"You can love you Barcelona's and Manchester's, or your MLS team, but local is where you can be a part of it"
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Welcome back to American Pyramid everybody! Hopefully got some rest after staying up late last night to catch US Open Cup games. Sadly, the New York Cosmos couldn't quite get it done, but the Fort Lauderdale Strikers are through to the 'Elite 8,' a historic achievement for the NASL and for lower level soccer. If I remember correctly, there hasn't been a lower division team playing this late into the USOC since the mid-2000's.
Now, on to today's interview. I got to speak with Santiago Rodriguez Rey of Greater Lowell United a few weeks ago. This team has gone through a dramatic turnaround. In 2014, their first season in the National Premier Soccer League, they managed 4 points. In 2015, they managed 1 point. This year, through 12 games they have 19 points and are sitting in third place. Mr Rey explained the team's origins, some of the keys to the turn around, and drops a ton of global soccer knowledge on me. Seriously, it's pretty crazy stuff. Check it out.
Let's start simple. Who you are, where you're from, and what your told is with Greater Lowell United.
My name is Santiago Rodríguez Rey. I am originally from Argentina. I do all the social media for GLUFC.
I did assist with coaching last year for the reserves. (At the time we had a team at the BSSL, Bay State Soccer League)
What got you involved with soccer in general, and GLU in particular? I guess you could say, has soccer always been apart of who you are?
Being from Argentina there is no way of escaping soccer. It is the most popular sport and you can even say that for many club and country are paired. I have played academy for the Club Atlético All Boys from Buenos Aires as a kid. By the time kids in the U.S. might join an Academy, in Argentina youth is done and you need to join the club ranks, so you (and your parents) need to decide if you are going to invest lots of time in soccer (which usually means sacrificing school time and such), I chose school. I was in the U.S. now because my wife got a Fulbright scholarship to attend U-Mass Lowell to study solar energy in 2013. I moved to Lowell at the end of 2013 and started to look at ways to get involved in the community and found the club, met the founders Tim Melican and Manny Andrade and began helping at the end of the club's first NPSL season.
I got involved in Lowell in multiple ways. I had a couple of radio shows at the local University radio station and volunteered for local organizations such us Made in Lowell.
Volunteering seems like a big step towards getting involved with a club in a larger capacity. What was it like for you growing up in Argentina, being around soccer all the time? How different is that from here in the states for you?
The main difference between Argentina and the states in that capacity... well Germany too (I have lived in Germany for some time and trained with a 5th division team while there) and Spain as well for that matter, is the way clubs are integrated to the social life. Most commonly clubs are multi sports entities very much like schools and colleges are in the U.S. are. Imagine a mix of the social aspects church has in the states, with the way sports are run by schools. When you add those up, it is not hard to understand why people outside the U.S. are religious about their clubs. The whole town, neighborhood, etc. meets around those colors. Most clubs also have a pub or some sort of diner where people meet. Nowadays, in large urban areas, this place of cultural and social exchange might be less intense than early in the 20th century but it is still a must reference.
When you think of Buenos Aires you are talking about the city with the most soccer stadiums in the world. As each club has its stadium, and most teams from the main divisions are from the city, and or the surrounding areas, you have about 20 over 20.000 people stadiums in very close area. I say 20 but I might be coming short.
Buenos Aires comes second to England and Scotland in playing the first open to the public soccer match. And the soccer league in Argentina was originally organized in 1891, being the 2nd or 3rd in the world. Back then, the British influence was quite important. If you wonder how come this guy is so into the subject, my bachelor's and master's thesis are related to the use of the sport in politics and propaganda.
That would explain the amount of knowledge you just threw my way. I had never really thought of clubs as being the equivalent of a college, with the uniting power of church, but that illustration does make a lot of sense.
Now I just have to wrap my head around the thought of almost 20 stadiums holding 20,000 people in one city. What are some of the team in Buenos Aires most people wouldn't know about that are playing in some of these stadiums?
Nowadays, multiple clubs in Argentina even have their own high schools, they run private schools.
Counting Buenos Aires city and its immediate surrounding area, you have clubs like Boca Juniors, River Plate, Racing club, Independiente, San Lorenzo, Velez Sarsfield, Argentinos Juniors (All these have won at least a Libertadores cup). Huracán,.. here is an incomplete but pretty well done list https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_football_stadiums_in_Argentina …
I lived most of my childhood next to All Boys, as I mentioned... they are also well over 20.000
Man, they're running private schools? That's intense! Since you grew up in Argentina, spent time in Germany, and now live in the US, what are the biggest differences you see in how soccer is run between them?
I actually live in Sao Paulo, Brazil now. Moved 2 months ago.
Well, the main differences are the club systems we described and promotion/relegation. The U.S. system is made by multiple closed leagues, that call themselves tiers but really are not. The rest of the world (including the world cup) is about promotion.
Think about it. What we usually call "World Cup", next to be played in Russia, is the culmination of a very long elimination process to the top. In theory, a remote nation island in the pacific, the smallest of countries in Europe, even the Vatican if they got a team, could be world champions. That is the spirit of the "Open cup" in the U.S., but not the league system. That exists everywhere else in one way or another, but not in the U.S.
That line about the Vatican getting a National Team really made me chuckle for some reason, don't know why. Since you touched on it, how much of a difference do you think the lack of promotion and relegation really makes on the soccer scene here in the US?
I think that what really makes the difference in the end is the club system. The identification it generates is huge. Somewhere within yourself you not only identify with the team but sort of believe you could be there on the field. I think that does happen with other sports in the U.S.. Having said that, when you see multiple teams like Detroit City FC, Chattanooga, now Stockade FC, and the crowds they draw and the level they are bringing to the game, or why not us and Boston City FC? When you look beyond NPSL to PDL, to USL, to NASL, it does not seem fair that those teams do not get a chance to grow higher.
Promotion and Relegation is a challenge. I can understand how relegation can be seen as a punishment, but it is not, it is a challenge. And if you are challenged you become better. Challenge makes for better games, those bring bigger crowds and sponsors. The current system is a constant threat to stagnation. The same way that the drainage of players to Europe affects South America level wise, the lack of challenge affects the U.S. You might get an exception that confirms the rule here or there, but over all I believe that is the case. You see it on the National Team. Klinsmann is a coach anybody would love to have. There is so much he can do
Barring a major change, how do you plan to go about getting something along those lines going in terms of support and quality of play for GLU?
We are building an Academy to work along the NPSL team. Theo Booras is on top of that, at the same time he is the assistant coach on the NPSL team. We are a small group but try to be cohesive, more than we did before. We might not have the resources other teams in our level do, but try to work around them by building relationships with the community. That is a different approach we had from previous years. Support wise we are trying to reach other local academies and youth travel teams to come to our games. Level wise we have improved much compared to previous years. We already have had a much better season than previous years and, hopefully, we can continue on that path. In the end, we want to provide local kids with a national opportunity. If we do our job right, the best local players will come to us. We believe we have a better than good squad this time around and the addition of Coach Hayden Barbosa certainly helped.
I saw, here on Twitter, I believe, that you guys are doing much better this year than last season. What changed?
It is a combination of a team that keeps some key players through time and a coaching staff that has gained experience too.
Betting on local talent both on the pitch and the sidelines requires some growth everywhere. Some teams prefer hiring outside their area and that works for them, we wanted to be local. All the coaching staff is made by local residents for example.
Now, I have never actually been to Lowell, or even Massachusetts even. How would you describe the city of Lowell to an outsider, along with the soccer scene in Massachusetts?
Lowell is an 1820's mill city, the heart of the american industrial revolution. As the industry fell flat in the mid 20th century, the city tried to look to a new future, failing here and there. At the end of the 70's, the city became a national park, with its mills being re purposed but kept, giving it a beautiful look.
Lately with the University of Massachusetts Lowell's growth and new technology related companies arriving, the city is looking at a better future for the first time in a long time. Lowell is a multicultural and multi ethnic city with people coming from all corners of the world, hence bringing the world's sport over. Massachusetts, specially the Boston area, shares this characteristic. There are several amateur leagues, I can mention the Bay state soccer league (BSSL, 3 divisions with promotion/relegation) and the Massachusetts state soccer league (MSSL). There is certainly a large soccer scene apart from the Revolutions here. Maybe a more urban setting for MLS would portray the actual vibrant scene there is in the area.
You mentioned earlier in the interview that GLU had a team in the National Premier Soccer League and in the Bay State Soccer League. What prompted the decision to only do one league instead of both?
We would have loved to have both teams this year too, but after last year's experience we need more hands on deck. Also, BSSL is a year long league where NPSL is not. We tried to have one as a reserve team and the other as the main one, sort of like it works everywhere else. The truth is that with NPSL's current calendar, college calendar, BSSL calendar, money involved and hands on deck it was not working for us, the players or the projected idea.
Sounds like quite a bit of effort, both with time and money. Aside from the calendar, what are the big differences between the BSSL and NPSL, and what caused GLU to go with committing to the NPSL?
BSSL is a very well organized, mostly Boston bound, amateur league. The original objective was to bring a national league to the area.
Ah, so a league like the NPSL was always the goal. Where does GLU hope to be in 5 years in terms of on and off the field success?
Hopefully growing in quality, fans and as an organization. Quality means better results and more relationships with other clubs and colleges. Last year's goalie got a scholarship in part for playing for us. Fans means more community connected and a bigger media presence. Organization wise means a growing Academy. It is a step by step situation when you start from 0 like Greater Lowell United started. We are not a businessman with a dream and business experience. We have learned through time, hopefully enough to be talking in 5 years.
I like that point you just made. A step by step situation. What do those steps look like for GLU? I'm also looking for solutions and suggestions for my readers to these problems. A couple of them are looking into, or have actually started, soccer teams, and it's something I'd like to do myself. So anything you can share would be much appreciated.
Soccer is a grass roots sports, taking in it to a next level is a big step. Something we have learned is that having the dream is nice, but nurturing it is more important. You need an organization and a plan behind it. Building that plan and organization as you go is an up hill battle. It is better to cross the tees and dot the i's first. Know the soccer situation in your location. Once you think you know it, check it again because there is a whole different side of town you probably did not look at. Talk to the people, get them involved with roles that will allow you to build a network. You need multiple roles and people to commit to them. The more hands on deck to tackle clear things, the better. If not, you end up doing a lot of things yourself (you will anyways, so you should try to avoid that). And then, there is managing expectations. "Win everything!" is not a valid expectation. It would be a delight, but it is not realistic.
Check everything twice. That's really good. Let's move into some easy, rapid fire questions. What's your favorite league and/or team to watch?
My club, Independiente, of course!
Lately though, the Argentine league has been going through some weird changes, so I am guessing La Liga and the Bundesliga are good second choices
Can't go wrong with them right now. Favorite players, one past, one present.
Past, Ricardo Bochini... present... Manuel Neuer, goalkeepers don't get enough love.
Very true. One of my readers, Tolan Lichty, wants to know what memory you associate to your favorite past player if you have any autographs or cool memorabilia of them?
I have some magazines and such. Bochini retired when I was a kid, so he is THE IDOL. Well, he was Maradona's idol when he was a young player as well. As a kid my heart was torned between soccer and tennis. My dad knew some people in the tennis world so I have more memorabilia on that end.
Bochini just looked weird.
I'll give you that, he does look weird. Do you have a favorite soccer book and/or podcast that you would recommend?
"Fever Pitch" by Nick Hornsby I really liked... I guess that is the single one in English I recall. I think the biggest line on soccer passion is in the Argentine movie "The secret in their eyes"
This scene https://youtu.be/Rh3kM_sSCuQ
They describe how one can change, grow but can't run away from one's passion. In this case, the movie, is soccer related but applies to multiple things of course.
I might have to try and find that movie. What advice would you give to a young player trying to make a career in soccer?
That is a hard one, as I have not made a career in soccer. Of course training hard, being responsible and consistent. But I guess that not losing your innocence as a player and be open to trying things is important too. The ones that make it are the ones that bring something new, but are responsible and committed
Excellent advice. Having an open mind and committed spirit are two of the great keys to life. One last question to wrap things up. What would you like to say to people about why they should get a support their local, lower level teams?
Lower level local teams bring communities together. It solidifies them. If made from local or "local" players it provides opportunities to those players. Find that local team and see what you can do for them. It is true that in America teams are not like in Europe or South America, that being a member gives you a voice and a vote, but local clubs are pretty close to that. So if your local team has a season pass program, help them by getting one. If you like something they are doing, let them know. If you do not agree with something, and you are season pass holder, participate and bring your ideas, owners are usually open to them. And, if you are interested in soccer or your kid is, having a local opportunity to see a team goes long ways. Yes, you can love you Barcelonas and Manchesters, or your MLS team, but local is where you can be a part of it.
You can love your Barcelona's and Manchester's, but local is where you can be a part of it. That's the perfect way to wrap this up. Santiago, thanks for taking the time to do this interview, I really appreciate it. Remember, if you are enjoying the content I'm putting out, I'd encourage you to click here to Follow me on Twitter, or here to Like the page on Facebook. And if you'd like to read these interviews before everyone else, and make sure you aren't missing anything, click here and sign up for the newsletter. You'll be the first to know when articles are released and learn about other exciting content down the road. Make sure to spread the word by sharing these interviews, telling friends about the blog, those kind of things. I can't accomplish my goal of maximum exposure for all levels of the American Soccer Pyramid without YOU. Until next time, Stay Loyal, Support Local.
Read Part 2 of 'Sponsorship's and Ticket Sales: Jonathan Fonseca of the Rhode Island Reds'