Tomorrow, Derry man Christy Holly will manage Sky Blue FC of New Jersey against Washington Spirit as the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) begins its fourth season. A former player with Limavady United in the Irish League, Holly is the first Irish head coach of a professional women’s soccer club in America.
Q. The NWSL began in 2013, following the demise of Women’s Professional Soccer league in 2012. How is the new league bedding in?
A. Women’s soccer in America is probably the biggest sport on the scene. Before 2013, the league had struggled financially so they had to reinvent it. In 2013, you had eight teams. Since then, there’s been two more teams and next season, the plan is to have two more. So it’s growing rapidly. At Portland last season, we had 22,000 people at a game. Numbers are getting there across the board. The viewing figures for the US women in the World Cup final was incredible. I think it was the most viewed soccer programme, surpassing the Champions League.
Q. Who are Sky Blues’ better-known players?
A. We have the captain of the international team who’s won two World Cups (Christie Rampone). We have Kelley O’Hara, who won a World Cup and Olympic medal. You’re talking the best players in the world. The level of professionalism and expectation are of the highest standard.
Q. Are professional careers in the league financially sustainable?
A. Our season runs from April to the first week in October. From that point on, we loan the players out. Some will play in Europe, some Australia, some Japan. It allows them to optimise what they earn and make it more sustainable for them. The more recognisable players get their endorsements and the higher wages and they make quite a good living out of it. But then there’s the players who are trying to establish themselves and the finances aren’t as enjoyable for them. But they’re living the lifestyles of a pro athlete. And year after year, there is more money and more funding.
Q. American talent aside, how big a part of the job is international recruitment?
A. Every team is allowed four non-American, non-Canadians in their team. We’re very quick to meet that quota. We’ve got two Australians, two of the best young talents in the world. We have a Costa Rican international and a player from England. Those positions are at a premium. So when you do bring those players in you don’t take a risk. You have to be sure.
Q. The four-player rule cost Stephanie Roche her contract at Houston Dash last year?
A. Yes, that was unfortunate for Steph. It’s purely because the positions are at such a premium. You sign a player and then player X comes up who might have a different quality. That’s what happened to Stephanie. An Australian came in who filled their needs more at the time. These international players have to be the best in the world.
Q. This year, Denise O’Sullivan from Cork has joined Houston. Are there any other promising Irish players on the college scene likely to break into the league?
A. The two Irish internationals were outstanding at Florida State. I’d have liked to get hold of Megan Campbell, but she opted to go play in Europe (Man City). Her teammate Megan Connolly (formerly College Corinthians) is lighting up the college scene over here, which is no mean feat as an 19-year-old. I’m very excited to see what she does in the next few years before she’s available to play the pros.
Q. From Limavady United to here, how did that happen?
A. I first came over in 1995 as part of an exchange programme and fell in love with the Jersey Shore. I went to University in Liverpool and coached. I was home in Derry and an opportunity presented itself to go over to Jersey again to coach university soccer in 2007. That was my first time coaching as a full-time professional.
Q. How has your role with Sky Blue FC evolved over the last few seasons?
A. I began as reserve team coach. From there I moved into the first team last season, initially as goalkeeping coach. It was a very good experience, working with the most experienced head coach in the league (Jim Gabarra). He’s moved on (to tomorrow’s opponents Washington Spirit) and fortunately they decided I was the right fit to take the club to the next stage.
Q. You’ve also worked in talent identification for Bayern Munich. How did that come about?
A. I’ve been working for an organisation called Global Premier Soccer, the largest coaching organisation in the US. It’s owned by two brothers from Derry, Joe and Peter Bradley. They tied in with Bayern to help establish Bayern’s footprint in America. Part of that was discovering talent here that was good enough to go across to their academy. It was tremendous to work with some of the most reputable youth coaches in the world.
Q. What is the most important attribute you look for in a young player?
A. The most important thing, before you sign a player, is to get to know the person. To find out what their motivation is. Talent is huge, but I’ve always believed in the line that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
There’s so many players I’ve played with and coached against that don’t have the motivation to be the best possible version of themselves. Our league isn’t just an average league, it’s the top pro league of women’s soccer. And you need that internal drive.
Q. Is there any difference in approach between identifying talent in young boys and young girls?
A. At young ages, the girls are more technical. Maybe they don’t yet have the speed and size that the boys do. But often that size compensates for a lack of technical ability. So when you see a girl’s team put together 10, 12 passes, there’s a lot more thought put into why they’ve done that and what they’re trying to achieve. Maybe the downfall of American men’s soccer is it still relies heavily on athleticism. That works, to an extent. But at the very highest level, they have a lot to do. You look at Robbie Keane. He has creativity and imagination that a lot of players over here haven’t attempted to express on the field.
Q. Has women’s soccer in the USA somehow developed differently to the men’s game?
A. Well, there are fewer sports to compete against. On the men’s side, you have basketball, football, baseball, even lacrosse. On the women’s side, there’s competition from basketball and lacrosse, but there’s not as many athletes being pulled away. The best male athletes get pulled into the biggest money generating programmes, American football and basketball. So you end up with the second or third tier athletes playing soccer. But the women are the best of the best. So I’m very fortunate to get to work with these women. It’s mind blowing what they are capable of.
Q. Does pressure come with the job?
A. The absolute minimum expectation is to finish top four. Anything outside top four will be failure. As the season goes on, we’ll reevaluate. There is a level of expectation and pressure. People get caught up in that. The stress is there. But as long as you have conviction in what you do…
Q. Do you still keep in regular touch with the sporting scene at home?
A. My brother Niall is on the Derry panel. GAA is ingrained in our family. I’m probably the only one into soccer. My cousins, the McGoldricks, play with Derry. My sister plays with Derry camogie team. My father was Antrim hurling.
There are a lot of great aspects of GAA that I’m trying to subliminally get into how I coach and the kind of culture I want in my organisation. People from outside just don’t understand how an organisation like the GAA works. Come championship, I’ll be spending more time on the phone than I should be. Hopefully, Derry go on a run.
Q. Fancy coaching back home some day?
A. Right now, I’m working with the best players in the world. So I need to prove myself as successful in this job. Beyond that, I’d love to come back home if the opportunity presents itself. Whether that’s on the male or female side of the game, I don’t have a preference. We’ll see what happens. One step at a time.
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