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Feature Story

Menace soccer team welcomes new dawn

5/1/2019

A new coach, a new league, a new stadium and a new home office.

Jonathan Bolanos

In the U.S., soccer begins again each spring, when everything renews itself. This year, however, is so full of new beginnings for the Des Moines Menace that lilacs might expect to bloom in new colors, shapes and fragrances. This is not just a new season and a new team; it also brings a new coach, a new league, a new stadium and a new home office. Last things first. The Menace now locates its offices in the Kum and Go Building on Grand Avenue across from the Pappajohn Sculpture Garden. That probably makes them the only team in the world headquartered in a building designed by Renzo Piano, arguably the world’s greatest architect. Piano’s San Nicola Stadium in Bari is still considered state of the art 27 years after he designed it. In America, we tear down stadiums before they are 27 years old.

The “new” stadium is the oldest around these parts. Drake Stadium will host this year’s home games opening the possibility of inspiring more youth soccer in the inner city and increasing attendance. The aegis of playing in a venerable college stadium, where Notre Dame has played football, is dramatically more exciting than playing in a high school stadium, even a special one such as Valley. 

The “new” league is the result of rebranding and realignment. In 2018, the Menace claimed the regular-season championship for the Premier Development League, which has since rebranded as USL League Two. Like last year, the Menace will compete in a Heartland Division against the Kaw Valley F.C., the St. Louis Lions, the Thunder Bay Chill, and WSA Winnipeg. For 2019, the division welcomes a new, team, the Green Bay Bullfrogs. The Heartland division loses Chicago FC United, which has shifted to the Great Lakes Division after two years in the Heartland. The first season of USL League Two will have more than 70 teams competing in 10 divisions and four conferences. The Heartland and Great Lakes divisions will compose the Central Conference.

The new coach is Mark McKeever, who signed a two-year deal after two straight one-and-out coaches. He comes to the franchise with previous experience in the Premier Development League (PDL) and as a long-time college soccer coach in Georgia. McKeever is a native of Motherwell, Scotland, a soccer-mad town with a  tradition that includes playing in the same stadium since 1896 and staying in the Scottish Premier League since 1985. McKeever spent four seasons as the Mississippi Brilla’s head coach. That Clinton team became Mississippi’s first soccer team, in 2007, since the demise of Jackson’s Chargers in last century. McKeever’s run there includes a trip to the PDL Final Four in 2017 and the third round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup last year. He’s also been the coach of Georgia’s Young Harris College Mountain Lions in the Peach Belt Conference since 2005. He has compiled a 187-65-14 record there.

McKeever says he will bring quite a few players to Des Moines from his southern background.

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“Two goal keepers from Mississippi will join us,” he said. “I will drive up from Mississippi and pick up players on the way. We’ll have a couple players from Tulsa, one from University of Tulsa and one from Oral Roberts. Two of them have been drafted already by the MLS (Major League Soccer). One is from the University of Virginia. We never know what we have till everyone shows up but there will be many new faces.”

What does the Scotsman think of youth soccer in the U.S. compared to overseas soccer?

“It’s hard for me to say because I have been here 21 years now. I can compare the U.S. today to Scotland 21 years ago and that’s different from today to today,” he said. “Mainly the main difference is that in the U.S. most youth coaches are paid and overseas most are volunteers. That creates a different kind of player. U.S. players are more physical and tactical. Overseas players are more imaginative and better receivers. The latter learn their skill sets on playgrounds. If there is a main rap against U.S. soccer, it is that this country has never produced a creative genius, like so many Brazilians.”

What formation does he plan to play?

“I don’t stick to a single formation. I prefer a back three to a back four, with two wingers, four midfielders and a lone striker. I think most games are won in the middle and up. If you win most of the 50-50 balls in midfield, your chances of creating shots are greater. I think players have to be adjustable — to move around and change positions. I believe that far more games are won by factors than formations, by players than by coaches,” McKeever said.

What are his favorite European clubs?

“Celtic is my team. I really admire Pep Guardiola so obviously I like Barcelona and Manchester City. I like to watch Arsenal and Liverpool, and PSG,” he said.

Had he been to Des Moines before his interview for the job here?

“Yes. I was here for a game between Memphis and the Menace in 2001,” he recalled.

Having coached in both college and the PDL, what does he perceive as the differences?

“Your PDL rosters have far more depth. In college you are limited by scholarships. In the PDL you get the best college players at all positions. Fan support is much better in the PDL, too,” he said. 

Is soccer the future of American sports?

With so much new stuff this year, it’s time to visit the state of soccer in Iowa and America. For decades the sport’s enthusiasts have been telling anyone who would listen that soccer is the sport of the future in America. Cynics and soccer haters have responded, “Yes it is. And it always will be.”

The enthusiasts have pointed to the sport’s growing attraction with youth. U.S. Youth Soccer (USYS) is the largest member of the United States Soccer Federation and the governing body of youth soccer in the United States. According to them, youth soccer in America has 3 million players, with 48 percent of them female, and with an 11.5 year old median age. That’s considerably more participants than Little League Baseball, the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts. They claim 32,111 youth soccer players in Iowa.

According to the New York Times, however, the percentage of 6 to 12-year-olds playing soccer regularly has dropped nearly 14 percent, to 2.3 million players nationally, in the last three years. It’s unclear if that number contradicts the USYS number because different measurements are used.

One thing is certain, though. All traditional sports are losing youth participants in America. Parents discourage their kids from participating in sports in which they fear injuries, even running. Ann Williams-Flood was one of Iowa’s greatest high school swimmers. Her two eldest daughters were world-class distance runners. She discouraged her two younger daughters from running, worried about long term effects from the pounding of pushing legs to overachieve.

There are also far too many distractions today to sports participation. Children now have chances to play sports their grandparents and parents did not — lacrosse, competitive video gaming, field hockey, rowing, etc. Even more significant is that things never considered sports are now holding competitions that attract huge numbers of young eyeballs to television and computer screens. Cooking, baking, dancing, cheerleading, singing and marching bands now have national competitions and big prize money. Some, like “American Idol,” draw young talent and young viewers in huge numbers.

Still, the future looks brighter for soccer than most sports. A Gallup poll completed in December found that 7 percent of Americans named soccer as their favorite sport to watch. While that may not sound like much, the figure represents a significant, 3-percentage-point gain from just four years ago. Soccer is the only sport to post such an increase. Football (37, down from 39 percent), basketball (11 percent, down from 12 percent) and baseball (9 percent, down from 13 percent) all showed declining numbers. (Hockey was at 4 percent, percent up from 3 percent.)

Bob Cook in the New York Times predicted it is very likely that soccer will surpass baseball in this survey the next time such a poll is taken. Perhaps more telling are the demographics behind such numbers: Only 1 percent of those polled by Gallup older than age 55 named soccer as their favorite. But among adults aged 18-34, soccer was the favorite sport of 11 percent, tying basketball. Only 6 percent of those younger adults chose baseball as their favorite sport. Self-defined “liberals” also showed a greater preference for soccer. Among that political group, the gap between football and soccer was just 15 points.

The Wall Street Journal published a piece called “Why Children Are Abandoning Baseball.” For years there has been justifiable hand-wringing over African-American youth “abandoning” baseball. The Journal article blamed a greater emphasis on so-called elite travel sports that have become more expensive and forced children to specialize in a single sport at an earlier age.

In 2002, 9 million people between the ages of 7 and 17 played baseball in the U.S., according to the National Sporting Goods Association. That figure had dropped by more than 41 percent, to 5.3 million 10 years later. Likewise, youth softball participation declined from 5.4 million to 3.2 million over the same span.

Heartland Division preview

Des Moines Menace: The Menace celebrated its 25th anniversary with a 13-0-1 mark and the team’s fifth straight appearance in the league playoffs. Chicago, which lost all four regular-season games to Des Moines last season, found payback in a 1-0 win on July 21. This knocked the Menace out of the PDL postseason.

Notable: More than 150 Menace alumni have played professionally. The franchise’s all-time record in the regular season is 250-126-38.  

Green Bay Bullfrogs: Leading this expansion team is general manager Dannon Anderson, who interned with the Menace in 2015.   

Kaw Valley F.C. 2018: This Kansas team made an impressive debut, earning a 6-6-2 record and PDL New Franchise of the Year.

All-time series: Menace leads 2-0-1; Kaw Valley’s 1-1 tie at Valley Stadium on June 23 was the only blemish on the Menace’s otherwise-unbeaten mark.

Notable: Kaw Valley F.C., nicknamed the Cranes, plays its home games in a combination between Lawrence and Topeka.  

St. Louis Lions: The Lions tied Kaw Valley for third place with a 6-6-2 mark.

All-time series: Menace leads 20-6-10 in a rivalry that began in 2006.  

Notable: Head Coach, Tony Glavin, has been the leading the Lions since the sides inception in 2005.

Thunder Bay Chill: The Chill settled for a 6-7-1 record, missing the PDL Playoffs for just the second time in 12 years.

All-time series: In the league’s longest continually running rivalry, the Menace leads 32-26-5 in a series that began in 2000.

Notable: Thunder Bay has made it to the league final on four occasions, winning the cup in 2008 and finishing second in 2010, 2013 and 2017.  

WSA Winnipeg 2018: WSA Winnipeg was 0-14-0

All-time series: Menace leads 21-0-1 in a series that began in 2011.

Notable: Des Moines has outscored Winnipeg 77-9 – including a 37-1 advantage in home games against the Canadian club. ♦   

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