It’s a hot late afternoon in Pasadena as Tracey Kevins pulls into the parking lot at the famed Rose Bowl. Almost 15 years to the day, this stadium rocked with a crowd of over 90,000 cheering fans as the U.S. Women’s National Team celebrated their victory over China in the 1999 Women’s World Cup. It was a turning point, not just for women's soccer, but for the sport in general in the states.
Today, it’s quieter with only the sounds of a warm breeze gently blowing through the palms and faint voices coming from the surrounding soccer fields. Kevins, who was born and raised in London is surprised at the popularity and importance of the sport here especially among the youth. And that’s just one of the reasons she’s made her home here after arriving in early 2013.
Kevins is the Technical Director with the LA Blues, a semi-pro women’s soccer team in the USL W-League. The Blues just hoisted the W-League’s 2014 Championship trophy, finishing their season with an incredible 15-0 record and an underlining hope of becoming the next National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) franchise team.
I talked to Coach Kevins recently before she hit the fields, where she spends her spare time coaching instructors for LA Premier FC, a youth league here in Southern California.
Q: What kind of kid you were you growing up in London?
Tracey Kevins: I was a mad soccer fan (or football fan, as we call it back home) and a kid who really got into the game at quite an early age.
Q: So football was a big part of your life growing up?
TK: Oh absolutely. There was a ball in every single childhood photo. No dolls just a football (laughs). So yeah, from as young as I could remember really I had a ball at my feet. Thanks to my dad, we’d watch a game every weekend.
Q: Who were your influences back then?
TK: Going back to that generation, it was very unusual for girls to play. I was very fortunate that my primary school teacher used to play, so he started up a girl’s 5-a-side team because we didn't have enough girls to start up an 11-side team.
Then as I got older, I was very fortunate that my physical education teacher Miss Lardner (sp.) was a football player herself. So I was very, very lucky along the way to have teachers and parents who allowed me to play a game which really wasn't socially acceptable for girls to play in the early 80's.
Q: So, most of your influences were your parents and teachers?
TK: Absolutely and still today they have a huge role to play. The kids I come across – the parents are willing to drive them everywhere and support them and the teachers encourage the kids to practice. No matter how far the game advances, you're still going to need that fundamental support from parents and teachers.
Q: What got you interested in coaching?
TK: As a kid I was quite vocal on the field. Since I was young, I was very loud and had a tendency to get captaincy. And I wanted to learn as much about the game while I was playing it. Unfortunately my knowledge always exceeded my playing abilities. I far exceeded the level I played at because of the fact that I had a good knowledge of the game.
My early coaching experience came about when I went out to play in Australia in 1999 and I dislocated my shoulder. So during the period where I wasn't playing, the coach at the time, who happened to be my youth coach when I was growing up, said “Why don't you come along and assist me and do some coaching work?” And got bitten from the bug from a very early stage. I kind of knew that if my playing did come to an end that coaching would be the natural thing for me to go into.
Q: You coached the England Women's National Team junior squad for many years. Are you still involved with them?
TK: I was involved for eight years from U15, U17 U19 and U23's. I worked in that environment, which was a great environment for where I was at the time – at the early stages of a young, up-and-coming coach. And I had some great mentors along the way too. And then I became a more advanced coach where I was actually giving others help and advice.
But once I came out here (to Southern California), it was a case where that couldn’t be possible. Now I’ve started doing a little bit of work with U.S. Soccer, so I can be found in different months wearing a different track suit (laughs). It's strange but I love working with international teams. It’s something I particularly enjoy.
Q: Originally you came out to coach the LA Strikers in 2013. How did that come about?
TK: In July or August of 2012, I was actually on holiday in Los Angeles. Two of my closest friends who I grew up with and worked with in my early years were out here working and coaching. And they've been non-stop saying to me, “You got to come out here.” And every time they'd asked me, I was in a position where I still felt I had a challenge at home and I was still progressing as a coach.
Then, there was a period where I was getting a little bit restless at home in the sense that I felt like I had taken my club side, which I had been at for nine years (at Barnet FC Ladies), as far as I could possibly go without further investment. So, I was looking for another challenge and a friend of mine contacted me and said, “I heard the LA Strikers are looking for a new head coach. What do you think?”
From there, it went from conversations with the team’s owner and it really snowballed quite quickly. I think that was in September and by November-December my flat was on the market and the move was all set to happen. I came out here in March 2013. Very random but it lined up in the stars, if you like.
Q: What did your family and friends say when you told them you were coming to coach in the USL?
TK: Obviously my family was very supportive. Like I said, they supported me throughout my playing career and my coaching career and the same with my friends.
I think it’s a lot easier in this day and age with technology, Facetime, Skype and things like that. It’s a lot easier to stay in touch with people at home and of course with me having an apartment in LA, I seem to be the number one summer attraction for people to come and stay (laughs).
Tends to be when you live 4 miles from the beach people want to visit you a little bit more (laughs). So it's good to have their support and I wouldn't have been able to make the move if it wasn't for my loved ones around me saying, “Do it!” So, there you go.
Q: Were you kind of surprised by how big youth soccer is out here in Southern California?
TK: Oh my god, yes! You know as an English person coming to LA, I knew that women’s soccer was a big sport. I knew they played it from a young age and I knew that they had a sizable pool of players. Internationally, that’s been my experience playing against the U.S. because they were always able to put out girls form U-15 all the way through U-23 and up to the senior squad. So I knew that they had a big pool of players – but it blew my mind.
I’m here tonight at the Rose Bowl for example and at 5 p.m., its 80 degrees and behind me there’s something like 100 youth-players practicing.
The game out here for young girls is huge and arguably it's bigger than the boy’s side of it. It really has blown my mind how big it is out here and the huge numbers of girls you have. I mean we'd kill for a quarter of these numbers in the UK to be playing.
And even from the youngest age – I mean at the local park, I go out for a run and there's little four-year olds playing organized Gymboree football (I think they call it). Even from the very youngest of ages they are playing and it’s very socially acceptable. And more importantly, for females in general to do sports.
Previously I was a physical education teacher in the UK and it was hard to get girls to stay engaged in sports because it wasn't seen as a very feminine thing to do and it wasn't seen as something that would help you later in life. So it was hard to get girls to even get into sport and to stay in sport as well. I think that's something the U.S. does a much better job with.
Q: How did you get involved with LA Premier FC and how are you helping them?
TK: Basically I’m in charge of the coach mentoring on the female side.
It was one of the things I decided to do when I finished the Strikers’ season last year. The idea of not coaching or not being around the game for eight or nine months would've drove me crazy.
So I had some close friends who worked at LA Premier – In fact it was Laura Harvey (head coach and GM at Seattle Reign FC) who is a good friend of mine’s brother, Jamie. He works at the club and he's one of the technical directors. He said, “You should come down and do a bit.”
And behold there was a role for me basically around when the coaches are off doing their sessions. I'm able to observe their sessions give them some feedback allow them to sort of get the best individual needs out of their players.
Q: From your perspective, what's the difference between coaching here in the states and coaching in the UK? Or is there a difference?
TK: I think that there’s a problem you have here in the states. With the sheer number of girls that are playing, there are a number of unqualified or low-knowledge people involved in coaching the game. I think that's something that happens because of the sheer numbers.
I mean, I look at LA Premier alone and they've got over 60 teams and close to 33 girls teams – so you got to make sure you have 60 good coaches and that becomes difficult. Back home at the Centre of Excellence in England, I had eight coaches to manage. It’s a lot different than the 33 out here.
And it’s really about developing each of those coaches so they can get the best out of those individual groups. I think at the moment that’s the biggest difference is that the coaches really haven't got the knowledge-base that you would expect compared to the coaches who work with youth players at home.
Q: What are some of the qualities that make a good coach?
TK: There are a number of things you look for in a coach – First is their personality. I think if you have someone who's enthusiastic, who is completely mad about the game, passionate about the game and passionate about teaching young children, and enjoys what they do, that’s one thing.
The last thing you want to see is someone who is not really enjoying their position and not really passionate about it because it’s that passion and love of the game you want to rub off on the children you work with.
Children here play a number of sports, so that's one of the challenges too in the U.S. Your average kid will be playing baseball, lacrosse, swimming – a number of other sports apart from soccer. So how do you get them engaged with the sport and in love with the sport enough that they practice on their own? So a coach's personality is definitely one thing you look for.
A coach with knowledge-base, in terms of giving the correct information to the children and giving them appropriate feedback is important. What we don't want to see is and this is a problem back in England, is a kind of shouting and balling coach who's just screaming from the sidelines and coaching every single minute of the game rather than just entrusting the children with decision-making to allow them to be able to make those decisions on their own.
You'll never know if that kid will ever make that pass if we keep telling them to make that particular pass. What is their decision-making like? So allowing them the freedom to be able to play is a huge thing.
So those are the biggest things I'd want to see in a good up-and-coming coach.
Q: That's valuable information because a lot of kids today are interested in becoming coaches.
TK: And I'd have to say that even the coach's pay out here is very good. Because there is such respect for people involved in sports in the U.S., that it pays well. It pays a lot better than what it is in the UK without a doubt and I think that’s something that at home we need to address. We need to look at an infrastructure where coaches are paid an appropriate amount. Otherwise they won't stay in the game long enough.
I think one of the reasons it works out here is because soccer is more of a middle-class sport. I mean you have your soccer moms in their 4x4's whereas at home in England, it’s very much a working class sport. But coaching is a great career and pathway out here to have.
Q: You've seen a lot of success in your coaching career. You won hardware at Barnet Ladies FC and you brought the LA Strikers into the playoffs and now you're part of this 2014 W-League Champion LA Blues team. What is the secret to your success?
TK: Well, there’s never any secret to it. It's always hard work. I think having a huge passion to want to improve and one of the reasons why I came out to LA is that I wanted to improve as a coach.
Also anyone who's ever worked with me knows that I’m quite anal and I never really leave anything uncovered. I mean if there’s an extra one-percent I can look to improve on, then that’s what we'll do as a team or as individuals. I think that's what I would put down as some of the reasons why I've had some very good successes.
Q: Many of my readers are young athletes who are aspiring to play soccer at a high level. What is the most important piece of advice you could give a young kid reading this right now who want to kick up their game to that next level?
TK: The first thing you've got to decide is how important is the game to you. If it's third or fourth on the list behind going out with your friends or second on the list to another sport then you're never really going to reach the highest level with it.
Very often if you speak to the top players, the one thing that they say is that they had to make sacrifices along the way and one of the reasons is that they put the sport number-one in their life. So that means putting in the hours of practice and constantly practicing to hone their skills.
You look at any player male or female who has made it to the highest level of the game. They didn't wake up with a natural talent. They had to work hard on their individual game. And to be a better player you need to be someone who is incredibly driven to want to practice and is never really satisfied until you become the best at your individual sport.
I think the number one piece of advice is just practice, practice, practice. And in time, if it is your number one priority, then go for it. Invest everything in it. Invest all your time, all your energy, all your effort and maybe sacrifice other things that other kids do like going out and partying. You might have to sacrifice that if it is the number one thing in your life.
Q: How satisfying is it for you so see the success of the LA Blues?
TK: First of all, we’re fortunate in that we have inherited or borrowed great players from their colleges. Our job really is that they get back to their colleges and they do well. They really are a great team and I’m always urging people to come out and catch a game.
From a personal point of view it was great to see Rachel Daly have a great season with the LA Strikers last year and then to see her do so well for her college side at St. John’s University was great because we know that we helped her along that pathway. I mean ultimately it’s up to Rachel to do the work while she's at St. John’s, but she used that time to improve.
We've got some great players at the Blues at the moment who are definitely future stars if they continue to work and hone their game like we're teaching them at the moment.
Q: Are you hoping the Blues’ success will bring more fans into the stands next season?
TK: Absolutely and we don’t have a (women’s soccer) pro team in LA at the moment, so this is really a great opportunity for people in LA or in Southern California to come out and see these players play because this is the next generation and the potential future NWSL club. These are the future U.S. women's soccer players. They’ll see some of the highest level play when they come out and watch us. We encourage much more people to come out and see our games.
Q: With the amazing season you had, how probable is it that we may see this LA Blues franchise enter the NWSL?
TK: Well, ultimately that’s going to be U.S. Soccer's decision. We as a club and infrastructure – that’s our main goal and our intent. We've never kept that quiet from anyone.
We benefit from the fact that (LA Blues head coach) Charlie Naimo has the experience being involved with the LA Sol and the Chicago Red Stars. He knows very much how the GM, the infrastructures and how the pro clubs should work. We’re driving towards that in all honesty. We’re very, very interested in becoming a pro side.
Can they justify having a team on the West Coast? That’s up to U.S. Soccer. We're ready if they're looking on the West Coast. All we can really do as a team is put out the best product out there to make sure that we’re the number one side in LA and that people want to come out and watch us.
You know there are a lot of distractions in LA. We have multiple sports we’re competing with and it’s really important that we continue to grow through social media (which we’re very good at) and then through people getting the word out.
Q: I'll do my part to spread the word and hopefully we’ll see the Blues in the NWSL. That would be awesome! Thanks Coach for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk to me today and sharing your story and thoughts on the game. We’ll keep an eye on the Blues and your career as well.
TK: Thank you so much!
Social Media notes:
Follow Coach Tracey Kevins on Twitter @traceykevins.
Hear a condensed version of this interview with Coach Tracey Kevins on Women’s World Football Show.
For more on women's soccer and the NWSL, follow me @NWSL_Examiner.