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Q&A: Force Soccer Club Academy Director Paul Bravo

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 former U.S. Men’s National Team striker Paul Bravo. A San Jose native, Bravo played his college soccer at Santa Clara before playing for a variety of Bay Area professional teams including the inaugural 1996 San Jose Clash. Perhaps best known for his stint at the Colorado Rapids, Bravo is still the Denver club’s second all-time leading goalscorer. Following his playing career, he moved into management before coming back to the area where he now serves as the Academy Director for Force Soccer Club.

NorCal: How did you fall in love with soccer?

Bravo: Oh boy, do you want the long-winded version or the short version? My first experience in soccer was on a playground. It’s funny because the person who kind of introduced me to it was a guy who ended up becoming my teammate — I played against him all through youth soccer — and he ended up becoming my teammate with the Blackhawks and then later on with the Clash and the Colorado Rapids and that was Tim Martin. I was sitting in elementary school and kindergarten and got invited to play a game on the playground and from that point on it was the sport that I fell in love with.

NorCal: That can’t have been super common, nobody was playing soccer on the playground back then. Was it just a chance encounter?

Bravo: I don’t know that it was a chance encounter. From what I remember of the experience it was was kind of something that the class did, they just went out and played in the yard and kicked the ball around and it was, again, those are probably rare moments at that time, but to be fair, that was where it all started and that’s what I remember of it.

NorCal: When did you start taking soccer more seriously and what was youth soccer like for you growing up in Northern California?

Bravo: Youth soccer in Northern California was, as I remember it, getting in cars and driving long distances and playing in tournaments. In my family there were four of us and my mom would take two and my dad would take the other two and they’d go their separate ways on weekends and we’d go and play in tournaments and play in games. In fact, the Ziemer family in general was a part of my youth experience. We used to go up to Sebastopol and go up and play in their tournament and get housed by them and then they would come down to San Jose and play in our tournaments and get housed by us. Those were fun times, they were pure, the game was pure, and our parents coached us, there wasn’t professional coaching at that time. We were blessed and cursed at the same time. But that’s my general experience as a youth soccer player. I think I got serious about the game probably around the U16 age group. This was probably my freshman or sophomore year in high school and my team had won state cup that year for NorCal and we ended up going to regionals. That was really an eye-opening experience because you’re playing some of the best teams from around the West region and trying to compete for a national championship. That was really my first “wow” moment and I wasn’t really picked for ODP, I think it was district teams at times and then you got picked for regional teams and then you got picked for the national team, that was never something that was even on my radar, much less being considered. I was lucky enough to be on that U16 team because my dad was an assistant coach. I was probably outside of the first XI. There were a lot of players who were better than me, but I developed a passion for the game, I stuck with it, and I was willing to do things that maybe other players who were more talented weren’t willing to do — work away from the field, putting the time and effort in into really becoming better at being a soccer player. That was kind of the start of taking the game seriously so by the time I was a senior in high school — I was a late bloomer — my high school team was another great memory for me, playing at Santa Teresa High School here in South San Jose, growing up around guys like Randy Prescott, who was Terry Fischer’s son. He went to Santa Triesta and ended up going onto Fresno State and just being around that and kind of being in awe of all of it, but again sticking with the game, being committed to it, being serious about it. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was the leading scorer in our conference in my team and was picked for the all CCS team and that’s kind of where things took the next step for me and it was thinking about college soccer. Not high level college soccer, but college soccer nonetheless. I wasn’t really recruited because I didn’t have great grades. I was lucky to graduate — I didn’t know if I was going to graduate until the last day of school. My options were limited and I had just made the state B team and I thought I was doing great by going to Hayward State and playing college soccer at a Division II school. I never ended up playing at Hayward State because I got hurt, but that was where I went from a U16 team winning State Cup and not really being a starter to being an all CCS recognized soccer player and then having a door just slightly open for me.

NorCal: So how did you end up at Santa Clara then? Some people say that you helped put them on the map in terms of soccer.

Bravo: I would be remiss if I didn’t connect the time between leaving high school and getting to Santa Clara because there were some road bumps, I would say, along the way. I had gone to Hayward State because the regional team coach was the head coach at the time. He was the coach there, I went there. I thought I was a hotshot recruit but ended up hurting myself in preseason and had to redshirt that year and didn’t really take school seriously. Because I wasn’t playing, I wasn’t really into it — they were training every day, I wasn’t. I was trying to make it in school but I really wasn’t focused on it, it was just a really down time and I ended up playing in the U19 State Cup that year after getting healthy and it was a chance opportunity for me — my team didn’t do well, we had put this super team together and it fell flat, we didn’t win, I think we ended up losing in the semifinal but low and behold I was being watched by Foothill Junior College. When I decided to withdraw from Hayward State, I had a high school teammate by the name of Yuri Simpson who had gone to Foothill, they won a State championship that year and he recommended that I take a look at the school and so there was a great opportunity that presented itself. Without being injured and without going through a little bit of a dip and then realizing that I had to get my stuff together if I really wanted to continue down this road.

NorCal: So what was it like at Foothill?

Bravo: Going to Foothill was probably one of the single most decisions that I’ve made in my playing career. That’s where Jeff Baicher and I first kind of (became friends). We’d known each other, played against each other, but that’s where we really started to develop our friendship and our relationship on the field. That first year at Foothill was probably the most demanding and tough thing that I’d ever experienced and I was probably the sixth-best player on the team. The thing about Foothill was that they had always had foreign players and the year before we got there, they won a State championship with two Nigerian youth internationals and they ended up going to Fresno State the year after. So Foothill had a rich history, if you go back in time, of developing players for, not only the college game, but for the pro game as well. It was a great experience for me that first year. I remember plenty of times being in tears because the coach had just ridden us hard, but it was probably the best thing for me and my career and for Jeff as well, I think he would agree to that. We spent two years at Foothill, we lost in the State final my first year and then we won the State final, I believe it was against Santa Rosa Junior College and Andrew Ziemer. Foothill helped elevate myself and Jeff. So going from high school and only having Hayward State knocking at the door or only having that opportunity to spend two years at a JC, getting your grades right, getting your situation sorted out, both on the field and off the field, gave me those opportunities. Being at Foothill was another great springboard for me and my career and it helped prepare me and actually made going to Santa Clara a little bit easier.

NorCal: What about when you arrived at Santa Clara?

Bravo: When I went in there in my junior year, Santa Clara hadn’t really been in the playoffs in quite some time even though in the year before they were bitterly disappointed not to have made the playoffs. I showed up on campus with a little bit of a hotshot attitude and kind of walked right in and found success pretty quickly. That success in the first quarter elevated us to national prominence. We ended up going undefeated through the regular season, beating the likes of Duke, NC State, we had a great result against UCLA away with the Cobi Jones of the world and the Brad Friedels of the world. I ended up leading the team in scoring that year and so we’re the No. 1 ranked team in the country along with No. 2 at the time was Virginia. Heading into the playoffs, we were still a bit of an unknown even though we were undefeated and No. 1 in the country. The work that we had put in through the year and then for me personally over the previous two years helped prepare me for that wild ride, which was I think we ended up beating Fresno State in what was the second round out the time, played UCLA in a driving rainstorm in the regional final, beat them 1-0, and then went to the Final Four and played the defending national champion Indiana. We were down 2-0 15 minutes into the game and within a 10 minute period, five minutes right before halftime and five minutes right after halftime, we were winning 4-2. For me personally it was a great experience because I scored two of the goals and now we’re playing for a national championship. I don’t know that it’s all on us or myself and Jeff that we took the team to national prominence, but there were certainly a lot of prominent players, Tim Rast, Matt Rast, Eric Yamamoto, myself, and Jeff, and Paul Holocher, and then we just had a great group of teammates that made the experience all the more special, and I’ll tell you that that 89 team, we still sit on a group text and we still reminisce about the old times. It was a really special time for us, but that’s where, again, when I look back on my career at U16, okay, conquering the NorCal State Cup championship and elevating myself as a senior in high school to a junior college, helping my junior college win state championships, to now the national spotlight where, it was kind of overwhelming, right? We ended up tying for the national championship because at the time they didn’t have penalty kicks, but it was pretty much a whirlwind for four or five years, where things just kept falling into place and stacking on each other and I think a lot of it had to do with the amount of work that was put in.

NorCal: You got out of college during a strange time where there wasn’t really a top division professional soccer league in the United States. What were your career prospects even like at that point?

Bravo: I studied political science, I thought about going to law school. We didn’t really have a 12 month league at the time, this was 1990, it was just the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks. If you weren’t going to make the Blackhawks, which was a six month season, then you probably had to get into the real world. But we were scratching it together. I tell people all the time: it goes unnoticed that a lot of us, the majority of us, anybody who wasn’t in the national team, the guys that I looked up to going through my youth career into college and now looking at the prospects of pro soccer, guys like John Doyle and Dominic Kinnear, guys who came out of this area with the reputation as being part of the national team. I had never been part of the national team in any way, shape, or form, other than my senior year in college I got called into the B national team and thought, “wow, this is great, this is kind of the pinnacle of things for me because I don’t know if I’ll ever be a professional soccer player.” My first pro soccer experience was with the Blackhawks. I spent six months a year coaching at Los Gatos United and then the other six months I spent playing for the Blackhawks. My first year playing for Laurie Calloway was a pretty special one, again I was kind of a little bit of an unknown. In high school and college I was a forward, I was counted on to score goals, that was my background. But I dipped into the pro game and I had Townsend Kim, who was a Chinese international, Eric Wynalda, who was a US international…I wasn’t breaking into that group anytime soon. So my coach decided to try me as a defensive midfielder. So here I am playing in my first professional team right out of college, not even playing my position and really not knowing where it was going. The A League was on shaky ground. There were maybe 12 teams across the country and in previous years some teams were dropping out and new ones were popping up so it wasn’t really a stable environment and I really didn’t take it like it was the big time. Yes it was the highest league in the US, but to be fair, it wasn’t 12 month contracts, we weren’t making a lot of money, we were scratching it all together. You were either coaching half of the time and playing professionally and playing for the Blackhawks or you were playing for the Blackhawks and playing indoor and I had no desire to play indoor. But at that time, that’s just what it was. You had to love the game and be passionate about the game to continue. You were looking at a dead end. There was no MLS. We had just gotten the 94 World Cup and guys were excited about that but we didn’t have a true professional league and all the top players were scattered around Europe. That first year was an eye opening experience but a great one. I thought I was living the dream, playing in Spartan Stadium where I grew up watching the Earthquakes. I broke into the team as a starter my rookie year, playing alongside John Doyle, alongside Dominic, and Troy Dayak. I think that team also included Mark Doherty, Eric Wynalda, Danny Pena, Marcelo Balboa, Jeff Baicher. It was a who’s who, and I wasn’t a guy with a name, everybody was looking at me like I got lucky, like I wasn’t that good growing up. Low and behold we ran through the league and won an APSL championship. So I went from winning the U16 state cup to winning a national championship with Santa Clara, to winning an APSL title with the San Francisco Blackhawks. It was going well up to the point 20 minutes into the final where I tore my ACL. It was heartbreaking because Bora Milutinovic was the coach and he came into the locker room to call me into the national team and I told him that I tore my ACL. This was 1991 and they were about to announce a residency for the national team program and with the Blackhawks I was starting to get national notoriety and get noticed by the most important person in US Soccer at the time, which was Bora. Kind of a humble beginning to holy cow, how am I here?

NorCal: So what happened when you tore your ACL?

Bravo: I came back too quick, four months later and tore my ACL again, around six months in playing against a team from Miami. I remember that tackle, I remember that it was at night, and I remember the person’s name, but he came right through my brace and I tore my ACL and my MCL along with ripping up my cartilage not more than six months after having surgery for the first time. I spent the next nine months out of commission and it ended up being more like an 18 month process. I didn’t have any opportunities to play in the national team leading up to the 94 world cup even though I was on the outside looking in. It was disappointing. It was about 93 maybe around 94 where I didn’t know if I wanted to continue playing because my dream was over so to speak. I was actually interviewing for corporate jobs trying to start at the bottom of the ladder and for some reason I decided not to take a job that was offered to me and instead started to try to scratch my way back. I played with a team called the Greek Americans and so when the 94 World Cup started to creep closer I had to watch it from the stands. Brazil were based in Los Gatos and training out of Santa Clara. Fortunately for me they needed extra players to come out and train with them and also play in intersquad games. Laurie gave me the opportunity…they needed good players and all the best players were playing with the national team. I was fortunate enough to train with those guys for a regular basis. That lifted my spirits and gave me the itch again, played in those intersquad games, and started to get my confidence back. I wasn’t wearing a brace anymore and playing for the Greek Americans when I could. We ended up playing against Russia at Cabrillo College. I had some good performances and it gave me some confidence in myself again and there was talk of MLS so I kept grinding and kept the dream alive. I played in the USISL a bit, and then when that league fell apart, all the best players were playing in the Bay Area. There was a run of San Francisco teams winning the Open Cup for three straight years so I was getting competitive matches and playing at a good level and playing against some good players and was just able to bridge the gap between 94 and 96. In 94 I got called into the national team. That’s when I got my first caps and every now and then I’d sit on the bench. Then Bora left and Steve Smpson got called in and Steve was my college coach. In 1995, I got called in for a game against Belgium and with how funky things were at the time, I wasn’t even playing in a professional league, I was playing in an amateur league…he played me in that game and that was just I’m going to stick it out and see how far I could go in this.

NorCal: What was your MLS experience like? Do you know that you’re still the second leading goalscorer in Colorado Rapids history?

Bravo: I actually did because as the Rapids GM, I thought hard about trading Conor Casey before he broke my record [laughs]. I’m very fortunate to have had opportunities that I’ve had and you have to be in the right place at the right time but you also have to have the right mentality to stick it out. I’m very fortunate, my first year with the clash was the memorable one because I got to play in the same stadium I grew up watching games and in front of my friends and family and they ended up trading me for a guy I looked up to in Dominic Kinnear and it was probably one of the best moves of my career to be traded away from my home to be outside of my comfort zone and go someplace else to prove myself again. I’m fortunate because I got to play in the first game in MLS history, I played in the first Allstar game in MLS history, played in three Allstar games, was a leading scorer for two different teams, and then parlayed that into being an assistant coach and then an executive. I’ve been able to scratch out a career…soccer has been my life. I started from a humble beginning.

NorCal: You’re now back where it all started: the youth game in the Bay Area. What’s your life like now?

Bravo: Moving back from Colorado to California after 2016, I always thought that I’d end up back in the youth game at some point. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve coached in the pro game, the college game at UCLA, and been a part of youth soccer, launching the LA Galaxy academy, rebuilding the Colorado Rapids youth academy. I always felt in my older years that being a part of the youth game in the community I grew up in was always kind of something that I really wanted to do. Jeff’s been running De Anza for 25 years and Eric Yamomoto was the best man at my wedding and coaches at De Anza so being able to come back and help those guys. I’m now the academy director for De Anza, boys and girls, and I take my job very serious and I’m delighted to be back giving back to the community I grew up in.

NorCal: Anything else you’d like to add?

Bravo: My story is not dissimilar from a lot of what youth players now are going through. That is, “hey if you put your mind to it, yeah there’s going to be some bumps in the road but if you put your mind to it you have the ability to accomplish anything in the game and use that as a way to better yourself, not only in the game, but outside of the game.” The real message from me is that soccer is a winding road and the thing that we always talk about here at De Anza, and sometimes our parents don’t always believe this, but development is not always linear, there are so many peaks and valleys along the way but if you work hard if you stay committed and you stay focused, these are the types of characteristics that we want to instill in each one of our players that will help them on the field but off the field as well so I used my story, when people want to listen to it, as an example. I don’t like to talk much about my experience but I use that experience in a way to hopefully show our young players that it doesn’t matter where you are right now, you have to continue to work hard, you have to continue to stay focused, if you can ride the peaks and valleys, good things will eventually happen to you.