Hello everyone, and welcome back to American Pyramid! I've got a special interview, and another first! Last time it was the first interview with a National Team. Today, it's my first interview with a professional coach, Rod Underwood! I first heard of Rod back when he was with the Cleveland City Stars, and it was my pleasure to interview him and learn more about coaching and playing in the old days of American soccer and overseas. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed do it. Read more by, well, clicking 'Read More.'
You have had a long and storied career, yet there are a lot of people unfamiliar with you, as a coach and a player. Tell them a little about yourself. Who you are, where you're from, a brief summary of where you've played and coached, and what you're up to right now.
First, thank you for the opportunity to share through this interview. I grew up in Atlanta, GA, and have been involved in the game as a player or coach since I was about 6 years old. Played from youth club to high school school to ODP, then went on to play at Furman University. After Furman, I played 6 years in USISL or whatever the name was any particular year. During that time I lost a league final, and either a Quarter or Semi Final in the US Open Cup, I can't remember which one.
I started doing my coaching license while still playing so by the time I was 26/27, I had finished my A license. I have coached in the US for several USIS/USL teams. Biggest clubs were the Portland Timbers in the USL and MLS, and Sacramento Republic. As a coach in the USISL/USL I've won 2 league Championships.
Internationally I have coached in Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago. I was also an international scout for a club in Holland. Now I am doing some some youth coaching as well as working as a Technical consultant helping pro clubs set up Academies, design technical plans, train coaches as well as working with the first teams at particular clubs.
That's quite the resume right there! Let's talk about the USISL, since a thread on that league was actually how we got connected in the first place. What was it like playing in that league? Was the talent level good? Were any communities really coming out and supporting their clubs?
When I finished college I had been training with a pro indoor team but I got the call from a coach who had coached against me in college. He asked me to come out to Albuquerque to play on a pro team where he was the coach. I had never been to Albuquerque but I jumped at the chance. Went out there, spent about week training and they offered me a contract. This was 1990.
The talent level was very good. We had college players who had played at places like UCLA; we had players who had played in the Mexican league. We evn had some players who had been playing pro indoors. Many of the players you know today like Kasey Keller, Eric Wynalda, and Marcelo Balboa to name a few were in the league. But there were many foreign players, and many were national team players. We sold out every home game in a stadium that held about 5000 people. The Pacific Northwest teams were great to play against, they had great support.
Let me paint this picture about support.
Albuquerque has a USL team today.
Sacramento has a USL team today.
San Diego has a USL team.
Portland has a MLS team.
Seattle has a MLS team.
Columbus has a MLS team.
Cincinnati had a USL team and they now have an MLS team.
I could go on about how many current cities that had teams in the league when I played that now have MLS or USL teams but there were some nowhere cities like Lubbock, TX. Obviously the numbers of fans attending games today in most cases is far superior than in my playing days. What is clear to me is that there has always been support for the games in communities but soccer did not have the national foot print it has today.
When you were playing, what teams did you really look forward to playing against, and why? And, as an extension of that question, what players did you most look forward to taking the pitch against?
For me I looked forward to playing against any player that was good, but the players who had played on the national team or where being considered like John Doyle and Marcelo Balboa because I was an attacker who always wanted to be the best. I really looked forward to playing teams like the San Jose Blackhawks, they were loaded with players. We had a great rivalry with EI Paso and there were some great battles. The Colorado Foxes were another team that was always good. Any team that had big crowds such as the Pacific Nothwest teams, and they were also top level teams. I had the mind set that I always wanted to prove I was the best player on the field and could put my team on my back and to get us the win.
That is interesting information. I think why this is out there is because if the teams I was coaching were not scoring goals over a long stretch of the season I would talk about signing myself with the media but the only time I actually signed and played was in 1998 with the Albuquerque Geckos. That situation was very difficult because after winning the Championship in 1997 the club did not have the money to sign the players that we wanted but we were able to work out a partnership with Cruz Azul to get some players on loan which helped.
Maybe half way through the season I went down to Mexico City to meet with Cruz Azul about developing the partnership more. When I returned from Mexico City, I was greeted by the ownership telling me they had let some players go. So I signed myself and played out the season. I did not play every game but played a fair amount. It was not difficult to be player coach because I had developed good relationships with the players and I made a difference for the team. The hardest part was training because when it was time to come down on the group I was heavy with them. Since I was being hard with them it looked like I was not directing it on myself. Also, when the team was doing fitness I need to be in the top 5% or I would lose my credibility with the group.
Does that mean your role in the USISL was mainly as a coach, more so then a player, contrary to what the internet says?
The best way to describe my roles in the USISL would be that from 1990 to 93 I was a player. From 1995 to 97 I was playing, 1998 was a combination of coaching and playing. After 1998 I was totally focused on coaching as much as I still wanted to play.
Appreciate that breakdown. Now, the first time I heard of you was way back when you succeeded Martin Rennie at Cleveland City Stars in their one and only campaign in the old USL First Division before folding. How did that opportunity come about, and what was it like in the old First Division? Quality of play, level of coaching, that sort of thing.
I was the assist at the Portland Timbers at the time the position came up. I think my agent reached out to them when it opened up. Martin did a good job and I have gotten to know him over the years. He is a really good guy.
What was very inviting to me was the fact that the club was run by a mission organization which was something I have always wanted to be part of. The interesting thing for me about that year was we did not have much money. Some guys were on a per game fee with points bonuses and the team did not do well, but I really enjoyed the group of guys we had. They were fighters and battled to the very end of the year. We had some players who went on and played at higher levels and even in Europe.
The quality was good. Many of the players from other teams in the league went on to play MLS. The coaching level was good at that, too. time Marc Dos Santos was in the league. Gavin Wilkinson Martin Rennie, Bob Lilley to name a few. I would say there were at least 50 players from that year that played some part in MLS. Many foreign players from small countries with National team caps were in the league. The top teams were close to the MLS level. Overall, it was a very competitive league.
I forgot about some of those coaches starting at that level around then. There is a ton of talent there. Looking back on the City Stars, what were one or two big lessons you learned about coaching in difficult situations while you were there?
The City Stars was a great experience in so many ways. There are players over 10 years later that I am still in contact with and the guy who was the TD of the club has turned into a very good friend. We had such a mix of nationalities in the team. Several Africans, South Americans, US players, Canadian players, Caribbean players. Yes, things were difficult but I learned how to bring a group of players together from all over the world, learning their culture, trying to learn their language. But no matter how difficult it was we stayed together through the end of the season.
I am a person who has a strong faith in God and I learned how to be true to my faith no matter the circumstances or situations and how to stay true to your vision and identity as a coach no matter how bad things may be. I never moved away from my core values as a coach.
Having been a coach for a long time, working with players from all over the world, what would you say is the more difficult part of being a coach: game planning, or the man management?
Great question! In my mind both have challenges but are equally important in the sense you can be the best technical and tactical coach, but without understanding how to deal with players highs and lows, players playing or not playing, dealing with a player having issues off the field, then your tactics will not be at the level they need to be to perform consistently at a high level. If your man management is poor, then players will not perform. What I mean by that is all week you are telling the player they will start but come match day they do not start, and on top of that you as coach do not explain why the player will not trust you. So for me it is an ebb and flow of which one is more difficult based on so many factors, but I would they both have equal challenges but on any given day one can be more difficult than the other.
What I will say is not showing you are confident in your tactics and your ability to man manage, players will take advantage and both will be difficult and maybe more than a coach can handle.
Sounds like the makeup of the team can really help determine which of those two things can be more difficult. Is that a fair statement?
That is spot on. The make up of the team is vital, especially when you have natural leaders who will step up and take on a true leaders role. When I have had teams with strong leaders, the team simply is better. Players grow in their personal lives which helps them grow on the field.
With leaders on a team, the coaching staff can cultivate a special relationship with players that far surpasses typical relationships, which again affects the play on the field. When you have a player who is a strong leader, then his ability as a player is like the extension of the coach on the field. That is such a joy to be a part of because the level of play is really something special.
In order to create this environment, it starts with the selection process, like finding the right players that fit your coaching philosophy. But it is so such much more than putting the teams together. When it works how you envision it, it makes your heart very happy. So I just took the long way to saying yes.
No problem with taking the long way at all. Since you've coached overseas, are there two or three differences that really stand out to you between coaching at home in the states and coaching in a foreign country?
Man, coaching outside the country is fun but has challenges in the end. Though I greatly enjoyed my time coaching at home, there is this feeling of safety in a way. You know the language, know the culture, you know the governments way of doing things. In that way there is a comfort level being at home.
Coaching outside is different in the sense you are having to deal with the pressure of being a foreign coach because people see you in such a different light, and if you coach a big club that wins everything, the microscope is so intense. Even going to a shop, people notice you and to want talk or want to be upset with you if the team is not doing well.
If you are coaching in a developing country you have to deal with the fact almost every player is looking for a transfer outside the country because they want a better way of life.
One of the most important things I found to be helpful is to learn where the players came from and about their family life. This will give you insight to how you can coach the players because in so many counties players come from nothing, so this will affect who they are as players.
The love for the game, the passion, is unreal. In the US we have come a long way as a country, and this is overused, but the game is life and death elsewhere. There was one country I coached in where I had a personal armed body guard when we went to certain away games because if we won the game it would be difficult getting out of the stadium.
Geez, I don't know to call that passion or insanity, but regardless, it's strong. Where there any players you coached overseas that really stuck out to you, that people reading this might even know today?
Think closer to insanity. My time in T&T I coached several players who played in their historic game in the World Cup against England but would not be house hold names. Maybe Brent Sancho. During my time in Jamaica, I coached several of the players who played against the US in the most recent games, guys like Alvis Powell but that was with the Timbers and Sacramento. I coached TeTe Bangura from Sierra Leone who Manchester United and Newcastle were offering millions for.
Nice! As we start to wrap this up, where can people find out more about you and what you're up to right now?
Great! I'm on social media. Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. My website is rodunderwood.com. I also started a podcast on Anchor, and it's available on Spotify and Google Play.
Perfect! Last question for this interview. What would you say to someone reading this who is considering becoming a coach?
From an early age, I knew I would be in the game in some form for a long time. If you want to be a coach, figure out what level because each level has different demands, much like playing the game.
Never stop learning but understand to coach at the pro level the game can take over your life, so you must love it. Thank you to all who will read this. I am always here as a sounding board to help anyone who wants to get into coaching.