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Q&A: Force Soccer Club Director of Soccer Jeff Baicher

Note: NorCal Premier Soccer regularly sits down with an influential figure in the youth soccer landscape to pick their brain about a variety of different topics that are relevant in the current soccer environment in the United States. For this edition we spoke with Force Soccer Club Director of Soccer Jeff Baicher. Capped twice by the national team, Baicher was part of the University of Santa Clara’s only men’s NCAA title in 1989. From there, the forward played in a variety of domestic leagues before suiting up for the inaugural MLS season with the San Jose Clash. Following his playing career, Baicher joined fellow Santa Clara and San Jose teammate Paul Bravo in coaching at Force.

NorCal: How did you fall in love with soccer?

Baicher: I had two older brothers and so I really didn’t have a choice, they all played soccer. Our whole street was full of siblings playing soccer every day in the street. That’s pretty much how we all grew up, pushing each other without ever really knowing what it meant. I was playing against players who were five or six years older with no rules, just free play.

NorCal: Were you playing club as well?

Baicher: Yeah, when I got a little bit older. I started playing when I was three or four with just the neighbors, but then around nine or 10 I started playing club. Back in that time, club was nothing compared to what it is now. We were coached by parents. There wasn’t the expectation from parents for professionalism like you see now, but it was a good experience. I fell in love with the game.

NorCal: When did you decide that this was something that you actually wanted to pursue? And how did someone who grew up when you did pursue soccer when there weren’t that many opportunities?

Baicher: I don’t think it was until I got into high school, until I saw where I fit in the hierarchy of players. I think when you get into high school and you’re a freshman and you see kids who are four years older than you, you can kind of start to see if you’re better than some of these kids or if you’re behind. It was at that point that I realized that I might be able to play in college.

NorCal: How was playing at Foothill College right out of high school?

Baicher: My coach at Homestead High School was Jerry Smith, who would later coach at Santa Clara, but at the time was also at Foothill. Steve Sampson was also at Foothill and the head coach was a guy named George Avakian, so there was an interesting thing going on there. My senior year, I was highly recruited to go to school, to a four year college. At that point, I was one of the smallest kids on the high school team and my club team even though I was pretty talented. We were playing St. Francis one day and I had five or six big colleges there, including Sigi Schmid from UCLA. But Steve Sampson was also there and I ended up having a pretty good game. As I’m walking off the field, all the coaches were telling me they wanted me. It was a time in my career where I was undersized, a good player, but undersized. My ability to stay connected in terms of what was required educationally at a four year school would have been difficult — I wasn’t necessarily the best student. I focused most of my efforts on playing. The other piece of it was the NCAA restrictions on training and playing. So the combination of my size and also the education demands and then the fact that the NCAA restricts a lot about how much you can train, when you can train, how many games you can play (led me to choose another path). Between Steve Sampson, Jerry Smith, and George Avakian, they all asked me to go to Foothill and put together a player development program for me and a pathway that included training twice a day, weightlifting, playing in the men’s league in San Francisco, playing in the junior college league, traveling overseas. They put together a program that was far superior than any other program I could imagine and also gave me the flexibility to improve and grow. Ironically my first year out of Foothill, I’m with the national team and I won a national championship at Santa Clara so it was the best experience I could have had. A lot of people tell me that they can’t believe I didn’t go to a four year school right off the bat, but that wasn’t for me. Going to Foothill created a pathway and an environment that a four year school could not for me. I think that’s a really important message that we talk to our kids at Force, that one size doesn’t fit all.

NorCal: When you graduated, there wasn’t really much going on in terms of professional soccer in the United States. It was that weird window of time between the demise of the NASL and the rise of MLS. Did you ever think that you were going to play professional soccer after college?

Baicher: I was with the national team in Sheffield, England during my entire senior year of college, which was a real challenge in dealing with the academics at Santa Clara. Manchester United reached out to me to come on trial when I was done with school so I left school as soon as the season was over and without graduating went to England. I spent some time over there and that was kind of the beginning of the thought that I could make a career out of soccer. I had played in the APSL with the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks my junior and senior years of college. Between those two experiences, I realized that I could make a career out of this in some way, though not really knowing my path. Unfortunately I was under contract with the Blackhawks so I spent a year in England, then came home to finish that out. I tore my ACL shortly after that.

NorCal: That’s such a tough injury to come back from and there isn’t really a league to play in here anyway. Were you unsure if you would continue to try to play professionally?

Baicher: I was a little bit unsure because the leagues don’t have any sustainability, but I was playing in a couple of different leagues and coaching club soccer so I was making a living out of soccer. It’s almost like we were just kind of waiting, but we knew that the World Cup was coming in 94. I was hoping to play in that, but that was around 92 or 93 and they announced that there was going to be a pro league after the World Cup from the money they raised. I felt that at that point, I would be there, no problem. I wanted to play in San Jose, Paul Bravo and I wanted to play in San Jose and we were able to make that happen. I had a feeling that I was going to be able to make a living out of soccer for sure.

NorCal: About a year ago, MLS re-broadcast its first game between the San Jose Clash and D.C. United. You played in that game, right?

Baicher: Yes. I actually think we had the most Americans on the field — at one point I think we were the only team to field an all-American lineup, which was kind of cool. That was a good game, a fun game. Looking back, I know I could have done a lot more, but it was good. To play in front of a house that was overflowing into the street was amazing.

NorCal: After playing in the first few seasons in MLS, are you surprised that the league still exists?

Baicher: No, no. With the model they have, it was always going to exist. The single entity model might have some problems with taking care of the players, but it ensured the longevity of the league, no question. I never thought the league would go out of business like the other leagues just because of how it was managed.

NorCal: When did you get into youth coaching? I know you said you were doing that a bit while playing for the Blackhawks.

Baicher: Yeah, a little bit. I played in MLS for six or seven years and then got traded here or traded there. It’s actually funny, at that time there was a player in the league named Roy Wegerle. Roy was a great golfer and had started to get on the Nike Tour. I love golf and when I retired and came back home, I thought about it. Roy’s thing was he spent a year practicing constantly, so I figured that I was a professional soccer player, why couldn’t I be a professional golfer? So I joined a country club here and spent a year just playing golf. I got pretty good, got my handicap down to about an 8, but then realized that it was never going to happen. Golf is just so hard. So then I got my Series 7 license, which is a stockbroker’s license, and started trading stocks. I had my real estate license too, so for a while I was selling real estate and trading stocks just trying to stay busy. Ironically, Eric Yamamoto, the goalkeeper at Santa Clara when I was there and still an assistant there. He called me up and said, “Hey, I have this youth team and I’m just too busy, can you take them?” I said, “No, I don’t do youth soccer.” He had me set up a meeting with a parent anyway and they convinced me to take the team over. So I was getting up at five in the morning and driving to Danville for the opening of the stock market, then driving back and training a team five days a week here. At the end of the year I said I’d make an assessment but by the end of that time, I didn’t have one team, I had six teams. That one team just kept building and building and building and started the Force. Fast forward to now and we’re one of the biggest clubs in the country.

NorCal: What lessons from your playing experience do you try to pass onto your players at Force?

Baicher: That’s a great question. I think when you play at a high level and I think that’s actually the reason the Force club grew so fast, because I hired ex professionals who had a passion for teaching. Their experiences, both as a player and also going through the trials and adversity of life, especially during our time when all the professional leagues were stopping and starting. I mean Paul Bravo is a great example. He went from college to junior college to two ACL tears to one of the best careers in MLS to running the Colorado Rapids. HIs perspective of life and dealing with adversity while playing at the highest level, there’s no one better to mentor kids. I think it’s easy for me as a director, as the boss, to say that I want this holistic development, but ultimately the coaches are the ones who have their hands on the players every day. I think what we’ve done a good job at Force is that instead of saving money, we’re spending a lot of resources on the highest level of coaching so that the players can receive that overall holistic approach for all these things. It’s not just soccer, but life, college recruiting — the number of college coaches I have on staff are perfect for that. The players have to be mentored into how to get into college. We’ve created a unique methodology and it’s ironic now because we have kids in Madrid, Villarreall, Ajax, in MLS. We never expected this because we always expected to push kids towards college — if we had 50 kids get into college every year, that was a success for us. But now kids are skipping college and wanting to get mentored in how to get to Europe like some of us tried.

NorCal: How did Force handle this past year? What was important for you guys to do with your players while everyone was so isolated and dealing with something none of us ever have before?

Baicher: I think our biggest achievement over the last year was paying our coaches 100 percent of their salaries through the entire thing. I hear story after story of kids not being able to train because clubs couldn’t get fields or had to cut salary for their training staff. We have a big staff and the majority of them take care of their families with the income they make at our club. We’re big enough and have enough influence in the soccer realm where we could go get fields, we could create protocols where parents would feel safe sending their players. Our staff worked twice as hard as they normally would. For example, if we had a team of 20 players, in the pandemic, they would need to train in pods of 10 or 12. And if they were used to training four days a week, then the expectation was they would train four days a week, but now our coaches would have to train each group twice. So our coaches were training eight times a week instead of four. That commitment from our staff really proved to be beneficial, not just for us, but for the kids. As soon as we could get on a field, we had protocols set up, we had all the details from the state and the county, so our kids have been training from day one. That really helps. I have four kids myself and just sitting in front of the computer, not having the ability to go outside and train, doing another Zoom soccer practice. I feel so bad for these kids. We spent a ton of money and resources to make sure that we could train them through this pandemic. We’re probably one of the few clubs who actually had an increase of the number of players in the club throughout it. Most clubs went down or struggled. Outside of soccer, I know of a couple of volleyball clubs that didn’t make it because they couldn’t get into the gyms, they just had to close up shop. It was a really tough time, but the staff was amazing. I’m just so happy that it’s now behind us. You can see it with the kids who looked distressed or out of sorts and they now have a different attitude.

NorCal: Anything else you’d like to add?

Baicher: Being local and growing up with a lot of great players, I’m hoping that with the help of the clubs here, who are doing a great job, and a lot of the Southern California clubs who are doing a great job, California as a whole now is starting to have some conversations about how we can better collaborate to better develop players. One of my goals before I end my time as a director is to try to have stronger representation on our national teams. When I was playing, the majority of the players came from California. Now you’re seeing a majority of players come from the East Coast, the Midwest. I think the development and methodologies have been put into place and now we’re seeing more and more kids from California in the national teams. We hope to have a bigger influence on that.