PHILADELPHIA — In the summer of 1980, at the age of 17, Sasho Cirovski traveled to Scotland for a tryout with Aberdeen FC. His high school coach in Ontario was a boyhood friend of Alex Ferguson, the Dons boss who would go on to lead Manchester United to glory and earn himself knighthood.
For six weeks, Cirovski worked with the first team and played for the youth squad. At the fabled Pittodrie grounds, he was surrounded by Scottish excellence: Gordon Strachan, Willie Miller and Alex McLeish, among others. The youth guide was Bobby Clark, a goalkeeper in the twilight of a sterling career that included a World Cup with Scotland two years earlier.
“My first memory was he didn’t play me, but he played me the next couple games,” Cirovski recalled with a smile this weekend. “I was much happier.”
Thirty-three years later, on American soccer’s developmental stage, Cirovski and Clark will cross paths again, coaching against one another for the College Cup championship Sunday afternoon at PPL Park in Chester, Pa.
Cirovski, 51, is seeking his third NCAA title since arriving at Maryland in 1993. Clark, 68, is pursuing his first after spending most of the past 28 years instructing collegians, the last 12 at Notre Dame.
It’s not their first encounter in the NCAA tournament: In 1998, Clark’s Stanford side edged the Terrapins in the semifinals. Eight years later, Notre Dame ousted Maryland in the round of 16. This time, though, a trophy is at stake. “Hopefully,” Clark said, “we can put on a good advert for college soccer.”
Cirovski’s admiration for Clark runs deep, and the pair has remained close for decades. In Cirovski’s first head coaching job, at Hartford in the early 1990s, one of his first games was against Clark-led Dartmouth.
“A class act. A total gentleman,” Cirovski said.
The bond began decades ago in Scotland. Cirovski, who at age 8 immigrated to Canada with his family from the Macedonian region of then Yugoslavia, was intent on pursuing both soccer and education. Nonetheless, before enrolling at Wisconsin-Milwaukee as a central midfielder, he leapt at the opportunity to train with Aberdeen, which, in that era, was of European-wide quality.
“I used to take the young lads,” Clark said of his transition into coaching. “Sasho was one of those young players. He was a young boy; he would remember it more easily than I would. Those were fun times.”
The pair strengthened their relationship through a mutual friend: Virginia women’s coach Steve Swanson. Cirovski and Swanson, a Michigan State grad, played together on the Michigan and Ontario amateur-pro circuits, indoor and outdoor, in the ’80s. Later, Swanson mirrored Clark’s coaching path by guiding the Dartmouth and Stanford women’s team.
Early in his Maryland tenure, Cirovski traveled to England to study under Ferguson for 10 days. Clark was there at the same time, guiding a youth squad, and the trio spent time together in Manchester.
“Bobby and I have crossed paths so many times,” Cirovski said. “It’s an amazing thing this game has created, these magical relationships.”
Both have served at the forefront of college soccer, overseeing acclaimed programs, nurturing future pros and mentoring the next generation of coaches. Clark’s son Jamie, who played for his father at Stanford, is the head coach at Washington, this year’s No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The elder Clark has ties to pro soccer’s birth in D.C. In 1967, while still a part-time player, Aberdeen provided talent for the Washington Whips in the United Soccer Association, predecessor to the North American Soccer League. He lived at the Washington Hilton for 10 weeks, shuttling around the country to play other clubs with European affiliations.
Clark would go on to play 595 times for Aberdeen, third on the club’s all-time list behind Miller and McLeish.
Amid the College Cup festivities, he and Cirovski have paused to reminisce about their shared past. But after both triumphed Friday night, their attention has turned to Sunday’s final between the third-seeded Fighting Irish (16-1-6) and the fifth-seeded Terrapins (17-3-5).
Maryland has won 11 straight, Notre Dame is unbeaten in nine. Maryland features the best forward in the country, Patrick Mullins. Notre Dame possesses the top-rated playmaker, Harrison Shipp.
In the regular season, Mullins scored a 72nd-minute equalizer during a 1-1 draw in South Bend, Ind.
“He is a teacher first, and I’ve admired how he is a proponent of the college game,” Cirovski said of Clark. “Both of us have worked hard to make it better. We’ve sent a lot of players to the next level, and it’s proof if you teach the right things and put the players in a good environment, they are going to succeed.”