Soehn's Past Helps His Presence With United

"Everyone looks at him as the decision-maker, but he takes our feedback," assistant coach Mark Simpson said of Tom Soehn, above. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 14, 2007

When D.C. United Coach Tom Soehn speaks of his nomadic playing career, he conjures a grainy black-and-white image from yesteryear, when athletes rode the rails between cities and sipped five-cent cups of coffee at the corner diner before settling into a colorless hotel.

"I think we had square balls back then," he said of 13 understated seasons that took him from indoor arenas in Wichita, Denver and Las Vegas to outdoor pitches in Colorado, Dallas and Chicago.

"I probably played in eight different leagues, folded probably four of them," he added. "Some checks bounced. I got cash at the gate after a game when they were able to see if anyone came. Things were quite different."

Soehn fits the part of a character from a bygone era -- his buzz cut, his nickname ("Pops"), his look-'em-straight-in-the-eye approach. In reality, though, he is a first-year head coach who is one day short of his 41st birthday and less than seven years removed from his final appearance as a player.

Soehn's throwback persona stands in stark contrast to the United team he has inherited after three years as Peter Nowak's top assistant. It is a modern, attack-oriented squad that will open its regular season home schedule this evening at RFK Stadium against the Kansas City Wizards as the MLS Eastern Conference favorite.

Although United made several offseason roster moves, Soehn's hiring has not brought about dramatic change in the club's style. He will continue to rely on a veteran core of players and a system of play implemented by Nowak, the former Polish star who departed in December to become a U.S. men's national team assistant.

The players, though, sense a stronger bond with a coach who has walked in their footsteps -- albeit in a previous era.

"He grew up playing in America, he has played with American players and he has played in our league," midfielder Ben Olsen said. "There is a huge benefit to understanding the American kid and what these young guys need to reach the next level."

There also seems to be a greater openness between the coach and players, as well as the coach and his deputies.

"I really feel more of a group element now," said assistant Mark Simpson, a former D.C. goalkeeper who has known Soehn since they were high school rivals in suburban Chicago and later faced him in college, indoor leagues and MLS. "Everyone looks at him as the decision-maker, but he takes our feedback. It just makes you feel more a part of it, knowing you can say anything anytime."

Soehn joined MLS upon its launch in 1996 and, after missing the inaugural season with a knee injury, made 63 starts in four years. He was drafted by Dallas and traded midway through the 1998 season to Chicago, where he made two trips in three years to the championship game.

The bulk of his career, however, was spent in unsound, pre-MLS circuits. There were those seven seasons with the Wichita Wings, one year with the Las Vegas Dustdevils and, in those 12 bleak summers between the demise of the North American Soccer League and the launch of MLS, outdoor gigs wherever he could find them.

"It was what you did -- you'd play indoor and you'd play outdoor. I didn't know any different," said Soehn, who played at Western Illinois University from 1984 to '87. "The kids these days are fortunate to have a strong league, to know where your paycheck is coming from and when it is coming. There were a lot of guys who paid their dues through my years of having no stability at all."

Soehn was an influential midfielder and goal scorer early in his career, but by the time he reached MLS, he was a defender with cranky knees. "The older I got, the farther back I went until it was time to step off the field," he joked. As United's coach, he often participates in training sessions and "fouls just as much now as he did as a player," Olsen cracked.

When he did finally step away, he remained with the Fire as an assistant coach under Bob Bradley (now the interim U.S. coach). The transition came naturally because, in his final years as a player, he was an on-field coach of sorts for the young players.

Soehn had also been involved with the Chicago Kickers Soccer Club, a sport and social organization founded in the 1940s by German immigrants. (His father was born in Romania but grew up in Germany; his mother is German.) He started playing at age 4 and, though his career has taken him all over the country, he still serves as the club director.

After spending three years as a Fire assistant, he joined Nowak -- his former Chicago teammate who retired two years after he did -- in Washington in 2004. In their first season here, they guided United to the MLS title. Following a first-round playoff loss to Chicago in 2005, United had the best regular season record in the league last year but lost to New England in the Eastern Conference final.

Soehn's stock rose around the league and, over a two-year span, "I think I interviewed with every team in the league" for a head coaching job. United also saw him as a head coach, but as long as Nowak was successful and content, the club was resigned to losing Soehn. He was close to getting the Chivas USA job this past winter when Nowak decided to leave, allowing United to secure his services.

"I was very nervous we would lose him," United President Kevin Payne said. "I am very pleased that those teams failed to make the right decision and instead went in another direction."

Soehn had prepared himself and his family for another team, another city, but this time, the job came to him.

"You just never know in this business," he said. "You move a lot and situations change. You become accustomed to that lifestyle, but ultimately, coming to D.C. made me truly appreciate how strong this organization is and how fun it is to be part of it."

Within the team, the promotion of an American soccer survivor was warmly welcomed.

"He's honest and he does it in the right way," Olsen said. "He treats the guys like men. If you're not doing your job, he's going to pull you aside and have a talk, but he's going to talk to you like a grown man and trust that you will respond. He's been great for us so far and he's only going to get better."

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