Man with a Plan
Sasho Cirovski not only has a vision and a passion to improve and promote college soccer but the knowledge and the dedication to pursue new ideas.
COACH: You grew up in Vratanica, a small village in Vardar Macedonia before immigrating to Canada at the age of 8. Tell us about your childhood?CIROVSKI: It was a town with only 600 residents. It was, I guess, Third World-ish. We basically had no hot water. There were only a couple of cars in the whole village. You pretty much walked everywhere. I remember there was one television and we would watch an American TV show once every couple of weeks. Life was very simple. We found ourselves playing a lot of soccer and going on a lot of walks. I have a lot of pleasant memories.
My biggest memory was right around my seventh birthday. My father had just begun to journey to places like France and Germany in search of a better life for us, and he sent back an adidas soccer ball with which the entire village played virtually every minute of the daylight hours. The soccer ball busted about 30 days later. So it was both the happiest moment and saddest moment within a month span. I have not been back but I know my children are very anxious to go. As soon as my youngest child gets a little older we will go back.
COACH: During your formative years you became an outstanding all-around athlete in Ontario, Canada. When and how did you develop your love for soccer? What other sports did you play?
CIROVSKI: I fell in love with soccer in Macedonia. But I learned it and really developed a passion and appreciation for it in Canada. I remember playing soccer virtually every day. I don’t remember any day going by when I somehow didn’t touch a soccer ball. But I loved other sports, too. I got introduced to basketball, football, and tennis. I played ice hockey for a few years. We didn’t have Little League; otherwise I would have played that. I was a sports junkie. I played four sports in high school and played them all through all four years. But I always found time for soccer.
There would be times when I would be playing on a high school team, a club team, and a men’s team while I was still playing the other sports. After football and basketball practices were over, I would grab a soccer ball and play. I was at a high school – W. D. Lowe in Windsor, Ontario – that was very good in sports. The school doesn’t exist anymore. We were a power in the province for soccer and basketball. And we were city finalists in football one year. The funny thing is that we didn’t have a soccer field or a football field – just a patch of grass. We had to go across to the park. Sometimes we had to travel five or six miles to find a place to practice.
COACH: After high school you became a standout player at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where you were a four-year letterman and won the Herman Kluge Award for Male Athlete of the Year. What made you choose UWM? How did your college years shape and prepare you for a career in soccer?
CIROVSKI: Two of my high school teammates, when I was a junior, went to Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the coaches noticed me at the city championship. Pretty much at that point they told there would be a scholarship for me if I wanted to go there. After my junior year in high school I wasn’t sure I was going to college at all. I had an opportunity to sign a professional contract with Aberdeen in Scotland. Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United coach, offered me a contract. It was a very tough decision at that point, whether to turn pro or go to college, but neither of my parents had finished past fifth grade in Macedonia so education was a very, very big deal in our family. I quickly passed on the opportunity to play professional soccer to go to college. That really has changed my life.
Everything I have right now was built on the opportunity to get an education and meet some of the friends I made in college. Several of my best friends in life were teammates at UWM. We were not a great soccer team. We went through some tough years. But I feel like that experience catapulted me into a coaching career and a very happy life.
COACH: Upon earning your bachelor’s degree in 1985 – and later your master’s – you spent parts of three seasons as a professional player and coach in the Canadian Soccer League (CSL) and the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL), your introduction to coaching coming in 1987 in the CSL. At what point did you realize that being a coach was in your future? What was it about the game that appealed to you so much?
CIROVSKI: When I was 17 years old, I was playing for the city of Windsor Under-18 travel team, but I was coaching the Under-16 travel team. I didn’t have a license or a car. I had so much love for this game that I recognized I could have as much fun coaching as I did playing. When I was 24 and playing in the inaugural year of the Canadian Soccer League, I was the captain and halfway through the season the coaches were let go and I was asked to take over the team. I took over a team that had a handful of Canadian national team players and a bunch of older experienced professionals. I felt very good about the job that I did and received a lot of encouragement from all of the players and discovered this was my calling.
That’s when I decided to return to Wisconsin-Milwaukee to get my master’s degree in business, really with the idea of helping change the future of soccer in North America. The North American Soccer League folded a week before my senior season at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I remember being very, very upset. Without a place to play, I really studied why the NASL folded. I originally wanted to become the commissioner of the league and find some way to resurrect the league and do it right. But as time passed and I recognized the enormity of that challenge, I fell more in love with coaching and thought I could have a greater influence in a smaller way.
Now that I have been involved with college coaching for over 20 years, I’ve found ways to help within the college game and that’s where my role as the chair of Division I soccer coaches has come in. That is something that I really value and I hope to help to elevate the college game and its place within the whole soccer scene in North America.
COACH: Your next stops on the coaching ladder included stints at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the U. of Hartford, where you guided the Hawks to two consecutive NCAA tournament berths. How were you able to bring your teaching methods from the pros and incorporate them into a college program, where now you were leading teenagers and not men?
CIROVSKI: The principles of coaching come from the principles of success – areas of life, whether it’s individual or small group or an organization. That’s one of the things I really learned during my MBA studies. I did MBA basically with the idea that it was going to help my coaching. I studied leadership and what it takes to be successful. And I passed those principles along with the teaching intricacies of the game to my team. I brought a value of belief to the Hartford program. When I got there they hadn’t even been on the radar screen. Within two years we became a top program in New England and made a run for the College Cup, losing in the fourth overtime to a powerful Virginia team. I’ve maintained sort of that principle-centered philosophy throughout my career and it’s taken us to very good heights.
COACH: In 1993, then-Maryland assistant athletic director Gothard Lane lured you to coach the Terrapins and revitalize a once-proud program. Upon your arrival at College Park, you immediately announced that your goal was to win a national championship. Your teams began turning out winning records within two years of your hire and in 2002 the Terps started a remarkable run of four consecutive appearances in the NCAA College Cup, culminating with a national title in 2005. What was your vision for the Maryland program and what have been the keys to sustaining a successful run?
CIROVSKI: I had a bold vision and a lot of hard work along the way. I’ve always felt that if you recruit winning people – players with high character – who are very achievement-oriented and willing to put in the work, then you are going to have great success and have a winning program. There are not a lot of secrets to it. It’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears along the way. But what I am really proud of is that we have played attractive soccer. We’ve made it enjoyable for our fans. And we’ve built a reputation that is respected not only by our school and our fans but also appreciated by opposing coaches, programs, and fans. I know that when we held up the trophy in 2005, there were a lot of people who were very complimentary of the way that we did it. And that means just as much to me as winning it.
COACH: You are considered to be a vocal and demonstrative coach. That being said, how do you reach a player who is used to a more subtle approach and may be turned off by your methods?
CIROVSKI: I think sometimes people just see only the vocal and demonstrative stuff in the most visible settings. But I think the players who have played for me know that I am an extremely compassionate person that cares a lot about their well being on and off the field. For all of the times I may kick them in the butt, they get plenty of hugs and plenty of nurturing along the way. Our players are able to understand that unbridled passion also comes with a lot of love. That gets us through a lot of tough times.
COACH: One of your traits is to cultivate a family atmosphere on your close-knit teams. Isn’t that easier said than done at times? How are you able to meld all of the personalities and egos for the good of the team?
CIROVSKI: It’s a lot communication. It’s being really in tune. It’s like trying to maintain a healthy body. You have to be in tune with what is happening and try to maintain a healthy atmosphere within the team. We spend a lot of time communicating with our kids and communicating among the coaches to make sure we have our fingers on the pulse of what’s going on. I also think we demonstrate a lot of humility within the coaching ranks and the team. That’s been pervasive within our team. We listen to our players. I feel like our chemistry has been as good as any program in the country. Year in and year out we come through tough times because of that.
COACH: What are your offensive and defensive philosophies?
CIROVSKI: We like to be known as a team that plays attractive, attacking soccer. We are a high pressuring team that hates not having the ball. Sometimes we get exposed because we press so high. But that’s a risk we are willing to take because we want to get the ball back and into the other teams’ net. We are a high pressuring defensive team and a combination of both direct and indirect attacking styles.
COACH: Proficiency in soccer not only depends on physical coordination, but also the ability to read the game, make quick decisions, and communicate with teammates on the field. What kind of mental drills or strategy do you recommend for coaches that can instill the kind of discipline needed to keep their players minds sharp?
CIROVSKI: There’s a little saying that says, “First we make our habits and then our habits make us.” At the beginning of every practice session everything we do emphasizes the alertness and awareness of the individual player and the focus required to take them through both the technical and tactical execution of the game. The way the training sessions are designed, to demand and teach players how to have that focus is very, very important. There’s a high demand of concentration in everything that we do.
COACH: You hold an “A” coaching license for the U.S. Soccer Federation and an advanced national diploma from the National Soccer Coaches of America. You are also very active with the U.S. Olympic Development Program and the USSF National Coaching School staff. Not to mention hosting your own soccer camp each year. So it’s obvious that you enjoy teaching and nurturing the game. One of the most common coaching mistakes is to provide inaccurate feedback and advice on how to correct errors. Good coaches can recognize when their players make two types of errors: learning errors and performance errors. What is your approach when it comes to detecting and correcting errors?
CIROVSKI: It’s a two prong method. There are times when you identify the mistake, you communicate it, and then you get on with it. And there are other times when you use a question method where you may stop the play and ask the player to analyze their own mistake and provide a solution. That’s the method I use quite frequently. The follow-up is always very important, whether it’s at a water break or after practice. Sometimes when the critical correction is not received well by the player, you need to follow-up and make sure that you resolve any potential conflict, or misinformation that the player may have construed and you sort it out. That’s where communication is vital.
COACH: Participation in youth soccer in the U.S. is flourishing, and has been for some time. But when do we stop looking at the numbers and start focusing on the results? Are we seeing the efforts beginning to bear fruit at the U-17 and U-20 level?
CIROVSKI: I think so. I think the results are most important at the highest levels and filter to smaller levels as you get further down. At the U-17 level and the youth soccer levels, the focus should be on the development of players. When you get into full national teams and at the very, very elite levels, obviously results become important. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think where it gets troublesome for me is to see at the very young levels – under 10, under 12, and under 14 – seeing both boys and girls coaches putting pressure on players to select only soccer and concentrate more on winning and losing rather than the development and fulfillment of a genuine love for the game that we want to instill in our kids.
It may not be for everybody but I certainly want to see my daughters ending every season wanting to come back for the next season and the next practice. That’s a large responsibility of our youth coaches that is getting a little bit lost along the way.
COACH: We have seen in both baseball and basketball that foreign countries have been able to close the gap, and, in some instances, beat U.S. squads in those respective sports. What is the one thing that separates the U.S. men from joining the world soccer elite?
CIROVSKI: We still are not getting the absolute best athletes. We’re getting closer. Our domestic league is getting better. Our college game is getting better. But we are still not attracting enough of the highest quality athletes choosing soccer at a young age and being able to make a career out of it. It’s improved. I think everyone needs to understand that this is an evolutionary process. It takes time. But we are on the right track. In another 10 years from now, I think we are going to have even better athletes playing soccer. And 10 years after that, even better athletes. It’s only a matter of time before we are a consistent contender for the World Cup.
COACH: Many soccer cognoscenti are comparing David Beckham signing with MLS’s Los Angeles Galaxy to Pele joining the New York Cosmos of the defunct North American Soccer League (NASL) in 1975. But whereas Pele brought instant credibility to a U.S.-based soccer league, Beckham appears to be nothing more than a marketing ploy. How do you view this scenario?
CIROVSKI: I think it’s more than a marketing ploy. I give David Beckham a lot of credit for choosing to come here and help grow this league. I think he clearly understands that he is not the savior. He wants to build on something that is already a good thing. I think it’s a quality of life decision for him and it’s a legacy decision for him that I’m appreciative of and one I feel the whole league is, as well. Sometimes the mass media has made it a much bigger deal than it really is. The league has taken advantage of the marketing opportunities but I see him as a very humble, hardworking, honest player that knows he is not Pele, is not trying to be Pele, but wants to help nurture something that he really believes in.
The two events are incomparable. Pele came to a league that had a much different approach, had no infrastructure, and a poor business plan that led to its demise. It was a short term injection, like a Band-Aid approach. David Beckham is coming to a healthy league that is growing and nurturing. He’s only going to help it become healthier.
COACH: Your wife, Shannon, is a Hall of Fame player and former coach at George Washington and Maryland. What about the importance of the family support structure in being a coach, an important aspect that is sometimes overlooked? Obviously it is imperative to have an understanding wife and children.
CIROVSKI: Shannon stopped coaching a couple of years ago because family is our top priority. When she and I were both head coaches at Maryland it became very difficult to do all of it and still maintain the balance we would like in both our family life and work life. So it certainly helped me with her putting a large focus on our family life. She understands the profession. She’s the most amazing person I have ever known and ever will. It’s nice to have the feedback. She sees our games. I talk to her about personnel issues. And she’s such a great support person. The way we nurture our family is the same philosophy in the way we nurtured our teams. Our family is always our top priority and always will be. The players understand and appreciate our commitment to our family.
COACH: Recently, two college football coaches – Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy and Navy’s Paul Johnson – had highly publicized confrontations with members of the media. What is your take on the coach-media relationship and how do you handle uncomfortable, perhaps probing questions regarding your players, yourself, and your program?
CIROVSKI: I’ve heard of the confrontations. I actually have not seen them. But I think it’s very challenging these days for high profile programs under the scrutiny of the media, to sometimes maintain a cool demeanor. There are many times when the media does cross the line and is very short fused. We live in a fast-paced life where a lot of people don’t have the time to do their homework or really dig deeper than the surface. It’s frustrating for a lot coaches when there is this opinionated approach by reporters. We need to be strong. Whether it’s this ESPN mentality or the FOX Sports mentality, it seems like a lot reporters are under this scrutiny to say something sensationalistic or to be highly confrontational and at times have maybe lost their sense of purpose in what they are doing and how they are doing it.
I think sometimes coaches get lost in that because they are so focused in doing the right thing and sometimes get caught off guard. So I can understand the frustration. I just don’t agree with the response. I still think we are teachers and we have to be above that. And we have to teach our players to be above that.
Kevin Newell is the former editor of Coach and Athletic Director magazine.