I still remember the name of the book: The Road Less Traveled.
I was 20 years old, on a flight to the Netherlands to start my professional career with FC Zwolle. I had a self-help book to read on the flight, and now the book was in front of me, on the foldout table, with a single line underlined: Life is difficult.
I was already feeling homesick on the flight, and nervous about leaving a comfortable college life behind. I also remember when I originally highlighted that line, it comforted me in that moment on the plane. It is through embracing challenges that one begins to grow.
I didn’t know then, though, that embracing challenges would be a theme I’d revisit repeatedly throughout my playing and managing career.
Challenges are a constant to be leaned into and never feared. Change of role, team, culture – whatever the challenge may be, embrace it and use it as an opportunity to grow.
I feel lucky that my road less travelled started in a little-known place on the US soccer map. In the early 1980s, Northern New Jersey was one of those pockets of the country where the 'world's game' had taken root and stayed strong, even in the years between the NASL folding and Major League Soccer arriving.
As a kid, I was just about old enough to be excited by the NASL. As I got older, I watched live games of Serie A, and saw the passion and engagement of the people around me as they reacted to them.
“When I talk to players now, I stress the importance of leaving their comfort zone to be challenged”
I was watching the perfect AC Milan teams of Gullit, Van Basten, Rijkaard, Maldini, Baresi. Other Jersey kids might have pretended to be the New York Giants quarterback when they played. I wanted to be the Juventus and Italy defender Antonio Cabrini. I loved the way he played, pioneering the attacking full-back role.
It was an environment that made an ambition to play in Europe seem possible, even if the path there wasn’t obvious.
I was in a region that produced players like Peter Vermes, John Harkes, Tony Meola, Tab Ramos and many other local legends. You could watch these guys and hear stories about them. Even though MLS wasn’t around yet, you could look up to these players.
As for how I eventually got on that flight to the Netherlands, I went to college in North Carolina. I had a German coach there, Elmar Bolowich, who arranged for me to do some training with Schalke. I also went to Wiesbaden and trained, and then I went to Holland with the USA Under-21 team.
I’d also had the experience with the US youth teams of helping the Irish and Belgian World Cup teams warm up for the 1994 World Cup. Jack Charlton (above) had us doing shooting practice for Patrick Bonner, and I was getting to observe the great Enzo Scifo up close.
All these experiences inspired me to move on from the college game and find an even greater challenge.
When I talk to players now, I stress the importance of leaving their comfort zone to be challenged; getting into the uncomfortable space that provides opportunity for growth. I remember in college thinking: “I’m 20 years old, I need to keep developing.” I thought I was standing still.
So when I went over for these training periods with Schalke and saw the level they were at, it was inspiring to think: “I can do this – I can play at this level.”
“I arrived at Crystal Palace in 2002, at what was probably the height of Arsène Wenger’s influence on the English game”
And that was it.
When I got the opportunity to do just that shortly afterwards, I didn’t hesitate. There was no turning back.
What a time it was to be in Holland. Arriving in 1994, I had this great opportunity to learn the Dutch style of play. Each day was like being at a soccer camp for me.
I was taking notes on every training session, thinking about formations I’d like to play, individual roles, and so on. For me, the seeds of coaching were already planted and growing.
It was also a cultural centre for the game where everything is in the details, and I was absorbing it like a sponge. I thought I was a good passer when I went there, but early on I remember our forward yelling at me for passing the ball to him with too much spin.
I loved that. I remember revelling in the fact that I was playing for my livelihood now.
The Dutch are lovely, welcoming people, but each day I was among men who weren’t necessarily going to welcome me. I was competing to take their place.
So I’d work at things like learning to hit the ball with power with my instep, and I soaked up as much as I could. It was a great environment, and a great time to be a young professional.
“In many ways, Germany was my natural footballing home”
The European game was also transforming during that decade. The Premier League was finding its feet, and at the point when France won the World Cup in 1998, there was a premium on French players and coaches.
Again, another moment of transition for me coincided with a period of transformation at my next destination.
I arrived at Crystal Palace in 2002, at what was probably the height of Arsène Wenger’s influence on the English game. Clubs and players were still dealing with the changes at the time, but I have no doubt that that period made the Premier League the force it is now.
I remember my Palace coach Steve Bruce talking about his interactions with Eric Cantona a few years earlier, and what that suggested to him about the changes that were coming. By 2002, they were well under way.
Wenger not only made the game more athletic and altered players’ habits in England; he also brought in a style of play that made permanent advances in how the English game was played.
The way his Arsenal team played was amazing: a game of speed, precision and movement. As I think about what excites me now as a coach, a lot of it is based on the movement and fluidity of that Arsenal team.
Not everybody in England was comfortable with these developments, but by that stage of my career I’d learned to become comfortable with all sorts of changes.
England still had a 4-4-2 culture at that time – the popular image was still of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole at Manchester United, or Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham for England – but that was beginning to shift. I had started out in the home of 4-3-3 in the Netherlands, so maybe I was less inclined to think there was one right way to do things.
“Was I really going to finish my career never having played in the league in my own country?”
As it turned out, I wasn’t going to spend a lot of time adjusting to whatever the English game was going to become. I was about to make the next big change in my career, to experience yet another version of the game – this time in Germany.
In many ways, Germany was my natural footballing home. The crowds and stadiums were great, and the style of play brought together some of the best elements of the places I’d been before.
There was some of the physicality of the English game, but more of the tactical emphasis from Dutch football.
It was less provincial than the game in the Netherlands, where you were only a couple of hours drive from every opponent, and the Eastern European influence on the player pool was a factor.
I was taking in the precision and speed of the counter-attacking game, as well as the finishing. The tactical set-up of the teams had more detail, I think, than England at the time – it was a well-rounded version of all the influences I’d had to that point, and it made me feel at home.
Having a real connection to that feeling I experienced has influenced my coaching philosophy – put players in positions to succeed. To this day, I don’t talk to players only about working on their weaknesses; I talk about building their strengths too.
I think that comes from the breadth of my own playing experience – an awareness of how the nuances of a style of play or type of game could make a player successful or unsuccessful.
As I continued taking notes on each experience throughout my playing career, it was natural to start working towards my coaching badges in Germany when I came towards the end of my career.
“You could really see Roy Hodgson’s influence on the football in Sweden”
As comfortable as I felt there, I realised I’d spent 15 years in Europe. Was I really going to finish my career never having played in the league in my own country?
This realisation resulted in three enjoyable years with LA Galaxy (above) under Bruce Arena. I experienced playing in Giants Stadium – the former home of the New York Cosmos – in front of family and friends, winning the MLS Cup, and once again returning to the American soccer culture.
I could have stayed in the US, but when the opportunity presented itself to go back to Europe and start my head coaching career at Hammarby, I didn’t hesitate.
Again, I wanted to embrace the change. I wanted to lean into it.
Sweden was yet another soccer culture to expose myself to. Teams were well organised defensively, disciplined, compact and physical, but they didn’t play the fastest football.
You could really see the influence of Roy Hodgson there, from his time at Malmö. Most teams played a very tightly organised 4-4-2, built around these really resilient players. It was fascinating to witness.
And, of course, I was learning a significant amount as a head coach. At first, the way I wanted to play and how I wanted to train weren’t as closely linked as they could have been. I had to learn to apply a methodology to everything so that the work got cleaner, less scattered.
It was about becoming comfortable as a leader and understanding my strengths in an entirely new job. It doesn’t matter if you’ve played football your whole life – coaching is a completely different profession.
“As much as you plan for every contingency, there will always be something new to learn”
When I was approached to go back to MLS with Columbus Crew (above), I spoke with the owner Anthony Precourt about his plans, and I tried to apply the same principles I always do. Every opportunity is measured by the time you have to complete it, the control you have to actually execute it, and the resources you have behind you. I felt comfortable with all three, so I said yes.
MLS has a salary cap, and that’s part of the challenge in managing a roster. It had been suggested to me that the orthodoxy for success under the salary cap is to weight your spending down the spine, but we purposely challenged that model.
We had very specific profiles and responsibilities within our system. If we thought a player could give us what we needed in that position, we didn’t mind paying to get exactly what we wanted.
I carry those same principles with the national team (below). We have a way we want to play. The dynamics of the international game may be slightly different, but the core challenge remains the same.
That’s the exciting part of what we’re doing – working with a really young, talented playing pool. It’s about getting everybody on the same page, being clear about what we want to achieve, and then becoming a strong team – a group of individuals who support each other and a greater cause. If we can do that, we’ll be successful.
Ultimately, whatever level you’re competing at, you try to observe, understand and adapt. If we want to put players in a position to succeed, we have to understand the context of their game and the game we’re asking them to play.
The challenge is that, as much as you plan for every contingency, there will always be something new to learn and respond to.
Games, like life, can change in a moment, and sometimes you will find yourself on the road less travelled.
If my career so far has taught me anything, it’s that those are the moments to embrace.