Q&A: SOCAL Director of Special Programming Cris Gilmore
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 SOCAL Director of Special Programming Cris Gilmore. A native of Southern California, Gilmore played college soccer at Ohio Wesleyan University before suiting up for multiple USISL teams and eventually moving on to play professionally in both Finland and the Netherlands. While in the Netherlands, Gilmore began coaching before moving to Northern California where he moved into the college game with Cal, Saint Mary’s, and San Jose State. While in NorCal, Gilmore also coached at what is now Alpine Strikers as well as in the San Jose Earthquakes Youth Academy. Most recently, he served Mustang Soccer Club’s Fitness and Conditioning coach and worked in NorCal’s Player Development Program where he helped the PDP boys win their first-ever international trophy at the 2018 Gothia Cup. Gilmore holds a USSF “A” License.
NorCal: How did you fall in love with soccer?
Gilmore: I was fortunate enough to come across a really great coach, a really great person, his name is Cherif Zein. Cherif created many opportunities for young soccer players with club soccer, summer camps and international travel. He took me to Costa Rica, France, Spain and I was fortunate enough to see the soccer world through his eyes. That’s how I fell in love with soccer. I think it’s integral to have somebody like him – that’s what our job is, to instill the love of the game in the kids we come across and he did that for me.
NorCal: What was the youth landscape like when you were growing up as compared to now?
Gilmore: When you hit U14, you went from U13 to U18. You just played up. The youth landscape was that. I played for Pasadena FC back in the day and when I entered high school, I was the only one who played soccer year round. Soccer wasn’t a very popular sport, more kids played American football, baseball and basketball. Soccer wasn’t on television like it is today, it wasn’t appreciated like today in our culture. That was always my driving factor, to try to help make soccer more popular and try to excite more individuals about the game. To do that I had to learn how to play the game better.
NorCal: How does a California kid end up at Ohio Wesleyan University to play soccer?
Gilmore: Both of my parents went to Northwestern, so they went to college in the Midwest. My mom is from the East Coast and my dad is from the Midwest but I grew up in Los Angeles. I felt like I wanted to leave and try something new. I also wanted to play soccer at a top soccer program in the country. I didn’t want to get lost in the mix of a giant school, I felt like I wanted to be at a small school. I had some schools in the Midwest recruiting me and one of them was Ohio Wesleyan University. OWU was one of the winningest programs in the 80s out of all NCAA divisions and that interested me too! I’ve always thought in life that I can go try something out and if it doesn’t work out, I can always go back. I’ve always tried to learn new things from people and this was one place where that happened. I had a great coaching staff led by Jay Martin, he’s a legend. Jay is the winningest coach in NCAA history, with such an incredible program. He’s also the editor for the United Soccer Coaches magazine. We were in three national championships and it was an amazing experience.
NorCal: After you graduated, you ended up playing in the Netherlands at a time where Americans really weren’t going abroad to play. How did you end up there and what was your experience like?
Gilmore: Post college, I moved to Hawaii and landed an advertising job and during that time I was also playing for the pro team, Hawaii Tsunami. When I was playing for Hawaii, it was pre-MLS, the year before it started. It was a fun time, some of my teammates were coming off of playing in the World Cup in 1994. We had teammates from the Cameroon, Mexican, and US national teams, a bomb squad of a team. At the end of the season, everybody was going to their next team around the world and they all had contracts or trials elsewhere. That is what stimulated me to pursue my own dreams of playing abroad and furthering my soccer career. At that point, I felt like I wasn’t learning enough or growing enough as a player and if I wanted to do that, I felt I had to move to Europe. I returned to Southern California, found an agent and started to play with a third division semi-pro team, the San Fernando Valley Eagles. Then an opportunity came up with a trial in Denmark just outside of Copenhagen. I didn’t get a contract but my agent had another opportunity for me up at TPS Turku in Finland. I jumped on a train, then jumped on a boat and the next thing I knew, they signed me. It was top level, six days a week, two sessions a day, it was great. When the season ended, the coach got fired, they brought in a German coach who didn’t sign me so I was free to go. Not ready to return to the states yet I parlayed my next opportunity to the Netherlands. I contacted Andrew Ziemer who set me up with a trial at ADO Den Haag. Being a foreigner they couldn’t sign me, but they did set me up with a third division team. This is what started my educational pathway. It was a very high level, highlights on TV, radio and newspapers every week. You could follow my team, for an entire 10 month season. During my first season I learned about the world-renowned coaching schools of the KNVB and a course was coming to Den Haag (The Hague), but it was very challenging to be accepted into it. Forty coaches tried out and five were selected for the course. Prior to being one of the five selected, the instructors told me that I needed to work hard because the course would all be in Dutch and asked me why I was here. I said, “I came here because I’m not learning enough in America, I feel like I need to be here to learn more about how to play the game the right way so that I can go back and coach and teach the game the right way.” I think they really liked that, that I was there to learn and improve, but also take it back. After an intensive six month course, where I received high marks and learned Dutch – I spent six hours a day translating my notes and my books, trying to learn their methodology, their “why” of how to train teams the right way. Because I received good marks and had played professionally, they invited me to go to the next level course in the fall, which was a yearlong course that required me to intern with a third division club and because I was a pro, they put me in the pro course. At that point, I had clubs soliciting me to play third division soccer, play with their first team, and coach their youth teams. I was able to jump in and apply what I had learned in my courses, and practice what I learned. It was like my graduate school for coaching.
NorCal: How did you end up back in the US?
Gilmore: Well, after four years of playing and educating myself and meeting my future wife, I felt it was time to come back. Being a California native herself, she was also playing in the Netherlands for NEC Nijmegen and heading back hoping to play in the WUSA. She was drafted by the San Jose CyberRays and we relocated to San Jose where I was hired to coach at San Jose State. During these early years I also reconnected with (NorCal President) Benjamin Ziemer and started to build my network and experiences in NorCal. Coming back into the soccer culture here I was able to understand the US Soccer landscape better and see it from a new perspective having learned from the Dutch Federation. I gained valuable experience working in a small club by influencing the community and helping to change the soccer environment. That’s also when I started to understand the frustration of what Cal North was doing and how their model was more recreation-based. Ben, the NorCal leaders, and a small number of club directors like myself helped NorCal Premier and US Club Soccer to create a better environment with a league designed for better player development and coaching education.
NorCal: What from your playing experience do you feel like you were able to bring back to teach in Northern California?
Gilmore: I think it helped me look at the game from a more holistic approach – how do we help kids fall further in love with the sport? There are so many components that play a role in that question. What kind of training environment are we providing? Are they receiving the quality repetition needed to develop properly? What habits are they learning? Are they signing up for soccer again the next year? Not only are they signing up but are they learning, are they improving, are they learning life lessons that will become part of them for the rest of their lives. Are the coaches being good role models? Is the structure set up so the players are also giving back to the community? Are they placed in alternate learning pathways than what is only in their club? To fully develop as a player you must be exposed to multiple competitive environments. Playing overseas made me see there is a lot more to the game than just playing. There are so many moving components that helps a player succeed and grow.
NorCal: And what did you try to bring back from coaching and living in the Netherlands?
Gilmore: My hope was to return and influence as many people as I could. I wanted share the insight that I learned and collaborate with as many people as possible. Living in the Netherlands inspired me and I wanted to replicate their methodology in Northern California. That was at the forefront of what I was doing at my small club and the discussion I was having with Benjamin and others who started NorCal. We wanted to create an alternative fair way for players to be identified and challenged at higher levels that didn’t cost money to the players. It wasn’t a true process to identify the best players to represent our region if there was a monetary cost to be selected. We kept thinking about how we could create a plan that represents something similar to what we’re learning and seeing abroad within our own environment and that is where PDP was born. I’m very proud of the work accomplished in our PDP program and the players who have participated in it have greatly benefitted from it. This model and hard work has also helped us quickly create a successful PDP program in SoCal.
NorCal: What are you hoping to accomplish in your new role down at SOCAL?
Gilmore: As the director of special programming I am hoping to have a positive influence on soccer in Southern California. My goal is to implement the successful PDP program, as well as, setting up regional training and coaching education centers. I hope to provide multiple education opportunities for coaches and hope to have the most licensed coaches in the country from our region. I have put myself in as many situations as possible to be influenced by as many people as possible. I’ve coached Division I soccer, run a small club, a large club, worked on grassroots programs, created junior academies, created injury prevention curriculum, created year round programs for recreation players, and travel abroad experiences. I worked in the DA, MLS, ECNL, been a US Scout and US Instructor. I’ve also worked for NorCal Premier as and adult league director. I put myself in many different situations that influence the game and all of those experiences helped prepare me for this role I’m in today. SoCal is the largest region in the country and I hope to work with the many talented coaches here to collaborate and work together to evolve the game. Did you know 100 players that played in the 2018 World Cup were born and raised in France, 50 of them from the Paris region? A lot their success came from years of collaboration and working together and recognizing that there’s a bigger picture than just your club or your team. I want to spread that message around and bring coaches from many clubs together to work alongside and learn from each other.
NorCal: Anything else you’d like to add?
Gilmore: I’m excited for the opportunity to help guide the development in Southern California with SoCal. I really want to see this region succeed. We’ll keep improving each year, making it better, and continue to collaborate with NorCal. If we all have a growth mindset and are willing to reflect, then we can do great things. NorCal provided me so many experiences and learning moments and I look forward to the opportunities of spreading these ideas further. My suggestion is for coaches and players to continue to challenge themselves by going abroad to learn, gain insight, and see how different clubs and countries play soccer. Seek ways to support and learn from others in different environments. Dwell on the positives and how to make things better. Continue to ask how are you contributing to improving yourself and your community.