Seeing the Light: Coaches from other sports find value in recruiting soccer players

Grant Hill was a pretty good basketball player. A 19-year NBA veteran, Hill was the third overall pick in the NBA draft and was NBA co-Rookie of the Year (with Jason Kidd) in 1995. He was a seven-time NBA All-Star, five-time All-NBA selection, and three-time winner of the NBA Sportsmanship Award. At Duke University, Hill was the 1994 ACC Player of the Year, a two-time NCAA All-American, and a two-time NCAA champion.

The first sport he loved? Soccer.

The son of former NFL great Calvin Hill played the Beautiful Game in Northern Virginia up until his early teenage years, when a growth spurt made him very aware of basketball (he was 6-6 as a sophomore at South Lakes High School in Reston, Va.)

“When I was about 12, I just didn’t have the taste for football,” Hill told The Washington Post in 1988. “Soccer helped me on the basketball court and I really enjoy the game now.”

This probably wouldn’t surprise University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh.

+Dougherty: High school coaches, don’t forget to write a Thank You card

“I don’t think there is (a) better game for running and eye-foot coordination, there’s really no other game like it,” Harbaugh said, according to the sports website Stack. “I always encourage youngsters in America to play soccer. I think every American boy should play soccer until the eighth grade, then they should play football—American football.”

The closing sentiment aside, Harbaugh’s absolutely right, and a trip to Italy’s Series A side AS Roma confirmed it for the hard-nosed former NFL quarterback and coach.

Former NFL standout receiver Wes Welker – who once scored 16 goals in one game – credits his youth travel soccer experience with his well-known ability to find gaps in defenses and to create passing lanes to him from the quarterback. Think of a holding midfielder in the middle third of the pitch showing to receive a pass from his center back, and you have a Brady-to-Welker connection. For Welker, it was straight from the training ground to the gridiron.

Hakeem Olajuwon, named one of the NBA’s 50 all-time great players, credits his quickness, ability to anticipate players, and shot-blocking skills with his time as a youth goalkeeper in his home country of Nigeria. And he can still juggle a ball.

Many know that Beckham played soccer. No, not David; Odell, the New York Giants wide receiver who started playing soccer at age three and considered going professional in his teens. Moving to Europe wasn’t an option for Beckham, however, and he converted to American football. Soccer, Beckham said, “was my first love.”

Like Harbaugh, Washington State University head football coach Mike Leach believes young athletes should play soccer. In fact, Leach goes out of his way to recruit football players who once played futbol.

“I’ve had great luck with soccer players, to the point where, in recruiting, it’s a plus if the guy played soccer,” Leach told Stack. “They’re coordinated on both sides of their body, both feet are coordinated, and they’re good at making cuts on both sides of their body. They tend to be explosive on both sides of their cuts. It’s a huge benefit. All those soccer players and coaches that are maligned by football coaches around the country, I want them all coming my direction.”

A wise coach.

It makes perfect sense that the physical and mental characteristics that make a good soccer player also carry over to other sports. For Grant Hill, it’s the footwork that he developed through dribbling that undoubtedly influenced the lightning-quick first step he had going to the rim – even for a 6-8 point guard. For Welker, it was the likely the constant need for him to see the entire soccer field – “head on a swivel” – that gave him the confidence and understanding to find the seams between linebackers and turn a five-yard pass into a 13-yard gain. (As a Steelers fan, I hated typing that sentence). And it was probably the running with a ball at his feet that helped make Odell Beckham so good tip-toeing the sideline to make one-handed grabs for the New York Giants.

+Dougherty: Unlucky? No, you simply messed up.

And I suspect coaches of other sports who warmly welcome soccer players onto their rosters are unaware of the field / court awareness these players bring. After all, soccer is played without timeouts. Players have to make their own decisions – thousands in a single game, all without the coach stopping the action to give instruction or order a set play.

Mental acuity without rest is a requirement for competitive soccer players.

Old-school football coaches who dismiss soccer are missing out on some of the smartest and most athletic players in the country. Coaches like Harbaugh and Leach recognize the special skill sets soccer players bring to their teams.

And I’m not worried about a sudden rush from the soccer pitch to the gridiron or basketball court. Football will always primarily demand size, weight and strength; basketball will always require players with unusual height and length. But certain positions – the point guard in basketball, the slot receiver in football – may someday be regularly populated by former soccer players.

Ultimately, the fact that coaches from other sports make a point of recruiting soccer players is a complement to the Beautiful Game.