Managing a Large Youth Soccer Club

Interview with Jared Spires

September 7, 2017
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Jared coached both club and high school teams in Fort Collins and received High School Coach of the Year honors before moving to Real Colorado: becoming director in 1999.  He has worked closely with what is now the Colorado Soccer Association, as an adviser and coach for their Olympic Development Program and more recently on their League Operations Committee. 

All of Real Colorado’s State Cup Championships have been won during Jared’s time at the club and he oversaw their becoming a US Soccer Development Academy. The vast majority of graduating girls from the top team receive athletic scholarships and he has coached several US National Team players.  Jared has a Bachelor of Science degree from Colorado State University, a USSF A license and an NSCAA Advanced National Diploma.

Can you explain what your role as Chief Operating Officer involves?

I run the day to day operations of Real on one side and I work with the board of directors for the strategic plan of the club on the other side. To put it in a simple way: I’m down in the weeds of soccer  while balancing the view of 10,000 feet above trying to evaluate what’s next. My first love is still coaching, but this is a good opportunity for someone like myself who has two small kids as it gives me more time to be home with them in the evenings.

Have you set a specific vision/mission statement? How did you decide what they would be?

I think if you were to look at most youth organizations – ours all sound a lot alike. Our mission statement was developed in a retreat where our board took a weekend with myself and Lorne [Donaldson] our Executive Director of Coaching. We brought in someone to lead it, a former CEO of REI, so he was very capable of leading and guiding the conversation. We discussed what was important to us as an organization and out of that came both or mission and our vision.

How do you measure success for your club?

Anything you do has to be brushed up against your vision and mission. That’s your test. When we look at what we’re doing at the club, the first thing ask is does that program fit within the mission? We talk about developing young athletes to be better players and people and use soccer as the vehicle to achieve this. So the question is are your programs matching what your mission says? Are you giving kids opportunities to grow, develop and have fun? Sometimes we’ve had programs that we’ve evaluated and they haven’t fitted so we’ve let those programs go.

How many people do you have on your board of directors?

We have eleven. We can have up to thirteen where two are community members, generally very intelligent business people that would give us a strategic partnership, but who don’t necessarily have to have kids in the club.

How directly involved are the membership in your governance? Do the board review staff decisions or set the direction for you to follow?

More the latter. Our board is very much in policy and oversight. My job is the operations, Lorne’s is the soccer. If they don’t like the decisions that we are making, just like any superior they will review us as individuals based on the quality of our work, but they do not get involved in the day to day decisions at all. That’s my responsibility.

How do you maintain stability on the board of directors?

I think you have to have an intelligent board first of all. And by that I mean a group who are constantly looking to better themselves. Secondly, by ensuring that you are picking people for their expertise outside of soccer you get consistency with how the soccer is run but you can also bring in new talent for what their gifts are in running the business and planning for the future. We have a vetting process where everyone who wants to run for the board has to meet with a current board member as well as with me before we even encourage them to run. Now we can’t stop them from running if they choose to, but if someone doesn’t fit with what we are looking for on the board, we encourage them to join a committee. That way we can get to know them. What that has established is that most of our board members have come from committees in the club so we already know them and have worked with them at some level.

I imagine you currently have a pretty large full time staff: how do you typically find candidates and what do you look for?

We’ve very fortunate that our staff have been here for a long time. In every case, including my own, they started at a minimal level in the club – an assistant director, team coach, even a team manager. They consistently displayed excellence in those areas and as opportunities have opened up we have been able to offer them to them. We have very rarely hired from without Real and when we have it hasn’t been met with as much success.

How often do you meet in the office as a staff? Do you break into specific groups?

We meet one a month as a staff, and that’s everybody. And then each respective group meets on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. The biggest thing this does is it connects the coaching and administrative sides together.  This is where a disconnect can occur sometimes. Both have different talents but you can take advantage of both in the same room with a meeting for everyone.

How do you convey the value of full time staff to the membership? Is this an issue you have encountered?

That’s a great question: I don’t know that you can fully do that. I think there is an expectation from the parents that I’m paying for this staff member, he should be at my practice, even though I’m on the fifth level team. There is an amount of fairness to that belief, but we do two things to address it. One is that we make sure there is a paying hierarchy. If you are on a National [top level]team you’re paying a lot more money than Olympico [second team]or Red [third team]because you’re paying for more of that time. Secondly we try to communicate within our club that there are so many mechanisms for kids to get where they want to go, that the coaching they do get is valuable and can help them reach their goals. We give parents a voice in terms of evaluating their coaches. By doing those things we minimize it but we still get complaints about it because everybody wants Lorne Donaldson as their coach.

Soccer in the US is moving away from players having to pay the most to get to the highest levels of the game. How does this affect your club? How do you attract players to play and pay at the lower levels?

What you try to do is build a product that they want to be a part of. If the American culture has established anything it is that when it comes to their kids they are willing to pay money if they see value. So our first responsibility is to make sure that there is value to all of our programs. We aren’t as inexpensive as the Rapids are with the Development Academy yet we still regularly play above their level when you look at the final standings. So if you do the right thing and do a good thing, people are willing to pay a certain amount of money for it. We just try to make sure that the service we offer fits the price tag we put on it.

We also have to recognize the changes as they come though. US Soccer saying that Development Academies need to be free is a challenge because they haven’t also given us the ability to generate those costs. There are training fees associated with players overseas. Those types of opportunities here would allow a club to charge less to the players. We could offer cheaper programs if we could be reimbursed for the training costs for players. Without that I don’t know that Real would ever be able to go to a totally free model for our highest programs.

Some clubs have gone away from offering competitive programs for their lower level teams, pushing them into their recreational program. Is that something you have considered?

You know we haven’t, for the really simple premise that we believe that for kids to have a good experience you need two things: a capable coach and players of a similar ability together. By grouping like players together it makes for a much more fun environment. I can remember when my daughter was five years old she always wanted to be on the same team as a friend because her friend was better than everybody and she didn’t want to play against her. Even at that age kids recognize who is better and who is not. By putting kids of a similar level together everyone has a better chance to feel like they are a part of it. I don’t see us ever pushing players down to Rec per say. We looked at it ten years ago when we talked about only having four teams on the competitive side and I almost lost my job over that. Lower level teams did not want to be told that they couldn’t be competitive and that they couldn’t wear the Real uniform. They were at our board meetings asking how dare I limit their opportunity. And I really was trying to look out for them.

How do you attract players to play for Real, particularly those from economically challenged backgrounds?

We have a very wealthy demographic overall at Real. For those less fortunate, we have a formal scholarship program that kids can apply for, but we don’t actively seek out those types of players, or any for that matter. In our community we have the lion’s share of players already playing for us.   Ultimately success breeds success and through word of mouth, our brand can be very successful.

The club recently began development of your own 23 acre complex, including fields, club house and office space. How did you decide that this was an important priority and how many years of planning did it take?

We’ve been trying to put together a complex since 1986. I got involved in 1997 and we’ve failed at it every time. Part of that failure was really understanding what we wanted that complex to be. Did we want it to be a huge facility that we could house tournaments and everybody could train there? Or did we want a more intimate setting that was more of a community center? When we first started it was the former: we were very much looking for somewhere to host our tournament. Over time we looked at other successful complexes – the Player Development Academy (PDA) in New Jersey, and the Dallas Texans complex, for example and noticed youth clubs seem to have the most success at building smaller ones. We met with them and asked why? A lot of what they told us rang true to us: most of our families are recreational and they want to train as close to home as possible so building a massive complex away from where they are is of a lessor interest to them.  This direction might open up opportunity for a competitor in our area. We want to make sure that at the simplest level people have easy access to fields. Secondly we realized that big tournaments take up a lot more than twenty fields and if we really want to grow the tournament the way we were going to we were going to need more than one complex and didn’t want them to be separated from a geographic standpoint. So as we started evaluating it, we came to 4-6 fields being the ideal number that would handle year-round training, would create a community area so that our kids felt like they had a home, but also not be so big that it would impact our ability to service the satellite areas of our community.

How important is fundraising to your club’s day to day operations and soccer complex and other future developments? 

I think fundraising should be a banned term for larger initiatives and projects: it’s almost business development now. Fundraising I think in a lot of people’s eyes is Butterbraids and GL Scrips and things like that. You really have two areas of business development: the first one is creating community and creating culture. As youth sports organizations we need to understand that we do not fit in the same category as churches, health fields and schools. When people are going to give their money, those are the first places they will look. For us to believe that people will just write us a big check because of philanthropic ideals, probably isn’t the case. What you learn is that it’s about relationships. Events like Casino Real allow our general membership to interact with our coaches, to get to know them on a more personal level. Every big donation we have received has come from a personal relationship with our staff or board. Usually they have a history in sport, but they have decided through forming a relationship with us that this is a worthy cause. Events like Casino Real and our senior banquet are there to cultivate relationships with people who are capable and want to get involved at a larger level.

The rest of our business development efforts are focused around businesses. Those are a lot more difficult because at the end of the day they want a return on their investment. As a youth club our job is soccer so we’re not going to be as good at that, so how do we come to a common area where both of us get that return? That part is definitely tougher, but in the case of Children’s Hospital Colorado, Soccer Stop and Nike, we have found successful agreements both parties see value in.

Another milestone was becoming a US Soccer Development Academy. Was there a risk in taking this step? What benefits have you seen?

There was a huge risk. We weren’t 100% sold on it as a club, whether it was staff or board evaluation it was a big risk for us to pull out [of Colorado State leagues]because we didn’t know what that would mean. At the same time it was US Soccer doing it and you had to believe that it was going to be successful so we went in that direction. The benefit has been two-fold: –

  • Firstly it separated us – it gave us a program that not everybody had – which acknowledged all of the good work we had been doing. We were recognized in the eyes of our peers.
  • Secondly it has created an access to what US Soccer is doing and what they are pushing immediately. When they have an idea for how they want development it comes down to us. A good example is that we are required to have a year-long training plan, which is something that I don’t think we would have done unless we had to. Having to take the time to write a plan for those two teams has been good for us from a strategic standpoint to think how do we train our teams? Where are points of rest? Where are points of intense activity? What are we going to work on developmentally? It pulled us all together from a philosophical standpoint, even in terms of how our system of play is going to be. This oozes down to the youngest levels of our club.

There are currently three DA’s in Denver, which is a large number for the population when compared to other areas of the country. Do you think it is sustainable and/or beneficial to the city to have three?

I think it is beneficial for where they are placed strategically because we hit the corners of metro Denver. They are accessible for any club who has players that they believe fit. Currently I think our talent level supports less than three, just because we have not seen historically all three of us with great teams in one age group. Now there are some kids who don’t have interest in the Development Academy who are very good and choose not to go to those clubs. So I think three would be sustainable with a slightly different model but currently I think we are struggling as a state to consistently put out three.

The Rapids have Major League Soccer, Colorado Rush are part of a huge global franchise, so how do you compete with them in maintaining the third academy?

Well I think the first thing you look at is past success and Real Colorado has been successful. In going to the playoffs and making the National Championships we have demonstrated consistently the ability to perform at the level required. Secondarily we have a staff that is recognized nationally. Many of them are former professional players as well as professional coaches. We have a number of kids who have been in the US National Team programs and have gone to the residency camps down in Florida. So we are consistently developing those players and nothing in our performance would suggest this will not continue. At the end of the day the Rapids will be there because they are in MLS, but Rush and Real are still youth clubs. As much as Rush is tied into other clubs they are still just Colorado Rush who play in the Development Academy so on many levels we feel like our focused energy on one club gives us an advantage.

Real currently runs the largest tournament in the region, with 587 teams with almost 100 from out of state. How important is the success of the tournament to your club?

Extremely important. It is the most significant business development program we have. It generates the most money for the programs outside of the actual registration fees from the programs.

Tournaments can leave you exposed to risk from weather and competing events that could leave you exposed to financial burden. Is this a concern and how do you safeguard it from affecting the club as a whole?

You have to believe that you have the ability to be successful at it. That’s based not on subjective but objective data. Do you have a good weekend where teams can play? Do you have the ability to support that tournament with your own staff and with your own teams so that you can attract with those teams to bring others in? You start out small where there really isn’t much risk. We started our Rec tournament for the first time and I think we planned for 80 teams, which is small for us, but we knew that was doable because within our own club we could cover 75% of that. We knew our kids would want to play – we rarely get pushback from tournament play from our own teams. So using that information and putting together a budget that is accurate sets you up for success. There is going to be weather and rival tournaments but that’s the world we live in. We compete every day with the clubs around us on the soccer field, in partnerships and in tournaments. Finally, I think you try to be a good neighbor so that people want to be in your tournament.

For a club who are looking to start a new tournament would the initial benefit being the revenue you get from it or the image you get from it? Is it worth the risk?

I would think that you would only do it initially for the revenue, because it is a business. If you are doing it purely for recognition I think that is the wrong reason. Going back to how things wash against your mission statement – rarely is national recognition going to be in a mission statement – it really is more to developing youth. If you think the tournament will generate revenue that will help you meet your mission better than I think you should go forward with it. Keep in mind that it is a lot of effort and a lot of work so it is very important to be doing it for the right reasons.

Do you miss anything about high school or college soccer? Would you ever go back?

Absolutely not for high school. For college absolutely. It was a fun venture for me when I coached at Vanderbilt for a year. There was a lot about the college game that was exciting and fun. You are managing one team rather than 425 and I think being a part of the team is why I am in the position I am in now – I like being part of the team. College would allow me to keep doing that at a level that would be exciting.

For Development Academy players there is no longer any high school soccer. Do you think this is a positive step for their development or do they lose anything without that experience?

I have heard all the arguments for both sides of this issue and believe they are all valid. US Soccer believes a year round season and consistent schedule are vital to the soccer development of a player and this is tough to argue against for a player.  As difficult to argue against is the social value of being a part of and representing your school.  As a US Soccer Development Academy program, we respect what US Soccer is trying to do and are required to work within that framework.  As most of us also attended and played for our H.S., we recognize the value of school spirit and fun and encourage our Development Academy players to find other areas to get invested in within the school to fill the experience.  The US Soccer Development Academy isn’t for everyone, but for those who want to play at the highest level, it is the best route to that end.

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