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Q&A: Houston Dash Assistant Coach Twila Kaufman

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 Houston Dash assistant coach Twila Kaufman. After a stellar playing career at the University of Arizona, Kaufman moved into coaching, leading the programs at both Pepperdine and UC Davis while also working with the U.S. Youth National Teams. Kaufman is currently in her second season on the Dash’s coaching staff and is coming off a winning performance at the NWSL Challenge Cup where her side defeated the Chicago Red Stars 2-0 in the final.

NorCal: You were involved with the college game for a long time, but recently switched over to coaching in the NWSL. What has that transition been like for you?

Kaufman: It’s been really awesome. Both platforms are a gift if you get the opportunity — there are good things about both of them. I enjoyed being in the college game, but I’m really enjoying being part of the NWSL and continuing to work with our national teams as well. For me the biggest difference is the level of players and tactics that are actually happening. On a personal level, it’s just so much more enjoyable for me to be able to give my attention to just football as opposed to doing the football and also all the administration. I enjoy that.

NorCal: The NWSL has been around for a couple of years now, what are we doing differently this time around that’s making it a successful league for women’s pro soccer in the United States?

Kaufman: My caveat to the statement I’m about to make is that we’re about to have expansion and expansion is good, but we really don’t have that many more teams than have existed in the previous leagues. That will change in the coming years as we have teams beginning to join the league, but I think the big thing is just the professionalism of the league. A lot of that comes down to the finances. The league minimums are significantly higher, the league maximum is significantly higher, coaching salaries are completely different than they have been in the past, and the amount of staff in the front office and the technical staff is growing. It might actually not look like it’s grown that much if you compare the amount of teams, but I certainly think that if you compare the parity across all the teams and the investment in the actual players and staff, I think there’s been a huge investment there. Now there’s a better base for each team and as we go into expansion, those teams have to be able to match or push the envelope on those things and that creates a better environment for it.

NorCal: At the same time, we’re seeing the women’s game grow in other parts of the world with several top European men’s teams putting more money into their women’s program. With the viability of European leagues, is that helpful or harmful to the NWSL?

Kaufman: I think it creates competition and we’ll see how it impacts the NWSL, but I tend to think that that’s what

Kaufman (right) with De Anza Force alum Brianna Visalli

Americans thrive on, the more demand there is, we’ll meet that, and the more competition there is, we’ll compete. Just from a cultural perspective, I think that can only be a positive for the American game and the NWSL. Also there’s a lot of, what I think is misinformation out there, but we’ll see over time, in how much money is being invested in other countries and other teams outside of four or five teams, a list that might be growing to six. Does more investment just mean the type of investment that has already existed here, or is it surpassing what we’re doing here? Obviously everybody knows about the deal that Sam Kerr made leaving Chicago and heading to Chelsea recently, but we’re talking about one of the best strikers in the world and one team that has paid the bill for that. How many women’s teams actually fit that category? Do players want to live in Europe for a time, or if they’re American, do they want to stay here? How many of those types of opportunities are really out there? I think this is a time where both markets are trying to test the water and see where their sweet spot is that can sustain and attract players. The more competition we have on both sides, the better it will be.

NorCal: One of the huge things our Women’s Committee is trying to do is getting more female coaches involved in the game and get the correct licenses and training. How do we get more good, female soccer minds in the game when their careers end?

Kaufman: It’s important that women who are in leadership positions do their best to create a platform and opportunities for the women that they encounter and beyond that. What that would look like for me is women that I’ve been in contact with in the past and have sought my mentorship, making sure that when I can, time wise, I can make that commitment. I have always mentored three-to-four people regularly because they’ve asked. Here in Houston, we have two or three of our players going through their C License and also coaching. The NWSL has a paid course for its pros so they’re actively trying to get women to stay in the game and think about coaching when they’re done. I’m mentoring a few of our current players when I’m doing the scout, showing them what I’m doing, just little things like that. I think it’s also just continuing to champion other women who are already having success. But we also need to champion women that have passed some of the glass ceilings and make sure that they stay there and make sure that we’re continuing to network and have male allies so that we can continue to grow ourselves and continue to be in the position to help other women.

NorCal: Regarding giving young women opportunities, you did that several times on some of your college coaching staffs, like when you brought in former Stanford and Florida State player Katie Riley Addison on your staff.

Kaufman: She’s a great example because I actually received some public criticism for hiring a young, female coach without college experience, into that role. It was the same thing when I hired Rachel Collins, who is now working at Alabama and going to be an excellent, excellent coach. We have to give women a chance and we have to teach them and coach them and have to be open to that.

NorCal: Moving onto stuff that happened more recently, what was it like being involved in the NWSL Challenge Cup?

Kaufman: From a personal standpoint, it wasn’t like a season so that was different and it wasn’t quite like a tournament or anything that I’ve done with national teams or anything like that because it was a little bit longer and then it was different than all soccer events that I’ve been a part of because of the isolation, because of COVID. It was really rewarding, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t hard, being a in a high-performance environment for a month in isolation with just your team is, even if you love your team, which we do. I think it ultimately ended up being one of the things that pushed us forward was that we did all get along and we did enjoy our time together very well, but it was hard. It was a unique environment, I don’t know that there will ever be an environment like that again because even if they continue with the Cup, hopefully it won’t be under COVID contiditions. So just learning to really enjoy the moment and how to separate from emotions when you’re not, both for coaches and players, was really important. So was having a routine every day as a team and also for me individually was vital. It was also just really fun to be winning. I’ve always kind of been a part of teams that people didn’t think they could and then we’ve always gotten better over time. This was awesome because it was accelerated learning for a team and also accelerated success, but not a whole lot different than the pathway I’ve taken with other teams. Just to be winning at a time when so many people in the country, and especially here in Houston, are struggling with COVID and finances and the emotional toll that that takes, was great. For us to get the opportunity to play and be playing so well and enjoy it together was truly unique and a fun experience.

NorCal: Even though you were in Utah, did you feel the support of the Houston community? Were people back home watching and sending you messages?

Kaufman: Yeah! One day we got out of the elevator and we had a private floor on the first floor of the hotel that we stayed at and our floor was just covered in messages from just people within the Forever Orange organization — Forever Orange is the umbrella organization for the Dynamo and the Dash — so we had messages from a bunch of Dynamo players, the Dynamo staff, just people within the organization writing personal notes all over the hall. That to me was really inspiring. And then to see our fans, we didn’t engage as much with social media, but in the stadium they had maybe 12 fans on the screen at the stadium at all times. To look up there one day and see (former Dash goalkeeper) Bianca Henninger, who is from Northern California, on the screen cheering us on, that just made me emotional because you’ve been so deprived of contact with people who you know. That was really cool and then when we got back we actually had a socially distanced parade where we were all on stage and then people came in their cars and drove by. I don’t know how long it lasted, I don’t want to exaggerate, but that was one of the most moving things that I’ve experienced, just to see people wanting to celebrate us and then how well they actually knew us. People were getting individualized gifts like the drink they liked or a particular brand of clothing that they liked. People really were following along with us and picking up the little nuances with individual personalities.

NorCal: How has everything else been going for you during this pandemic?

Kaufman: It’s been really tough. All my friends who are college coaches right now, it’s hard on their families and their lives and they have to help young people manage that. For us, players want to play, they want to have success and get games and are trying to figure out if it’s maybe best to go out on loan or to just shut it down. Even if you want to go on vacation, let’s be honest, if you just want to escape, you can’t just get on a plane and go somewhere right now in a healthy way. I really am feeling for everybody and I’m feeling lucky that I got that reprieve of just leaving Houston for a month because it certainly feels different for me coming back, but I get it. My family is in Northern California. My cousins have little ones and they can’t take the kids out  to the park because other people don’t always respect social distancing.

NorCal: In that respect, what’s something that young players can be doing right now to make sure that they don’t lose ground when not everyone is allowed to train and then if they are, it’s not traditionally what we would think of as training?

Kaufman: Just that part about losing ground to everyone else, I know that feeling because we don’t just compete in a vacuum and I don’t want to lose ground to any other coach either, but sometimes less is more. At the end of the day, we’re competing with ourselves and just trying to be the best version of ourselves and that’s what I keep reminding myself right now when you’re getting an email every day to join a coaching education opportunity online. Well, sometimes you just have to put that away and just watch Champions League. I’m going to watch each game four times and wear out the CBS app and just get back to loving the game, studying the game, and having your own views on the game and a lot of young players in this generation are actually doing that. I think we’re starting to come into a generation of doing that, but it’s still something that all Americans should be doing if we want to be the best in the world, to have a better world football literacy. Then of course you want to stay fit and then do all the things that make you feel good for your emotional health. But I would just say go have fun and touch the ball by yourself and re-discover the game and really take the pressure off of trying to compete and keep up with other people. That’s all a fallacy, we don’t know what other people are doing, we don’t even know if it’s beneficial for us. But one thing that we do here or the athletes I work with individually, is we say there’s our part, there’s others’ part, and then there’s the mysterious part. With our part, it’s just waking up every day and asking ourselves what do we need? We have to take the time to ask ourselves what we need for the day and make ourselves a priority. Watching is also important. And then the others’ part is making sure that you’re surrounding yourself with good people, surrounding yourself with information or media or people who can actually do something good for you and help you be better. And then that mysterious part is just kind of the part that we need to let go of. You can’t always control your health, right? You can’t control that COVID is happening right now and those things can work for you or against you. We talked about it at the NWSL Cup, the mysterious part. Our schedule was changed before we got there. We had no control over that but maybe that set something into motion for us. You can’t control when a lightning storm comes in and delays a game out of nowhere. So doing enough for your part and having the right people around you is key so that when that mysterious part comes, you’re equipped and ready to deal with it. And that’s how I view COVID right now, we don’t know that much about it, we can’t control it, some things you just have to let go of. Focusing on what we need and who we allow in our circle are probably the most important things right now.