At first, their teammates did not know what they were up to. After a while, they caught on.
“They saw us a couple times,” Zardes said, “and they started saying, ‘There go the coaches.’ ”
Aside from studying opponents and U.S. tactics for the regional tournament, the trio was engaged in a coaching license course, a six-month program designed to prepare players for opportunities when their playing careers end.
The three are among 36 players from MLS and lower-division clubs enrolled in the “B” course, the third-highest badge offered by the U.S. Soccer Federation, the sport’s governing body.
There is a separate class for 24 female pros, but none of the 22 Olympians who won bronze in Tokyo are participating this year.
The courses began in July and will run into December, overlapping with league schedules and, in the case of the three men’s national team players, the Gold Cup. Everything is conducted online until a four-day, in-person session in December, when leagues and national teams are dark.
Those enrolled spend two to three hours per week listening to online lectures, studying presentations and completing writing assignments about game models, player development and styles of play, among other topics.
They must also assist in coaching a youth team, such as those in their MLS club’s academy. Given weekend travel and match demands, they’ll help with weekday training sessions after their own practices.
“We have a lot of free time and keeping ourselves occupied is important — and occupied in good ways is something we look forward to doing,” said Roldan, a 26-year-old midfielder for the Seattle Sounders. “It’s nice and it’s refreshing because we can jump out of our normal routine.”
The student players said they have compartmentalized class work while on national team duty.
“When we have days off or time off, we can focus on the class,” said Zardes, a 29-year-old forward for the MLS Cup champion Columbus Crew.
Instructors encourage collaboration. Hence, lobby brainstorming.
“We get different points of view because there is no right or wrong answer,” Zardes said. “Soccer is about different perspectives and trying to solve different problems and communicating effectively with your team.”
The triumvirate was reduced to a duo recently after Zimmerman left U.S. camp with a hamstring injury, suffered in the group-stage finale against Canada in mid-July.
Coaching licenses are typically mandated by U.S. youth associations, leagues and teams. The “B” license clears the way to coach youth teams in age groups 13 and older and senior sides. Tuition is $1,750. Three instructors run sessions.
While most aspiring coaches must climb the course ladder, pro players may apply for exemptions to higher levels. It’s not a given, however. “I kept getting denied,” Zardes said. Many must bolster their playing experience before gaining entry.
“They’ve been involved for years, but as players,” said Didier Chambaron, the USSF’s director of coaching education. “We want to help give them an idea of their next step. We want to help them transition from being coached to coach.”
Many former players pursue coaching licenses upon retirement and some active players have earned a “B” license, including D.C. United’s Russell Canouse, who said he received his in 2017. No current U.S. national team regular holds a high-level license.
Zardes took grass-roots courses over the past year before pursuing the “B” degree. Zimmerman, a 28-year-old defender for Nashville SC, was a volunteer assistant for the UCLA men’s program in 2019, when he was a member of Los Angeles FC.
Like many players, Roldan has worked at youth camps, but, he said, “this is going to be all new.”
“As players, we have to think about our futures, and I could see myself moving into that [coaching] field,” he said. “With all this experience we’ve gathered from different coaches, we have this unique quality.”
Roldan is also still pursuing a degree in sociology from the University of Washington, which he left after two seasons to turn pro. While taking the coaching class, he has paused his college studies.
Chambaron and Scott Flood, the USSF’s director of coaching operations, said players have always shown interest in coaching courses but scheduling conflicts and time demands dissuaded many from enrolling.
The pandemic, though, forced the federation to introduce mostly virtual schedules, trimming in-person sessions to one from two or three. It also brought closer collaboration between the USSF and the leagues and players’ associations.
“We’ve been hearing feedback that this is really something they wanted to do and get going before they retire,” Flood said.
Said Chambaron: “We need to make education more accessible to this community.”
Many former MLS players have gone into coaching, most notably U.S. Coach Gregg Berhalter and Jesse Marsch, who is entering his first season in charge of Bundesliga club RB Leipzig.
Berhalter, a former national team defender, earned an “A” license from UEFA, the European governing body, during a 15-year playing career overseas. He coached Sweden’s Hammarby for two seasons. In 2016, he was a member of the inaugural class to earn the U.S. “Pro” license, the highest offered by the USSF.
Zardes and Roldan said they haven’t spoken to Berhalter and his staff about coaching pursuits because they don’t want to mix side projects with national team ambitions. At some point, they agreed, they will approach their superiors for guidance.
“I love soccer and it might be a career I choose when I am done playing,” Zardes said. “You just never know. I have my college degree. I have all kinds of backup plans. But I know a lot about soccer and been doing it my whole life, so why not pursue a coaching license?”
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