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Professional Feb 07, 2012

SW Q&A: Leigh Cowlishaw discusses Richmond Kickers’ past, present, future

By Jimmy LaRoue

RICHMOND, VA. – Leigh Cowlishaw started a recent day boarding an early flight to Tampa, Fla. for the USL PRO combine to scout players for the Richmond Kickers’ USL PRO club.

He returned in time to direct the Richmond Kickers’ U-16 Academy team’s 6:30 p.m. practice that evening at the SportsQuest complex in Chesterfield –

Clearly Cowlishaw, the Kickers’ director of coaching, stays busy. But he recently sat down with Potomac Soccer Wire to share his thoughts on various aspects of the club – from the Ultimate Cup to the U.S. Open Cup, from the changing landscape of open tryouts for the USL PRO team to the development of younger players on the club level.

He also discussed plans for the club to commemorate its 20th anniversary. As part of that, he said plans for an exhibition between D.C. United and the Kickers’ USL PRO team are in the works, and there’s an outside chance of the team setting up a friendly with an English Premiership team.

Here’s part I of PSW’s exclusive conversation with Cowlishaw.

PSW: What did you see from your recent open tryout?

LC: I mean, certainly, it’s changed a lot in the last 10 years because we were one of the first clubs to actually start a club tryout. I think now every club has a tryout and the league has tryouts, so certainly, it’s far more saturated than it has been in the past. The level was not as high as I would have liked. I’m looking for someone who can start for the team, but there’s probably, right now I’d say, two to three players that I’m going to continue to talk with and invite into preseason practices and games and follow them closely to see if they’ll be a good fit for the team moving forward.

PSW: With these tryouts, does it help you that the Richmond Kickers have been a good stepping stone to MLS?

LC: I think a lot of times, the players are knowledgeable about the professional game. We certainly get a lot of positive comments, recommendations, referrals that the Richmond Kickers would be a fantastic organization to work for, and certainly a great team to play for. I believe we try to play the right way. I think a lot of players enjoy playing for the organization, the style of play. Certainly, living in Richmond is a huge benefit as well.

PSW: What kind of plans does the club have with the 20th anniversary year? (The Kickers have been spotlighting players from across their 20 years as a franchise, and the club has just announced a $20 Golden Ticket promotion for an unlimited number of tickets to the season opener April 7 against the Charleston Battery. The Kickers will sport retro 1993 green and blue adidas uniforms, and the club also has plans for various promotions and events throughout its 20th anniversary season.)

LC: It’s a celebration of what we’ve accomplished and where we’re going to go next. You look back now, the Richmond Kickers have two of the best soccer complexes on the East Coast – Ukrop Park and Hensley [Soccer Complex]. We have over 6,000 players who are involved in some form of our programming. I think the final piece for us right now is to see if we could actually build a soccer-specific stadium that can be a real focal point for the community and really showcase what the sport of soccer is all about, creating that electric atmosphere that, in my opinion, no other sport can really replicate.

PSW: When you started the club, could you have ever envisioned the track your career has taken and the growth of the Richmond Kickers organization, from the pro team on down to the youth levels?

LC: Not back in 1993, certainly not. We never could really foresee how fast it’s actually grown over the last 20 years. And the really exciting piece for me, I think many involved in the sport recognize that the next 20 years are going to be much, much better, and it’s really starting to take off, and people involved in the sport right now are going to get rewarded for the hard work they’ve done over the previous 20 years.

There were, perhaps, times, when I can remember there would never be professional soccer in America, or it would only last a couple of years, MLS started, and, now expanded too fast. And now you rarely hear, any more, individuals in the media with any credibility bashing the sport, saying you have no future in soccer, because I think we’re past that point now. We have the credibility.

PSW: With an established and expanded MLS, you don’t hear the naysayers so much anymore.

LC: Yeah, back in the day…it was easy to bash the sport for people who had no understanding of it or no idea about what the sport actually was. The enjoyable part for me now is that it’s integrated not yet in the mainstream, but it has a strong niche in the U.S. and can only continue to grow in the future, and I’m looking forward to being a part of that.

PSW: Talk about the success of the Kickers’ club structure.

LC: Right now we have two players in the national team, Katie Cousins on the girls’ side in the U-15 and Drew Romig on the boys side on the U-14 player pool, and that’s also been a success story because people forget it was only 10 years ago that the Richmond Kickers Youth Soccer Club was established, and it’s taken it a lot of time and a lot of work to work with numerous youth organizations to bring this club and vision to fruition. And again, I’m looking forward now to really pushing on with the club and providing fantastic programs for our academy boys and even better programs for the girls’ teams on the elite side.

We’re probably going to graduate 20 [Division I] college players in the next two years on the boys’ and girls’ side and, for me, that’s an impressive number for a club of our size. … The vision was created 15 years ago, essentially, and that was before any other club in the whole country had even decided to move in this direction. I can tell you, the fact that we were the first club to move in this direction, from youth to the pros, and fortunately, our vision was to be the future model for U.S. soccer, and that’s happened.

And then clubs with a lot more resources than us and huger player pools then pushed on, and MLS has really raised the bar now. We’re fortunate that we’re able to utilize the professional players and staff to feed the youth programs and provide really high quality coaching across all levels of play, because it’s not just about the top players, it’s about every player within our club who enjoys playing soccer, we want to maximize their potential.

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