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Resources Feb 14, 2014

A former player’s personal reflection on James Ritchie’s time as coach of Kitsap Pumas

By Liviu Bird

Kitsap PumasWhen local fans think about the Kitsap Pumas, they think of James Ritchie. That makes the head coach’s departure to become an assistant for the Oklahoma City Energy of USL Pro that much more unthinkable.

I played for James for three years, training with the Premier Development League team in college before signing a contract of my own after graduation. As one of a handful of professional PDL clubs, they couldn’t sign me while I was in college without nullifying the rest of my eligibility.

James was the first person owner Robin Waite hired, even before he found a head coach. James was an assistant coach for three seasons — working with the goalkeepers, which is how I got to know him so well — before taking over as head coach, and he started the Pumas’ youth program from scratch.

Most fans in Kitsap County sent their kids to James at one point or another, whether it was for a summer camp or to play for one of 13 youth teams.

“I’ve loved every moment I’ve been here. I’ve loved the club, the fans,” James told me over the phone yesterday. “The best part is just getting on the field and working with the first team, working with the kids, and just enjoying it. There’s nothing better than being on a soccer field and making your living out of the best game in the world.”

That sums up James’ thought process pretty well: his passion for the game and for the club are unmatched, and it’s hard to see them ever being equalled. At times, that resulted in some loud disagreements with referees, opponents, or even players — luckily, with his thick Scottish accent, we never understood much of what was said anyway.

He has never been afraid to mix in with the players, even living in the same house as several of them for a couple years after moving to Washington. Off the field with the first team, he got several players involved in coaching the youth camps and teams.

James always related well with the players at camp because he’s always been a kid at heart when it comes to soccer. He has the same child-like enthusiasm toward kicking a ball as many of the “wee ones,” as he would call them.

As a result, James never takes himself or his profession too seriously. After the Pumas’ inaugural 2009 season, he took a makeshift team including a couple guest players to play the Portland Timbers as they prepared for one of their final USL playoff seasons before moving to Major League Soccer.

The Pumas pulled off an improbable 1-0 win, with James pulling the strings. At some point, it might dawn on him that a head coaching job at a decent level would be within his grasp, but that wasn’t exactly his thought process at the time.

The author (right) with new Oklahoma City Energy FC assistant coach James Ritchie. (Courtesy of Kitsap Pumas)

The author (right) with new Oklahoma City Energy FC assistant coach James Ritchie. (Courtesy of Kitsap Pumas)

“Actually, I thought I was a lucky bastard,” he said, laughing. “That was definitely a turning point. It told me that, you know what? Yeah, I think I can do this to a higher level. But I was still very young. I think I was only about 28 at the time, so I knew I had a lot of growing — I still have a lot of growing to do, still have a lot of learning to do. I’m just really excited at getting the opportunity to move on.”

James is 32 now, and after being involved in a club that has moved multiple players onto USL or MLS professional jobs — Bryan Meredith, Daniel Scott, and Bryan Burke, among others — he is moving onto one himself.

Next month, James will officially be introduced as an assistant coach for the Oklahoma City Energy, headed by just-retired MLS Cup-winning goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen. Nielsen hand-picked James to join his staff, and after receiving a call from the new club out of the blue, James decided this week to leave the organization he has helped build from nothing.

“I’ve got every faith that the club is going to grow and continue and get better and better — and hopefully, end up in the USL Pro someday,” James told me. “I think it would be a fantastic thing for Kitsap County, and I think it would be a great thing for soccer in Washington if the Pumas could make that leap.”

You wouldn’t expect him to say anything less, but what he won’t say, I will: without James Ritchie, the Kitsap Pumas will struggle. James was the tie that most people in the community had with the club. His personality kept people coming back to the stadium and kept them sending their kids to camps.

Not to say the club is doomed because plenty of qualified coaches could step in and run a youth program or coach a PDL team, but it will be much more difficult without the glue holding it all together.

As for James, it will be exciting to see him embark on another adventure to build another club from nothing. Neither he nor Nielsen have coaching experience at that level, and as it stands, the team doesn’t have a stadium of its own.

But despite the odds of building a successful club on the Olympic Peninsula of western Washington, James did it. Knowing him, he will embrace the challenge of conquering the Oklahoma City soccer landscape as well.

[ +Follow @liviubird on Twitter ]

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