Michelle Akers: What experience is necessary?

One of the greatest women’s soccer players ever, Michelle Akers, is upset that the U.S. Soccer powers that be haven’t taken her up on her offer to help out with the national team:

Per a phone conversation with Sunil (Gulati, USSF president), he told me I did not have enough experience to coach at that level,” Akers said. “I disagreed.”

Which raises a general question: Can a former player with no known coaching experience* contribute to a major coaching staff in a meaningful way?

(*Update – She is listed as a volunteer assistant at Central Florida. In a lengthy Twitter conversation, she revealed that she does indeed have a B license.)

Several MLS clubs have had success with players going straight from the field to the sideline. Jason Kreis, winning MLS Cup with Real Salt Lake less than three years after abruptly retiring from the field to take the reins. Ben Olsen did a brief apprenticeship as assistant coach before taking over with D.C. United, which stuck with him through some difficult times before getting to the top of the East. Others haven’t quite caught up to the realities of leading a team.

If you want to coach a pro team in the USA, you need an “A” license. You get a two-year grace period. So sayeth the professional league standards.

Former athletes get fast-tracked through the process, to an extent. Those of us who didn’t play at a high level need more than two years to get to the “A” license. Those with five years of Division 1 pro experience can skip straight to the “B.” College players, like my House league colleague who played at Stanford with Julie Foudy, can often skip some lower level licenses.

A licensing course won’t turn a bad coach into a good coach. But it’ll give a prospective coach, even one with the playing experience of an Akers or an Olsen, a few new ways of looking at things. (Update: And again, she does indeed have the “B.”)

The worst coaches you’ll see, at any level, are those who learned one way of doing things and think that the only way things are supposed to be done. They’re the youth coaches who yell and scream and run unproductive drills because that’s the way they were taught. They’re the pro coaches who can’t relate to players with a skillset that doesn’t easily match something they’ve seen before.

So it’s a little disheartening to read a statement from Akers that’s all about the past. Does the USA always need to play the Anson Dorrance style? Would Akers be able to relate to a new-school player like … oh … right … they never bring in new players.

But there’s another issue of basic compatibility. Whether you agree with the latest trends of Euro-inspired possession ball or the Jill Ellis number system, would you really want a coaching staff with such contrasting visions?

The only former U.S. men’s player on the U.S. national team staff is Tab Ramos, who was always an atypical U.S. player and doesn’t seem to be trying to push the Steve Sampson style on Jurgen Klinsmann.

Sure, the U.S. women have been a tad more successful than the U.S. men through history. But both games are evolving. Bringing in someone from the past is hardly an automatic positive.

Update: Akers has taken issue with this post on Twitter, and her general point is that more people from era should be involved with the program today. And indeed, it’s a larger issue than one person’s experience. A common complaint in U.S. soccer circles is that few women are going into coaching — MLS sidelines are full of MLS veterans, NWSL sidelines are not full of former players. And then there’s the question of whether the U.S. women’s program is just too insular in general, even to the point of shutting out thoughts from previous generations.

So some interesting discussions can flow from these questions. Not that we’re likely to see anything change before the World Cup later this year. 

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8 thoughts on “Michelle Akers: What experience is necessary?

  1. I agree that Akers isn’t a known entity when it comes to coaching, but her mindset of winning could always be beneficial.

    If US Soccer had been encouraging retired players to coach in the first place, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

  2. I’ll agree with that, Diane. They’ve made an effort on the men’s side, and now you have a lot of former MLS players roaming MLS sidelines. On the women’s side, it’s April Heinrichs, Cindy Parlow Cone, and … I’m surely forgetting someone, but it’s not many.

    Maybe Lohman, Averbuch and a few others in a few years?

  3. Answer- perhaps. Lower level licensing teaches training- pick teaching points for the training session, build a progressive training plan and teach by doing and positive communication + if plan ain’t working, change it. Higher level licensing goes into strategy, tactics. Some players learn to read the game on the field and are brilliant tactically. I would bet Akers could offer strategy and tactics. I would “risk” bringing her in to find out too. Would a Heath or Rapinoe even listen to Akers? I dunno. It seems hard to believe that anything Akers could offer would harm preparation efforts. If it could, uswnt is in need of major overhaul anyway.

    1. Oh, there’s no way she would need to go through the lower-level licensing courses like I do. As noted above, she’d get a pass to the “B” license course. I don’t know if she’s done that. Maybe I should’ve asked during today’s Twitter exchange!

      For informal help, she wouldn’t need a license. To be a full-fledged assistant, which she said she wanted to do at first, I would think she would at least need the “B.”

  4. Beau,
    USSF is the licensing body, so of course it would mandate its licensing to be NT coach. the license doesn’t actually ensure you have something valuable to offer or that you can connect or inspire or even have any special tactical savvy.

    Going back to the general questionyou posed- Look at Mike Matheny- there’s no license system in baseball, and his experience prior to managing St Louis was coaching little league, but the guy’s got it. Maybe Akers’ got it too.

    having said the above, I am not anti-license and I favor gaining experience. nscaa and ussf licensing offer good instruction on HOW to coach. but the USSF license process does not offer much super useful insight into WHAT to coach at the highest levels. my goodness, if that were true, US soccer would have better results at the highest levels and its youth system would function better.

  5. Beau: Suggesting that the best US player of all time is a dinosaur that couldn’t possibly be an asset to the USWNT because she is either too inexperienced, couldn’t work with the current staff, or doesn’t know anything about the modern game is sure to drive web traffic, but c’mon man…Did you even try to find out what Aker’s coaching experience was before writing this piece? (but good on you for updating the piece after your twitter exchange with her). Do you really want to argue that the game has evolved so much that someone from the past couldn’t be an asset to the program? (Before answering that one remember that our “technical director” is a veteran of the ’91 world cup who played under Dorrance at both the collegiate and international level. So just how far have we really come?)

    While I agree with the more general point I think you were trying to make, i.e., that playing history does not a great coach make, in this age where soccer has become big business and the landscape has grown so that every USWNT player now seems to have a private technical coach or private strength and conditioning coach, I’d be confident that the USSF could find a role for the best player of all time had they wanted. Obviously, it’s an empirical question that will go unanswered, but maybe if some of the ’99ers had continued to be involved in the program, we would have seen less backbiting between cycles over the last 15 years. Would it be a bad idea to have some type of ambassador or assistant coach that could provide continuity across cycles as the head coach turns over?

    But do you buy for a second that Sunil spurned Akers b/c she was inexperienced as a coach? If Mia had called, do you think that she would have gotten the same response? Not a chance. Speaking completely out of turn here, but I’ve got to think that Aker’s reported tumultuous relationship and history of lawsuits against the USSF had more to do with US Soccer’s lack of interest than any lack of coaching experience. Of course it might also be that she has the balls to engage in a twitter battle with a journo/columnist, so who knows? Would love to know what her old teammates thought of her as a leader.

    While in some cases a license might not be worth the paper it is printed on, I think we have to promote coaching education in this country. Is the USSF setting a good example? I’d love to see someone track down the coaching credentials of the US Soccer youth national team staff and the growing network of US soccer scouts/coaches that are running USSF market training centers. I think the growth of MTCs is great, (largely b/c they are free to players and therefore address some of the problems of our pay to play ODP system), but the qualifications of these coaches/scouts are unclear. I know at least one US youth soccer scout on the girl’s side that doesn’t have a USSF license at all. Just tried to track down the credentials of the USYNT staff and it’s harder to do than one would imagine. For example, I couldn’t find anything regarding the credentials of the girls U-15 head coach either on US Soccer’s website or the youth club where he is technical director (while other coaches at his club have USSF licenses, he does not have one listed under his credentials. He may very well have an A license, but it’s not readily clear from a search of the web.) Should US Soccer require that coaches involved in the youth or full national team program either have an A or work toward an A license? I think so. How about you?

    Totally agree with your reader who suggests that USSF needs to encourage/support more female pros to go into coaching. Some have argued that Title IX paradoxically has led to a decrease in the number of women coaching as men took over coaching women’s teams when those jobs began to be paid positions. It’s an interesting argument. In the meantime, I’m still waiting for my kid to have a positive female role model as coach. While we are ahead of much of the world, the gender disparity in soccer in the US, particularly at the youth levels remains discouraging. Count the number of female coaches that are coaching ECNL. Zero at my kid’s club. Of course, she plays at a club that has a free DA for boys while girls pay to play in the ECNL so what should I expect…always knew she’d eventually learn that she’d earn less to do the same job as a man, just never expected her to get that lesson from her youth soccer club.

    1. This really didn’t drive any Web traffic. Not even much of a ripple on Twitter. If I want Web traffic or Twitter reaction, I’ll come up with something negative to say about Hope Solo or Alex Morgan.

      Not saying that’s a good thing. Just reality. The reaction to this issue outside of a handful of people is a big fat “meh.”

      Which is OK. I’d rather talk about the other issues you mention, which are all worthwhile.

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