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From the Pitch – Make the Connection, Build the Future

By JORDAN FERRELL, Oakland Roots SC, 02/24/22, 1:00PM EST


Make the Connection, Build the Future

Author - Jordan Ferrell
Jordan Ferrell
Oakland Roots SC
February 24, 2022

I was in college when I made the decision.

As a player at Cal State East Bay in the late-2000s, the reality was what it was when it came to a post-college career in those days. I figured, “hey, playing’s going to be short-lived, at a certain point it’s going to be over, but coaching is something that I feel like I really want to do long-term.”

It was a blend of the sport that I loved, but also the idea that you can coach until you’re 70, 75 years old, and even after. It was something I really wanted to do.

After college, I went over and played in Germany, and that was also my first real taste of coaching. I was an assistant coach for two youth teams at the two clubs I played for over there and then I was just hooked.

My timing couldn’t have been better.

Germany, from a player development standpoint, had become one of the top countries in the world. It was in the aftermath of the early-2000s development revolution, installing regional training centers across the country, and making a true player pipeline all the way to the top-flight. The global giant that got knocked out of consecutive group stages at the European Championships had reinvented itself. 

I was there from 2009 into 2010, so I was seeing about 10 years on from the start of that revolution. It was fascinating. Soccer for me here in the United States was always thinking about being super-fit, being strong, being fast. No-one had ever taught me how to think and position myself, those more cognitive and technical parts of the game.

When I arrived at SpVgg Ansbach, it was such a good environment for me. There was so much that these clubs in Bavaria had put into developing not only players, but also coaches. As we see now, the way they teach coaches has changed the game. I know it changed the way I saw the game. It was one of the biggest sparks in my coaching career. It shaped my philosophy of how I want to coach and train teams that I work with.

The question was, where?

It’s no secret progress has been slow in offering proper opportunity for minority coaches in the professional soccer ranks, and not just in the United States.

Why is that not happening? One big factor is hiring bias. The people who are hiring will hire people who look like them, or who seem to fit their construction of what a quality coach is. As we’ve seen in the news recently, this isn’t just a soccer thing, either.

That’s why I believe what we’re doing at Oakland Roots – led by our ownership and board – is so important. They are very mindful of combating hiring bias. So, in our organization we’re first thinking about where the biases are and then, with our awareness of them, how we can combat them. We also put mechanisms in place to ensure that hiring bias is not as constricting to the pool of talent or the decision that you’re making on that talent pool.

I know that approach is effecting change for others, and I want to be part of that change as well. 

That was my mindset when I decided to return home from Germany. I could have stayed longer – there was a 2.Bundesliga side that asked me to be an assistant for two youth teams and go full-tilt into coaching, and there was another opportunity where I would continue playing, but also get support in earning my coaching licenses.

For me, I wanted to share the knowledge I’d started to build, give back to where I’m from, and start to make my own path here in the United States.

That included getting a Master’s in Coaching Science, and I got that opportunity in my hometown at University of the Pacific. It all kind of lined up with the other things I could do when I came back. 

But being at Pacific also opened the next door for my coaching path. While I was getting my master’s, Pacific announced it was bringing back men’s soccer. Now, I’m taking a course with the program’s Athletic Director, I knew the women’s soccer staff well, and my now wife – then girlfriend– was on the women’s basketball staff. While I was the Head Coach across town at San Joaquin Delta College, I was in Pacific’s Athletic Department on a regular basis.

It turned into an incredible opportunity, building a Division I college soccer program alongside Ryan Jordan – who’s now at UCLA – from scratch in my hometown. It was a huge for me personally. I was lucky to be in a place where I had a lot of good people who were supporting my development as a coach.

As the saying goes, it’s not always what you know, it’s who you know.

In many ways, that’s the challenge many still face, whether it’s in soccer, business, or all walks of life.

One thing I’ll say for soccer is, I think change is coming. I do believe that trend is changing.

We have Black coaches across Major League Soccer and the USL Championship that are starting to have success, like Robin Fraser at the Colorado Rapids or Michael Nsien, who’s built something really remarkable at FC Tulsa in his own town. There are also Latino coaches across the professional ranks that are starting to have success, and I would hope soon hereafter we’ll see coaches who are Asian or Pacific Islanders be able to get their opportunity and start to break through.

That starts with having a network and building strong relationships with others throughout the sport, which is super important.

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to connect with people from all sports as well as the soccer community. As the world maybe got a little bit tighter in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic, that connection and communication has become more of a priority than it has been previously, but it’s certainly important. I truly believe knowing people and them knowing the quality of your work is crucial. It might mean you learn about a job opening or that somebody puts in a good word for you in a job.

After a couple of years at Pacific, I had a lot of work on my plate. While building that program, I was also running the PDP – which was a free selection program run by NorCal Premier similar to the Olympic Development Program – for the entire Central Valley, from ages 10 to 17; I was coaching ages 15, 16, 17 and 18 and I was the technical director for a CV Monarcas Academy.

There were upsides, like the stability from a salary standpoint. But it ultimately wasn’t the path I wanted. I was lucky to get into a conversation with Dutch coach Frans Hoek – who worked with Johan Cruyff at Barcelona before becoming a right-hand man for Louis van Gaal at the top of the game – where he mentioned that youth coaches find more success progressing into the professional ranks, but that professional coaches going down into the youth ranks were not always so successful.

At that point, I knew I wanted to put myself in a situation where I spent day-in and day-out focusing on the formation of players in a professional environment. Generally, 12-14 is the golden age of learning, so when the opportunity came for me to coach the U13 and U14 teams for professional club Sacramento Republic FC, it was the chance I needed.

I couldn’t pass it up.

It was a crucial move for me – the time at Republic FC’s Academy gave me such incredible exposure and experience to player development and in the transition of players into the professional ranks. I got to work with some top coaches, like former Republic FC Head Coach Simon Elliot, in an environment that was heavily focused on developing professionals.

They were willing to give us a platform to experiment and try things. We were also a focal point for talent in the Sac-Joaquin Valley, where we built something really special. If you look at the ‘01, ‘02, ’03 age group, there are now seven or eight signed professionals. When Simon went to the First Team and I took the 17-year-olds, that was the age group, so not only were you working with guys like Simon and Benjamin Ziemer, but also following the work of Mikey Varas, who’s now the United States U-20 National Team coach.

We got the chance to work with talented players for sure – from Hayden Sargis, who just got transferred to D.C. United, and Mario Penagos, Erik Centeno, Quincy Butler, who’s now with Hoffenheim, and now Emmanuel Johnson, who’s getting ready to go to Scotland.

All in all, I’d say we did a pretty good job in our time there.

But as important as the success we had was, the connections I made were just as valuable.

My network now extended even further.

Now, I’m getting the opportunity to make different decisions and at the same time continue building my network.

One big reason I took the Technical Director position here at Oakland was that I saw there were increasing numbers of players and participation of people of color on the field, and even in the coaching ranks, but we still weren’t necessarily increasing the number of decision-makers at clubs who are people of color.

I think that’s one really important step, and one that other clubs can look to emulate.

Because what I’ve learned is, at the heart of it, soccer is for people. It’s for the community, it’s for the fans, it’s for humans.

Roots is a club that believes in that as well, and at the same time recognizes that you can be all of that and play great soccer. Winning championships is not divorced from soccer for humans or soccer for social good, it all works together.

So, I feel like I’m in absolutely the right place. I came here as an assistant coach, then became Head Coach, now Technical Director, and I feel taking on each of those positions has been an evolution of my capacity as well as the demands of the club, and what the club has been and is going to be next.

The spirit we’re trying to build here reminds me of one of the best experiences of my life, when I spent a week at Athletic Bilbao. Talking to the people there, you could feel how the club was built by the Basque community, and with the Basque identity at the forefront.

For me, American soccer of this type is blossoming. There is a unique opportunity for us as an organization – and others around the country – to not only grow year after year in winning games with the First Team, but to build a process for identification and professional development of local players and coaches, operations staff, and at numerous other roles in the club.

In the USL Championship and League One, we also have a tremendous potential incubator for talented individuals to make their own paths in the game. In the same way young players develop on their path to higher levels, the Championship is quickly becoming a place for players currently earning their coaching licenses to find their way into coaching as their careers wind down. That will not only translate to more quality across the country, but it will mean we’re exporting coaches, because coaches will want to go test themselves in more challenging environments as they move ahead.

Of course, we can never predict what the future holds. If you’d told me 10 years ago where I’d be now, I’d never believe you.

But as our club develops, I know for certain I really enjoy the role I’m in now. I feel I’m building a structure for player development, for coach development, for the development of our community. That ties into a community that has always put the greater good of humans first – irrespective of the color of their skin, gender identity – and treating humans like humans at the forefront.

That’s something we believe in strongly. Now, I get to go to work building it.

I hope you’ll join me.

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