Clive Charles, one of the most sought after coaches in the US, says he benefited from leaving Britain. Mike Woitalla reports 

British coaches in American soccer are as easy to find as fast-food restaurants on Main Street. In a nation long dependent on foreign teachers, who more likely to dominate the tutorial corps than expatriates from a land of the same language?

Otherwise, why would US soccer let itself be so pro­foundly influenced by Britain when other countries, particularly Latin ones, would serve as far more suit­able models? Take Brazil or Argentina. Both are more successful at international competition than the British. South American production of young talent eclipses the UK’s. And a Latin style of play, with its trickery and flair, is more apt to intrigue American sports fans, who have traditionally got their fill of speed and power from gridiron football and ice hockey.

So be it. A common tongue is no insignificant ad­vantage. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that for years a British accent denoted soccer savvy to Americans. Indeed, British coaches at all levels were key in the American soccer explosion of the past three decades. Whe­ther they were leftover players from the pro leagues or immigrants who became big fish in what was a pud­dle of a soccer scene in the 1970s, the Brits provided expertise where youth soccer was often coach­ed by par­ents who first encountered the ball when junior brought one home.

But being a British coach has finally become a liability. To some extent that is because people have seen the light of the above-mentioned logic. But mostly it’s because the past two decades have seen the maturation of Americans with legitimate soccer backgrounds and a sense of the game. These men, though they may have been heavily influenced by the British tutors, no longer defer to foreigners. And they’ve got a case.

The successful Major League Soccer coaches have been US products, while the imports have been colossal failures, notably Bob Houghton, Frank Stapleton, Carlos Alberto Parreira, Bora Milutinovic and Walter Zenga. From his office at the University of Portland, where he has coached the men’s and women’s teams since the 1980s, Clive Charles is told that the interview is for a story about British coaches abroad. The first point he is at pains to make is: “I’m not a British coach.”

Charles, assistant coach for the US at France 98, was head coach at the Sydney Olympics. He tops the Most Wanted list every time a Major League Soccer team seeks a new coach– but for the time being stays put in Portland, where he also runs lucrative soccer camps and heads a youth club with 18 teams.

Charles is in the 50th year of a life that began in east London as the youngest of nine children. His father, a mer­chant seaman, died when Charles was six. At 15, he signed as an apprentice with West Ham and won England youth honours. In 1972, Charles finally got his first-team debut a week before he turned 21. He played 14 games for West Ham before leaving in 1974 for Cardiff City, whom he eventually captained.

He had become familiar with the NASL during loan stints in 1971 and 1972 with Montreal Olympique. His team-mates, besides Graeme Souness, were Czech, Italian, Portuguese, Brazilian, Argentinian, Spanish, Canadian, Bermudan and Moroccan.

“It was chaos at times,” Charles says, “but you learned a lot.” In Montreal he met his American wife, Clarena, and when he joined the Portland Timbers in 1978 he found a new home. He was one of the main figure in creating a soccer hotbed in the north west with his youth work and by turning the university into a national power. Since 1993, he has been heavily involved with US national teams of both genders.

“What you have to understand is, I left Britain as a player,” says Charles. “Right now, I’m a better coach for leaving Britain. I’ve seen more in terms of style. I’ve travelled and experienced all sorts of soccer. I’m not knocking the English game, but I’ve learned more by being here. With a few exceptions coaches in England coach English players against English teams. Being here has exposed me to international soccer, which has broadened my knowledge.”

Besides his pioneer work and college success – among his University of Portland graduates are Kasey Keller – Charles’s greatest feat was taking the US to fourth place at the Olympics. That was their best finish by far in a tournament Americans consider prestigious and important for their young players. Talking of his achievement, Charles effectively describes the standards by which coaches from the UK are now judged: “You wouldn’t be able to tell by watching that team play that the coach was British.”

From WSC 169 March 2001. What was happening this month

Related articles

The Ugly Game
How football lost its magic and what it could learn from the NFLby Martin CalladinePitch £12.99Reviewed by Roger TitfordFrom WSC 341 July 2015 Buy...
The Keeper
A life of saving goals and achieving themby Tim Howard with Ali BenjaminHarper Collins, £18Reviewed by Ian PlenderleithFrom WSC 338 April 2015 Buy...
Living the dream
Moving to the NASL was a culture shock for many British pros in the 1970s – an extract from Ian Plenderleith's book Rock 'n' Roll Soccer, which WSC...

Sign up to the WSC Weekly Howl - a small portion of despair and enlightenment delivered to your inbox every Friday