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Q&A: Former Chinese National Team Player Yang Zhou

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 Asian-American Youth Soccer Academy Executive Director Yang Zhou. A former member of the Chinese National Team who played in the first two FIFA Women’s World Cups, Zhou has been coaching in Northern California for nearly two decades and recently helped form her youth club, which is one of the newest members of NorCal. Currently, she’s helping facilitate her former national team’s tour of Northern California where they will play a series of friendlies in late July and early August.

NorCal: How did you fall in love with soccer?

Zhou: When I was 14 I was running track and field and my coach came back from the national team to our town and started to offer a girls soccer program. My dad took my sister and me to practice with this new team. We started having fun and playing…I just felt soccer was way better than track and field. Just kicking a ball, chasing it around, it’s a better game. Becoming a soccer player totally changed my life and my coach was a really good coach. We worked very hard when I was in middle school, we started practicing every day after school from 3:30 to dark. Sometimes in the summer we’d practice until 8 or 8:30. And as we started practicing more, we got better and we started to play against a boys team that was two years younger than us. The first time we lost 17-0. Every weekend we played against them and after a year we were tying them and sometimes winning against them. It’s very important to see yourself getting better. Playing soccer was just so much fun and I just wanted to be the best. From then on my sister and I were always outside playing with the ball. And we were selected for the national team at the same time and played in the first two World Cups together.

NorCal: Was there much of a local youth soccer scene when you were growing up in China?

Zhou: No. I would say I was the second generation and the first generation was maybe five years older than me. I know that there were some really good older players when I was starting but there weren’t too many girls playing soccer at that time.

NorCal: What was the experience of playing in the first two Women’s World Cups like?

Zhou: I was the youngest for the first one but I was co-captain as well. I was 20-years-old and I was excited but also worried about myself in case I made mistakes. We worked really hard and we really wanted to win the championship. I knew that we were a good team at the time. We came to the US to play and we usually tied them or beat them. Sometimes we lost but we had confidence. We wanted to win the championship, that was our goal. But unfortunately when we played Sweden we lost by one goal. It’s sad but it was a good experience. I was injured before the World Cup, six months before it started. I got injured when we were playing against the men’s team and I tried to slide tackle someone. My knee popped, I injured my meniscus. They gave me the option of either getting surgery or just “dealing with it.” I chose to just deal with it. It was very painful doing a lot of exercises to rehab. At that time there were a lot of risks with surgery — in China, they didn’t have a lot of experience with that type of operation. For example, there were a few people I knew who got surgery and afterwards their knees were really swollen and they couldn’t play anymore. That’s why I decided not to do it, I just had to handle the pain. It was three really painful months and after that I just decided to tape my knee and play. At the time, I was the only person on the team who could play my position. I played defender and worked really well together with another player. When we tried to play against the US…you know Michelle Akers? She’s really fast and big. That other player and I were really good at working together to defend her. So that’s part of why I decided not to have the surgery and the team asked me if I could continue (without it). We really thought we could win that World Cup but sometimes in life things don’t go the way you want them to no matter how hard you work. We played against Sweden in the past and always beat them by four or five. In that game we hit the post, had so many opportunities, we had the ball in their half the whole game but they had one corner and they scored. Life is tricky.

NorCal: How did you end up in Northern California?

Zhou: A friend of mine found a school for me to attend in Northern California. I was 30-years-old and didn’t speak English. I thought it would be fine because I had experience living in Japan for two years while playing soccer. Soccer is the world’s language so I decided to take the opportunity. I came here and, again, life isn’t like what you thought. I didn’t speak English and I only had one friend, who helped me with my homework and everything. My first day of orientation, I was a business major but the supervisor said that I had to go to the English department and I got transferred there and it was so difficult. When you’re older and learning a new language and you don’t have friends…it’s hard. It’s kind of scary so I thought, “Do I want to go home?” The homework was hard and I’d never used a computer before and all of the other students were 10 years younger than me. I was so old compared to them. I would play soccer with them and have fun, I was the best, even with the boys team. I enjoyed playing with the men’s team and they liked to help me with my English. So we helped each other and it wasn’t until maybe two years into it that I finally could understand what the teacher was saying in the classroom. It was so difficult, still, even now, I’m not good with grammar.

NorCal: So then how did you end up working in youth soccer?

Zhou: After two years in college, I played with the school team, and then I started to work with a club team. I went to different teams and clubs so at this point, I’ve been coaching here for over 15 years. I like it.

NorCal: You helped found the Asian-American Youth Soccer Academy. Tell us about your club.

Zhou: I’ve been coaching in NorCal for over 15 years and I haven’t really seen a lot of Chinese-speaking players. I wanted to create something for the Chinese-speaking community so eight or 10 years ago, I tried to organize something where Chinese kids could come out and play for fun. The first time we had a lot of kids but after, they were all busy with a lot of things. Then I got busy, started to coach four teams and didn’t have time – there were only three or four kids coming so I didn’t want to continue. So I just focused on my club team but in 2018 I went back to China for vacation and found out that I had a tumor. I had surgery in China and came back to the US in the Bay Area and was home for six months. After three or four months I decided that I wanted to continue to go out and see if I could get more Chinese kids to play soccer. My background is very strong, I grew up in China and I played for China, so why can’t I get Chinese kids to play soccer? So today no matter how many kids show up, I want to do it. That’s why I started this and my husband told me that he supported it. I told him that I would try but neither of us thought that we’d get a lot of Chinese kids to come out. Originally we found a field in Fremont because there are a lot of Chinese kids there but not so many soccer clubs. We started from there and then we started to let people know through WeChat. There were so many parents in that group so they started getting the message out that we were going to organize a soccer program for the Chinese community. All of a sudden, we had more than 30 kids so I registered them all through Asian-American Youth Soccer Academy. After our first events, people started to talk and a WeChat group from San Jose started messaging me to ask if I could come there if they found a field. We got around 25-30 kids in San Jose and started up in that location. After that we started running events in San Mateo and Palo Alto. Later I figured out that I needed to find a place for the kids to play, like in a league like NorCal. We couldn’t only practice, we needed to play games. The kids going through middle school and high school needed this. I wanted them to feel that soccer is such a great sport to help kids with their social life and leadership skills and become a great person. The practices we’d go through would be so hard but when the kids saw that they were getting better, they’d become motivated. These were the types of lessons that I wanted the kids to learn. So we applied for NorCal and the first time, we didn’t get in because we had multiple locations and were spread out. But the point I really wanted to have kids out is because these kids will do drawing, studying, piano, and other things, but I wanted to have sports be something that could help change their lives. Finally we got into NorCal last year. The first year, we had seven teams and then the second season we got to 17 teams. For this season we’re down to 14 teams because I think a lot of kids have never played soccer before or maybe even don’t know how to run. When the pandemic started, when COVID started, we changed to online practice with Zoom. And that made the kids very good with their individual skills because we practiced Monday-Friday for one hour each, all skills training. Each practice we limited to only 10 players so that I could see through the screen how hard they were practicing and what they needed to work on. But they’d all work so hard. We even have parents who work with me for one hour every week and they like it and for them it’s all free so the parents can come out and be an example for all of the kids and they can be together having fun. After the parents and the kids started coming out, we realized that all of the kids who had been practicing with us over Zoom had really good ball control skills. For the kids, they’re already far behind so that’s why we went from 17 to 14 teams because the older players went to other clubs because they want to play better soccer and for us a lot of players come out just to form teams and some are really good while some have just started. The level of the game isn’t always very good and we’ve lost a lot of games like 10 or 14 or 15 to zero and some of the players lose their confidence and move to another club to see what it’s like. I’m okay with this as long as they continue to play. I do talk with all of the coaches from the other clubs and NorCal, I’m not trying to steal players from other clubs, I want to build my own and then if we create some good players who are willing to go outside of our club to try to play there, I’d love to see that. I want them to continue, this is my goal. I don’t want them to stay at home playing computer games. Some of our kids, they play three games a weekend because for our younger teams we have seven teams that play locally and then we have the best of the best players play Gold level. Some kids are really good and then some teams we have a really small number of players. Sometimes we have to have guest players come out to help. We have some kids who play three games in a day, in one day. Maybe they’ll play 10 minutes in each half and they don’t go home and then ask to keep playing. I know that other coaches don’t mind because we’re a young club. We only care about the kids coming out and playing. It’s just so great when you see everyone have a great opportunity to play. I’m just hoping to get the kids more game opportunities so they fall in love with the sport more. The other challenge is getting the parents to trust that we are able to bring a lot of benefits to the kids. Sometimes it takes kids a little while, maybe four or five sessions to really get into it, but it’s better than if they’re just playing on their computer. The parents also agree with this, especially after COVID.

NorCal: So you’re going to bring the Chinese National Team over to California soon. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Zhou: Most of my former teammates in China, some of them are retired, but some have continued to work in soccer. They’re either coaching a team or work in administration or in a local organization. After I went back to China in 2018, I went to a women’s tournament for people like myself who were over 45-years-old. There I saw some of my old teammates and was very happy to reunite with them. After I came back to the US I started to get the idea to bring my older teammates out here to have fun to play with the community. I also helped with the Chinese National Team in the past so I thought about how to get the money to bring them over. So when I was starting my club and had actual money, I would invite them to come. I expressed my ideas to one of my best friends, who was on the adult team I was on before. He was the manager of that adult team, a really good team. He said, “let’s do it! We would love to see all of the players here and have a scrimmage with them.” I thought we might not have the money because of the flights and hotel costs. So we tried to find the money and found a big company to support us and brought 20 players here and a few administrators and coaches, so we brought over a total of 26 players. We hosted them in a hotel, we had games and they stayed here for 10 days and then they went to LA for a few days. When they were here, they helped run a training with about 70 of our kids. They had a really good time here and everyone loved them. This was in 2019 towards the end of the year and it was very successful. For this year I had a friend in China who contacted me and asked for me to help find teams for the National Team to play against. I agreed to try and started contacting professional teams, but many told me that they were too busy in August – some teams were playing five games and couldn’t fit in any extra games. So I even asked about scrimmages because the Chinese players would be coming from such a long way away just to play a higher level of competition. So I decided to try and find a team at the university level. I contacted Stanford, I contacted Berkeley and some others and we arranged a couple of scrimmages. Then they asked me if I could find some WPSL level teams so I talked to Sissi about this and she introduced me to (California Storm head coach) Jamie Howard Levoy and I also have known the manager of the San Francisco Nighthawks for years. So we’ll actually stay in Davis and get the field there for practice. Jamie then agreed to organize a WPSL All Star game against us and we’ll also play the Storm one day and the Nighthawks another day. I also hope that we can play against a U15 or U17 boys PDP team or maybe the San Jose Earthquakes. So after all the networking and communications with people we now had a list of games to play so the Chinese National Team agreed to come because we had those games. So with the games scheduled, they asked me to start to arrange for hotels. So I drove to Davis a couple of times to see the hotels. It will be really good, not only for the Chinese community, but for the clubs around here. I think this could really help the community and get people interested in playing, which is why I’m working so hard to get the hotels and fields sorted out.