Tips for Successfully Running a Soccer Club
By Melissa Wickes
July 27, 2023
Steve Lucey owes a great deal to the game of soccer. It has provided him with a vocation. From his earliest days playing pick-up games in England to his founding of the Arsenal FC in Southern California, there’s no separating Lucey from the game. It’s in his blood. With over forty years of experience, he has built Arsenal FC into the gold standard of club soccer here in the States. We spoke with him and learned how Arsenal’s success has little to do with luck and everything to do with careful planning and an intense passion for the game. Here’s a look into our conversation with Lucey, with some important takeaways for running a soccer club for the leading youth sports organizers of today.
When you first came to the States and began coaching, what were the biggest hurdles at that time?
The most frustrating thing back in the late 70s was the lack of media coverage in the US. The only thing on TV were NASL (North American Soccer League) games and they’d cut away for commercials during the match. They didn’t know how to televise the sport at that time, they didn’t know how to make it work for TV and frankly it was kind of a mess. The only real soccer coverage you could count on back then might be a week-old German soccer game on PBS. So as you can imagine as someone trying to break into the game here in America, that was frustrating. But that didn’t dampen my spirits, I started coaching in 1977 because I loved the game. And I made my way to competitive leagues, found a good amount of success there, and began winning state and national championships. So it took some time for the sport to grow and for me to find my footing as a coach.
The game has come leaps and bounds in the US since you began coaching. Do you feel as though American soccer has bridged the gap between the European model and what we’re doing today?
It’s interesting. Here in America, kids are playing in the streets, playing informally, but mainly the sport is basketball. My generation grew up playing that way—playing soccer in the streets or in the parks, wherever we could get the game going. American kids, by and large, don’t do that with soccer. If things aren’t organized, if there aren’t organized practices with coaches and goals set up, well, they’re not playing soccer. You have to understand, overseas, kids are living and breathing soccer and that’s true from my generation and today. That being said, there has been a deliberate attempt here in the States to address that issue. For example, the academies, the US Academy sponsored and run by US Soccer, requires four to five days of training per week and games on the weekend. That gives the better players in this country organized sessions to improve themselves.
The only issue that I see, is while we’ve bridged the gap for the elite players by ensuring kids are playing as frequently as their European and South American counterparts, that kind of activity hasn’t filtered down to most American soccer players at the youth level. The average child isn’t playing enough to keep up on an international level. At the elite level, despite the World Cup setback, I still think we’re making progress, without a doubt, and we will continue to improve as we invest more in the game.
How do you attract and retain quality coaches?
Our director of coaching wants to ensure that each coach has a passion and a love for what they do. He’ll do his homework on candidates, and as a soccer community, we’re fortunate that quality coaching has a way of revealing itself. The next step is aligning our coaches with our goals and philosophies so that everyone is on the same page.
Big picture, we’re also looking for coaches with proven track records. We want to produce highly skilled, highly motivated players and to do that you need coaches that mirror that passion and skill level.
How much of your success can be traced back to the fact that you regularly produce college-ready players?
One of the attractions of our club is that we have a proven track record. We have sent countless players to top universities all across the country. Some of that can be attributed to that the fact that we have teams playing in the US Academy system. Even some of our teams that aren’t quite at that level they’ve also produced collegiate players. We make sure to utilize technology that connects our players with college coaches and their recruiting staffs. We’ve chosen to work with NCSA (Next College Student Athlete) which is out of Chicago. It’s a top priority for us to give our players the opportunity to been seen and evaluated by colleges and we take that very seriously. When I’m speaking to our parents I clearly lay this out to them. “You’re making a financial commitment and a time commitment. If you make those commitments, there’s no reason your son or daughter shouldn’t be able to compete at some level in college. If you’re good enough for our club and you put in those two commitments, that’s where they’ll end up.” I know if they take these commitments seriously, they handle their business academically, this is absolutely their pathway to playing at the university level.
I’m confident in our club providing the highest level of coaching and the highest level of competition to ensure they have the potential to move on to the next level. We produced players at the highest level, not just in the country, but in the world. You look at a player like Carlos Bocanegra, who captained the US National Team in two World Cups, he came through our club. That helps legitimize our club, which in turn ensures that college recruiters are interested in our players. Producing top-flight players has a cyclical effect for us.
How does Arsenal FC think about burnout, both on the body and the mind?
We take this subject seriously. All of our coaches go through the top licensing process that US Soccer has to offer. PJ Brown, our technical director, has passed the highest courses for directors. A part of that training touched on the subject of burnout. As a result, we have addressed this within our club, the idea that kids are playing too many games and putting themselves at risk of injury. We have a curriculum that tracks how many minutes players are logging in games and we’ve structured practices with the wear-and-tear factor in mind. A recovery practice, a maintenance practice, and a high-intensity practice are how we balance the strain placed on the body in our club. And this is a new practice across the sport.
Growing up I participated at a high level in club teams, and the idea of limiting your training or games was never discussed or considered. Today we have the science and information to understand the diminishing returns a fatigued body delivers, as well as the potential for injury when a body is exhausted. We have implemented these periodization charts which track every team, throughout the entire year. And this is the case from our youngest all the way to our oldest teams. Because of these charts, we now know that a game is worth 48 hours of high-intensity training. And with that in mind, we have to balance our training before and after a game so that players are fully recovered.
Tips for Running a Soccer Club
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