Establishing a culture of excellence...an inside look into a successful college program w/ head coac
Do you have aspirations of playing college soccer? Want to get inside the mind of a high-level Division 1 college coach? We got the opportunity to speak with former professional goalkeeper and current head coach at the University of North Carolina Wilmington Aidan Heaney! Check out all of his insight on the college game and see his thoughts on how to reach the highest level of the college game!
You've been at the helm of the UNC Wilmington men's soccer program for 17 seasons now, what do you attribute your longevity to?
I think the program was at a real low point when I took over, so the rebuilding was always going to take time. We made some quick strides initially with the help of bringing in some strong recruiting classes and convincing them they could play a part in developing something special here at UNCW. Establishing a true culture of excellence takes time but is in a very good place. We have had some success on the field, graduate our players, and have high character guys in our program.
You're originally from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England; What differences do you see between the soccer environments in England & the United States? More specifically, the transition from high school to either university or professional?
The differences back when I was graduating in 1988 to now are quite dramatic. Back then, school football in England was at a higher level than current times, and I would also play for a youth club, as well as a men’s team. I was playing 3 games a weekend but as a Goalkeeper, I could do that. Professional club academies now dominate the landscape more than back then. I had a really successful school team and also signed an apprentice contract at my home town club, Newcastle United, after trials at Chelsea and Ipswich Town. Paul Gascoigne and Peter Beardsley were the main 1st team players at the time. I remember how harsh and cynical the professional environment was. It was a much different experience than I had anticipated and decided to go back to school to take A-levels after a short stint at Newcastle. I could have chosen the university path back home but chose to embark on the American dream instead, and certainly glad at the decision I made. You're a former professional goalkeeper with the New England Revolution; was professional soccer the goal when you made the jump over the pond to the United States?
I always dreamed of being a professional soccer player, but didn’t know whether it would be in the United States or back home after college. I wasn’t ready at 16 to be a professional. Making the England Schoolboy Under 18 team after the dent in confidence from my apprentice experience gave me renewed confidence in my ability that I was good enough. I received a professional contract offer from Norwich City but opted to come to the U.S. and go to UNC Charlotte. My college experience, playing in the USISL (what is now the USL) with the Greensboro Dynamo, and just maturing as a goalkeeper prepared me well for an opportunity in MLS. Playing in the inaugural season in 1996 for New England was incredible but getting there was no easy path – it took a lot of hard work and some good fortune along the way. What lead you to coaching? As a goalkeeper, have you always wanted to be a head coach or did you start specifically working with goalkeepers and found the urge to move to a higher role?
Coaching was a natural progression for me. I had taken an FA Badge when I was in high school so always had an interest in coaching. I initially started off as a goalkeeper coach, working with UNC, UNCG and Duke women’s soccer teams. Thanks to my former pro goalkeeper coach at the Dynamo, Eric Vaughter (EV), leaving North Carolina to take a new job; I was able to take over from him as an almost nomadic goalkeeper coach between the three universities. I was fortunate to then be hired by Elmar Bolowich at UNC to be his full time assistant (there was only one position) and at that point, I was clear that I didn’t want to be considered just a goalkeeper coach as I felt I would be pigeon holed and didn’t want that.
How do you balance your duties as a head coach w/ your desire to also work with the goalkeepers in order to pass on your knowledge of the position?
I still train our keepers from time to time, and do enjoy that time with them, but now we have a goalkeeper trainer, Ricardo Pinto, on staff. It was a balancing act before, but I would come out early or stay late to train our keepers. I think our keepers appreciate having a head coach who played their position, who can relate to them, and give them some advice and tips. It can also be tough for them too as I am demanding of them and have high expectations at that position! You've been involved w/ both college and youth soccer for a long time in the United States so you have seen the evolution of both. The debate between high school vs. club/academy soccer is ever present so I want to get your thoughts on the best pathway for soccer players (specifically goalkeepers) in terms of recruitment for college? Road to professional soccer?
Tough question as there is no straightforward answer. The bottom line is: if you are ambitious, you have to play at the highest level possible. There are many different ways to make it to college or to the professional ranks, but you have to put yourself in the window to be seen. We don’t just recruit academy players at UNCW; we also find players playing for their clubs or in classic leagues, but the reality is that the academy level is the highest level for youth players at present. Not many universities can get to see a ton of high school games unless it is a local school so a goalkeeper needs to play on a team that plays in tournaments, state cups, etc. As far as professionally, I don’t know why a top high school senior would not attend university or college to gain experience in the college ranks, make a name for himself and then sign out of college. If they go directly to the pros, or sign a homegrown contract, where are they going to get games and gain experience? They may train with the pros, play at a faster pace, face quicker shots but have no outlet to make decision in real games.
You obviously do a lot of recruiting around the country looking for the best players to bring to your program to continue to be as successful as possible; What do you look for from a goalkeeper when you go to tournaments or other games?
I look for a number of things. A confidence, a presence, how they move, how they communicate with their defense, someone technically clean, good with their feet. I like goalkeepers who are proactive, read the game and play off their line. How do they respond after perhaps making a mistake…….do they go within themselves? A lot of qualities, I know! I will say that, in my opinion, there has been a drop off in the quality of goalkeepers in this country at the very highest level. We had some top keepers in Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller, Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, who all played in major clubs and leagues. That has dried up, and I don’t know why? Maybe a topic for a pod, Brandon! I see Zack Steffen looks like the best prospect coming through.
You're roughly 6'0 tall, does size matter for a goalkeeper?
The modern goalkeeper is usually taller as well as incredibly agile, but I don’t necessarily believe you have to be 6’4” to be a top keeper. Look at Lloris, Navas, Casillas. I know I spent a ridiculous amount of time working on footwork and crosses, specifically timing of collecting crosses, so that I caught the ball at the highest point and was willing to collect crosses in traffic. My friend, Jon Busch, is a testament that you don’t always have to be the tallest – ‘Bushy’ had an incredible career as a pro and used the skills and size he had, and didn’t allow his size to ever be an excuse.
During your tenure at UNC Wilmington, you've had various goalkeepers go on to play professionally, most notably Brad Knighton who has had a long career in Major League Soccer. Should we consider you a bit of a goalkeeper whisperer given your previous successes w/ goalkeepers you've worked with?
I take great pride in seeing former UNCW goalkeepers move onto the pro ranks and do well. I have been extremely fortunate to have worked with some really good ones over the years – Brad , you (Brandon Miller, former USL GK of the Year with Rochester, currently Charlotte Independence), Brock Duckworth (formerly Charlotte Eagles and Wilmington Hammerheads), Sean Melvin (Vancouver Whitecaps). Sean just played in the MLS Homegrown game in Atlanta this week. Passing along the knowledge I learned from people like Eric Vaughter, seeing your players take that knowledge and run with it……..it is very rewarding. Goalkeeper Whisperer? No………more a good eye for talent possibly.
Final question! During your playing days, if you had the opportunity to play for Sunderland (biggest rival for Newcastle United) would you have taken it?!
Yes, I would have played for the Mackems if given the opportunity! I actually trained with Sunderland for 2 months back in 1996 when they were in Division1. It was the offseason with the Revs and Lionel Perez and David Preece (who actually has a very good Goalkeeper Podcast in the UK) were the first team keepers. My cousins in Newcastle practically disowned me or spoke to me for even training with Sunderland such is the rivalry! I am actually saddened to see where Sunderland are at the moment as I don’t think it good for soccer in the north-east and miss the derby matches between the two teams.