to fall on the then grass field. The shut out streak was in the capable hands of the Joes and Elder, who had never touched the ball as a goalie until we went into stoppage time that night.
I never had much use for stoppage time, but I guess it makes soccer a little more mysterious. A Kinkaid player broke free and one of our guys slipped in the box and took him down. Time had already expired and I thought it was over. It was a shut-out season. Then a penalty kick was awarded to the Falcons. If you ever saw the movie Hoosiers, it was an Ollie moment. “It’s your turn, Ollie…” Only it was Elder. We were on the cusp of a kind of greatness, like pitching a perfect game in baseball. The bench players were huddled together. Some were looking the other way like football players do when a game winning field goal is kicked with time running out on the clock, like in last years Big 12 Championship game which also went into stoppage time.
Kinkaid had one skilled player—not sure how much real talent he had–and he set the ball on the spot. The ref’s whistle sounded, he struck the ball and Elder dove to get his only touch on a shot all year, and Caven cleared it out.
When final tweet sounded, Elder went up on the team’s shoulders like we had just won the championship of the universe. 52-0 was the final goal count and we did it with real talent. We had found a way to get something done that even Bruce Arena and his Galaxy would think was out of this world.
So next time you think you’re not the best player on your team, remember, it’s real talent that wins games, not stars.
Thanks again for having me and if you invite me back I will be glad to tell you about the first varsity sport I ever played, …baseball.
Sam Chambers- Athletic News