Exclusive Interview with Charlotte Eagles Coach Mark Steffens
Former Charlotte Eagles players Jose Gomez and Derek Avilez with coach Mark Steffens
Mark Steffens is the coach of the Charlotte Eagles of the USL-PRO league, and a native of Syosset, NY. He’s been involved in soccer throughout his whole life and has some very interesting experiences and insight to share. For Long Islanders, there is some great information about how the game has developed over the years. For fans of U.S. soccer, there are some great details about the Charlotte Eagles and what they are doing within the soccer world.
The more that I read and re-read the interview, the more questions I have. How is it that Mark isn’t being asked to coach a MLS team or be involved in U.S. Soccer? I’m going to talk with Mark again over the coming months and try to share more of his knowledge of the game with all who are interested.
SLI: Tell us a bit about playing soccer on Long Island when you were younger and how it compares to now.
MS: That’s an interesting question! It is so different now. When I first started in middle school there were some different rules: no throw-ins, that’s right, every ball that went out of touch was restarted by a kick-in. Another crazy rule back then, if the score was tied after regulation time the team that had the most corner kicks was declared the winner. Also the ball was leather without any weather proof coating on it and every time it rained the ball became very heavy, so much so that heading the waterlogged ball was dangerous.
The style of play and the system of play were very different. I remember playing for Syosset HS and we played a 1-2-3-5 my sophomore year….five strikers. All we did was “kick it long.” Very little short passing or possession. My junior year, coach Reed came back from some coaches meeting or clinic (I remember as if it were last week) and he was so excited about what he learned. He sat me down and explained the new system that we would play and how we would try to out possess the other team. That system was a 1-4-2-4 (if I remember correctly). As I recall we had 2 very good years playing that system, we actually starting playing something that looked like soccer.
There was no “club system” at the time that I was a youth player. One of the soccer fanatics on LI at that time was the late Mr. George Barr. A great man who loved the game and recruited a bunch of Syosset players and we played for 2 seasons with the Police Boys Club is a league that I couldn’t even tell you the name of. Not too long after I went to college, Mr. Peter Collins started the LIJSL. I had the privilege to come back to LI and coach in for Mr. Collins in the ODP program.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my soccer mentor, Mr. Chris Sweeney. I assisted him at Berner HS & Massapequa HS in the late 70’s. I learned so much from this man. He knew the game extremely well and exemplified great integrity to me and his students/players.
Shep Messing is another person who played a big role in my coaching career. He pushed for me to be hired with the NY Arrows, my first professional coaching job. I will be ever grateful for the aforementioned men in my life.
SLI: What were some of the best moments from your time coaching at Chaminade?
MS: I only coached 2 years at Chaminade. The main thing that stands out to me was the character of the players that I had. They were both very good athletes and incredibly disciplined young people; very easy to coach. Almost everyone had a great work ethic on and off the field. An extremely teachable group. To be honest I really don’t remember our won-loss records, although we won way more than we lost, but I remember the outstanding character of the players. One moment that stands out is what happened after the state finals. We out played the opposing team by quite a bit and ended up losing the game in overtime, I believe. It was a heartbreaking loss and the players were crushed; but after a minute of dejection, they quickly gathered their composure and held their heads high and warmly congratulated the other team…..and they meant it!!!
SLI: What do you think are some of the best qualities about soccer on Long Island that make it a good place for young people to develop as players?
MS: What immediately comes to mind are some lyrics from the Frank Sinatra song New York-New York. “If I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere.” It seems like most parents on LI have to work hard to make it in NY and because of that their children are used to seeing a great work ethic. That carries over onto the soccer field. The majority of players from LI are hard workers (great work-rate on the field) and have a never say die attitude. Those are the guys that I want on my team. Guys that have no quit in them, will out-work everybody and every team. Those type players are just “winners.”
Also the coaching is very good on LI, so the technical and tactical parts of the game are taught well. When you mix all that together you have some great players coming out of a relatively small Island.
SLI: What led you to move to Charlotte to coach the Eagles?
MS: In the mid-80’s I was an assistant coach with the NY Arrows and NY Express (MISL). Out of the blue I received a phone call from a guy who worked with the Tacoma Stars (MISL). This person invited me to go on a missionary trip with the Charlotte Eagles in 1990 (as an assistant coach and player). We traveled to Poland, Germany, and ended up in Italy for the 1990 World Cup. It was an amazing trip and it opened my eyes to using soccer as a platform to help underprivileged children and share the love of God. I also fell in love with the people in the Eagles organization as well as the town of Charlotte.
The Charlotte Eagles contacted me every year to come and join their team; I finally accepted in 1997. That season my wife (Diane) and family (Jennifer, Christy, Sarah), stayed in NY as I coached in Charlotte. We did this to make sure that God was leading our family to Charlotte. That season we traveled non-stop as a family so we could be together as much as possible; even though, it was a very hard time for all of us. After that season we decided that God was indeed leading us to get involved full-time with the Charlotte Eagles, consequently we moved to Charlotte. The 2013 season will be my 17th season as head coach. The main thing that drew me to the Eagles and keeps me here is the reputation of the organization. Our main focus is to share the love of God and help all those who are in need. We do a large amount of charity work here in the inner-city of Charlotte, investing in the lives of many refugee children. We’ve formed 6 teams in the inner city and call them the Urban Eagles (see videos below for more details). We teach them soccer, academics, and tell them of the Good News of Jesus; we just love on those kids.
Soccer is also a visa to the world; consequently we’ve had our teams (we have a women’s team as well) travel to over 30 countries. Our most recent trip was to Jamaica (see video below) where we built relationships with over 150 children in a delinquent center. Next year we are going to Thailand and Vietnam in January. The staff and players feel so very humbled and blessed when we are able to impact the lives of others in a small way.
SLI: What are some of the most difficult challenges that you face coaching the Eagles and what do you do to overcome them?
MS: The most difficult one is our financial limitations. We are the only professional sports franchise in the United States without an owner. Therefore we have to raise every dollar we pay our players. We do this through ticket sales, sponsorships, donations, camps, etc. I really don’t know how we keep surviving. We have 25 full-time staff and the over-head of an office, among all the other team expenses. This is definitely a God thing!
We overcome this obstacle by our staff sharing our vision (of helping others) with everyone we come in contact with. God has blessed us having many people step forward to keep this franchise afloat.
Another obstacle is finding the right players to fit into our mission/team. We are looking for excellent soccer players and well as young men with amazing character; men that have a willingness to sacrifice their financial goals for the sake of helping those in need. Our player pool is smaller than most teams but we find that the common purpose of honoring God and loving people is incredibly unifying! So even though we may not be quite as talented as other teams we can be successful on the field because we are fighting together for the same purpose….soccer with a purpose, more than just winning a game.
SLI: What would do you think the U.S. needs to change or improve upon in order to produce more top players?
MS: The U.S. has a lack of creative attacking players. How is that remedied? Street soccer, backward soccer, banging a ball against the wall for hours because you just love it. Some people say that our players are over-coached. I don’t think that’s the issue. I think the issue is our youth players just don’t play enough away from an organized training session. As I travel around the world with the Eagles I see how each country produces different styles of play and individual players bring their own unique flair to the game. One example: in Africa you see 6-8 players (maybe 5-7 years old) on a small dirt area with 1 ball and no goals. How do they play soccer? They usually play keep-away. One player dribbles all over the place and the other 6 try to get it. When you get it, you better not give it away or else you won’t have the ball too much. These kids learn how to shield, dribble, and do many creative moves to keep the ball. As they get older they then play 4 v 4 or whatever the numbers dictate and play keep-away that way. I don’t see street soccer in the US. The kids think 2 or 3 sessions a week is enough….not so. They need to be playing more on their own, than with coaches. I believe one of the problems in this country is there are too many other things to do (video games, instrument lessons, movies, social media, etc, etc).
I don’t have an easy answer. I would just say that parents need to get their children out in the backyard and just play soccer with them. A difficult request in this very busy culture!
SLI: What advice would you give to a young person who is interested in soccer in order for them to develop their abilities as a player?
MS: Watch high level games (pro & college) on TV or in person. You learn good tactics by watching good players move.
· Kick a ball against a wall over and over again. A young player should have a coach demo good technique and then that player should use the wall for hours. That’s how I developed as a player on LI. My mom used to drop me off at Syosset HS and I would go to the big green wall in between the middle school and the High School and kick for 3 or 4 hours before getting picked up. We used to call that wall the “Green Monster.” I would bring a piece of chalk and I draw spots that I would try to hit with a pass or a shot until the chalk wore off. You can do almost everything on a wall by yourself: passing with both feet and all parts of your feet, bending balls, short volleys, long volleys, pass and turn, pass and receive. I did all of the above for hours a day for two summers. Then I went to college a much better player.
· Play in the street, in the gym, in your backyard, with your parents, siblings, or friends. Unorganized soccer is good!
· Have fun doing all of the above.
Here are links to some videos that Mark wanted to share.
Fox Soccer Channel Clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBq9gxjPdGI
Charlotte Eagles Tour to Jamaica: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_q0DX671FE8
Fun Urban Eagles video (your kids will like this): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IdCGKU8JJWA