By NICHOLAS MURRAY – firstname.lastname@example.org
Friday, January 8, 2016
When he received a call about potentially being the first coach for San Antonio’s new USL club, a world of opportunity opened up in front of Darren Powell.
“I got a phone call from San Antonio about the position, and it was very intriguing,” Powell said by phone this week. “From Day 1, I was just impressed with the Spurs Sports & Entertainment group and the plan and the vision they have. It seemed to be a very exciting project that I’m glad to be a part of.”
Introduced as the man who will lead the club into its inaugural season on Thursday as Spurs Sports & Entertainment was officially awarded a USL franchise, the work is now well underway as Powell looks to draw on his experience at both Orlando City SC, where he was a key figure in the club’s youth academy, and previously at Elon University, where he turned around a struggling program into a conference power.
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Both of those experiences will form the way Powell builds his first squad in San Antonio, as he looks to put together a side that can compete with the rising level of competition the USL has to offer.
“I think it’s very important that you have a good spine to the team, and the players there have ambition, want to get better, but also have a bit of experience in the spine of that team,” Powell said. “Around it, guys that understand their roles, understand their responsibilities, and are going to work hard and compete on a daily basis.”
That was certainly the way Powell built his side at Elon. On his arrival in 2005, the program hadn’t had a winning season in a decade, and had gone 4-11-5 the previous season. Through strong recruitment, and raising the bar of expectation each year, the Phoenix reached three consecutive NCAA Tournaments prior to Powell’s move to Orlando from 2011-13, while Powell himself earned Conference Coach of the Year honors four times.
“I saw Elon play the year before, and saw the potential in the program, so I took the position even though they hadn’t necessarily had that much success in the previous year,” Powell said. “Having good players, good people around you, you set some standards and the players then have to work to achieve those standards, and over a period of time you grow the program, then the players are going to perform at a higher level. We had some very competitive teams close by that we wanted to compete alongside, and over the course of time we were able to do that.”
With Orlando City SC’s Academy, Powell helped the Lions add to their burgeoning youth ranks. While former USL standouts Tyler Turner and Tommy Redding were already rising stars within the organization, a number of players reached the youth international level thanks in part to Powell’s work with the program.
Powell’s time in Orlando was also important for his development as a coach, as he got to see Adrian Heath work regularly with the club’s first team as it made the transition from the USL to MLS.
“Being in that environment on a daily basis, helping the young players, obviously observing the first team and watching Coach Heath work on a daily basis with those guys was also a really good learning experience,” Powell said. “Hopefully we can take those lessons and translate it to make San Antonio the best we can be as soon as possible.”
Another former part of Orlando’s organization could also offer a blueprint for Powell and San Antonio, with former Lions midfielder and assistant coach James O’Connor finding great success with Louisville City FC in its inaugural season. Powell said he hopes in time his side can emulate the proactive, attacking style both Orlando and Louisville have shown on the field.
“I’ve admired the way Coach Heath’s teams played. I’ve admired the way Louisville played last year,” Powell said. “For us, obviously the long-term vision is to have that similar style of play. At this point in time, the most important thing for us is to recruit our players and play to their strengths as we get the foundation of this group running, but long-term the admiration for the way Orlando played, especially over the last couple of years, and then Louisville, I’m sure people will see the similarities between the teams.”
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One thing San Antonio will have in common with both of those clubs is a passionate fan base. Led by the Crocketteers, who were founded before the city even had a professional team to call its own, San Antonio’s fans have made Toyota Field a tough place to play for visitors, and Powell is looking forward to the atmosphere his side will get the chance to play in front of this year, and beyond.
“It’s fantastic,” he said. “You want your fan base to be excited about the program, excited about the team, but also help create an atmosphere that will give a big home field advantage. What I know about the fan base here right now, I think that’s something that’s very achievable. They can make Toyota Field maybe one of the loudest in the league, and an atmosphere where it’s like our 12th man every game that helps us, and in those times of need they get behind the team and help produce that extra one percent, extra two percent that will lead us on to a victory.”
With regional rivals ready to take on San Antonio as it prepares for its first season in the USL, Powell is now ready to build a roster. With the goals the club has set not only for the present, but also the future, Powell is ready for preseason to get underway.
“I think obviously getting the players into preseason is what I’m looking forward to most, and building a program that everyone can be very proud of in the city of San Antonio,” Powell said. “When you get the opportunity on Day 1 to work with a USL franchise, and help build that program, you want to make sure when the time comes, when they make the jump from the USL to MLS, that everyone in San Antonio is very proud of their soccer team.”