There was almost a feeling of déjà vu when the Whitecaps announced Simon Fraser University Clan head coach Alan Koch as their new USL PRO head coach today.
After another long coaching search, the man the ‘Caps were looking for was close at hand the whole time. And like the Carl Robinson appointment, it looks like they have selected the right man for the job.
Having acted a college scout for the Whitecaps this past season, Koch attended both the recent MLS combine and the SuperDraft with the club. His knowledge of the college game, proven scouting and development of young talent, and strong network of contacts made the 39-year-old’s appointment a real no-brainer as far as the Caps were concerned.
Koch’s success with SFU has been remarkable, and as keen as he was to continue the challenge with the Clan, he always told us that he would consider making a move for the “right opportunity”. That’s now come along with WFC2 and he’s excited to continue his coaching success now at the next level.
Koch’s talents have been in demand before from professional clubs, so what was it about the coaching job with WFC2 that finally tempted him away from the Clan after seven years at the helm?
“I’ve a lot of respect for the club. I’ve a lot of respect for the people that work for the club,” Koch told AFTN. “I definitely have a very similar philosophy to Robbo. To move to the pro ranks when you don’t have to leave home, or my adopted home, is obviously a lot easier.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunities to go away and go live in another country and all that type of stuff, but those weren’t the right fit. I feel very passionate and very loyal to the SFU program, but this was too good to pass by.”
Koch is a student of the game. Much like Carl Robinson, when he’s not coaching football, he’s watching it. I’ve often bumped into him at local soccer matches at all levels, and it’s that passion for the game which immediately drew a bond with the ‘Caps coach. That love of the game and the shared philosophy of how it should be played and how players should be developed. That would have played a huge role in his appointment.
“I think so,” Koch told us. “We’re people who are very passionate about the game. We love the game. We can talk very easily about the game. And then obviously having done some work with him.
“I was here last summer watching him train all the time. I guess he was picking my brain, I was picking his brain. And then going through the whole draft process in terms of scouting players, assessing players. Seeing what he values and what I value. I think we can say we’re on a very, very similar page.”
Koch spent most of the summer working with the Whitecaps MLS squad and observing the coaches. With his strong scouting network and knowledge of the college game, the ‘Caps hired Koch to be their college scout in preparation for this year’s SuperDraft and the South African went to both the MLS combine and draft with the club earlier this month.
That scouting role acted as a trial of sorts. The Whitecaps could see just what kind of player Koch would identify as being able to help the club and whether that fitted into the direction that Robinson was taking the club and what they saw as their needs. The two mindsets meshed seamlessly. They were clearly on the same page.
“Players go on trial but coaches go on trial too sometimes,” Koch acknowledged. “It’s sometimes tough to bring a coach in on trial when we’re sometimes scattered all over the globe. I was here. Came in and worked with them and as much as they were looking at me, I was looking to see what they were doing too and very, very impressed with how things are set and excited to be a part of it.”
As regular AFTN readers will already know from our college coverage, Koch comes to WFC2 with a stellar coaching record at the Simon Fraser University Clan in recent years. He’s racked up 116 wins from 144 games, won four straight Great Northwest Athletics Conference (GNAC) championships from 2010 to 2013 and took the Clan to back to back NCAA Division II Final Four appearances in 2012 and 2013.
A graduate himself from SFU, before Koch went into coaching he had a playing career as a central midfielder, playing professionally in South Africa, Germany and Ireland in spells both before and after his time at college. SFU is part of him, so it must have been a huge wrench to move on. Did he have to seriously weigh up whether to take the WFC2 job or was it a no-brainer?
“I had to weigh it up, definitely,” Koch admitted. “This is a great opportunity and I’m excited by it, that’s why I’m here, but we’ve done a lot at SFU. We’ve built something. I think we’ve put a fantastic infrastructure in place. Safe to say we’re leaving it in a much better place than we got it. So it wasn’t easy to just give up your baby essentially, but the timing was right.
“We’ve done everything there apart from winning the national championship. I wish them nothing but going on and winning that national championship. We’re leaving behind a very, very good team at SFU. The tools are in place. A good group of guys, they’re willing to work hard. So hopefully they can achieve that goal. But the timing was right for me now.”
By Clan standards, 2014 was a disappointing year – they only made the first round of the postseason. With a large turnover of playing personnel and some key injuries, SFU took a little bit of time to find their stride this past season, but Koch pulled them together and they finished the regular season by winning eight of their last nine matches.
After all of their previous headline grabbing heroics these past couple of years, it wasn’t the way that Koch wanted to bow out from the Clan. He leaves with tinge of sadness but he knows that he’s left them in a very strong and healthy state to go on and win that first NCAA crown.
“I think for SFU fans there were some challenges we had, and I can tell you exactly what they were. Justus Hogback, that we brought in from Sweden, a fantastic striker, only played in two games. He got injured and he got a medical redshirt, so he’ll be a freshman again this year. If we had him, that’s another 10 to 15 goals in the season and that would have made a huge difference.
“We also had Adam Jones from Metro-Ford and Pascal Schmidt who came over from the Stuttgart Kickers and both of them, under NCAA rules, had to spend a year of residency, so they weren’t able to play.
“If we had those three players, you’re looking at a Final Four team that can challenge and win it all. Those guys now will all be eligible for next season. It’s tough to leave a good group and that’s a very, very good group. Having trained with them last week, the nucleus was there but this opportunity wasn’t going to come up every year, so when it came up I had to take it.”
Koch’s departure will be heavily felt by SFU and it will be interesting to see who they hire as his replacement to keep the success of program continuing.
There will be other changes when SFU open their 2015 season in September too. Clan captain Jovan Blagojevic will no longer be a part of the side, drafted by the Whitecaps earlier this month. That selection was the biggest indication yet to us at AFTN that Koch was about to become the new WFC2 coach.
Blagojevic credits Koch with his continuing improved development, affording him his chance in the pro ranks. Koch clearly had a huge input into Blagojevic’s selection and he is excited to see what the local winger can now do at the next level.
“He’s a guy who has no ceiling on his game,” Koch told us. “We didn’t bring him in [to SFU] straight out of high school because he wasn’t quite ready. We watched him and he showed signs that he could do it and literally every single year he’s got better and this is why I really promoted him to the Whitecaps.
“I think he’ll come in here and step up and do better. The sky’s the limit for him. It’s great for him to start in USL PRO. Let’s see how he does and that goes for every player. You come in, you get an opportunity, you take it, but he is certainly one of those guys who hasn’t peaked or reached his ceiling by any means. So I’m looking forward to working with him. It’ll be nice to have a familiar face at training.
Blagojevic was the first SFU player to be selected in an MLS draft. The previous year Chris Bargholz garnered a lot of interest and his fellow German, central defender Alex Kleefeldt, went to train at Sporting KC last summer and there was even some talk they may have taken the senior in the draft.
Koch didn’t rule out further additions to the WFC2 training camp from the Clan but added that he “certainly won’t just be zoning in on SFU players. We’ll look everywhere to see if we can find the right guys.”
A number of the ‘Caps USL PRO squad are already known, whilst others are easy to speculate on. So does the new WFC2 coach have an input in what players the ‘Caps might look to bring into his squad, or will that be more dictated by what Robinson and the upper echelons of the Whitecaps management seek?
“I think really by committee is how we’ll do it,” Koch told us. “Obviously Robbo is the manager of the club, so he has full say on all the players but we’ll all work on it together, we’ll identify players together, we’ll discuss them and make sure that we all agree that these are the right players to bring in because there has to be a plan for the guys. There’s no point me saying I’m going to bring a guy in if he doesn’t fit into Robbo’s plan. That makes no sense.”
Koch has a UEFA ‘B’ licence and is working towards UEFA ‘A’ licence, adding to the wealth of coaching qualifications at the Whitecaps right now.
His SFU side were known for their very attacking style of play and Koch doesn’t see that changing when he takes charge in USL PRO.
“I think we’re going to be a very attack minded team, which the first team are too. We’ll play possession football but definitely focus on the outcome. Go forward and see if we can score some goals. Of course we’ll play organised football at the same time. Measured. But there is a club philosophy. I fully support that philosophy. I buy into it and we’ll go out and do exactly that.”
There will be many other similarities to what he has been used to up the mountain these past seven years. He will have a young squad to mould and develop, many of them recent college players. A lot of raw talent, and some egos, to hone. An interesting mix of backgrounds and nationalities.
But amidst all of that, Koch knows that he is being tasked with perhaps the fundamentally most important aspect of the Whitecaps – that crucial missing link in player development between the Residency program and the MLS first team.
Something which we have discussed with Koch on numerous previous occasions was also the missing link for BC players at college or in the local amateur leagues. Those outwith the ‘Caps system right now. Blagojevic is there now to show that it can be done. You can reach the pro ranks from local soccer.
Koch and the Whitecaps also hope that the WFC2 can now be that bridge.
The Whitecaps 2 will start their preseason camp shortly, ahead of a 28 game season, but as the roster starts to take shape the ‘Caps announced today that they will hold open trials for local, national and international players on February 21st and 22nd, with at least one guaranteed spot in the WFC2 preseason training camp.
It’s a chance for some of the unsung local talent in VMSL, FVSL and the college system to impress. I’ve seen the wealth of potential there and so has Koch. Some would thrive in a professional training environment. So if he had a message for these guys and those looking to take part, what would it be?
“Probably one of the biggest complaints locally, in our local football community is people saying that there hasn’t been the opportunities. Well here is the opportunity. The club are investing in it. There’s essentially open try outs. They need to sign up obviously and come and show what they can do, but this is your chance. If you want to be part of it and you think you have the ability, show up.
“Come show us what you’ve got. Opportunities like this don’t present themselves all the time, so it’s nice to have that opportunity here in Vancouver and it’ll be great to see some of the local guys show up and people travel from across the country to see what they can do. I’m excited to assess them. We’ll give honest feedback and hopefully we can make something out of somebody.”
So as Koch gets set to take the next step on his football management journey, how does he look back what the Clan achieved under his guidance? How does he see his legacy at SFU?
“That’s a tough question. I’m a proud alumni. I got my undergrad degree there, I played there, I had a great playing career, I was an assistant coach there, I was a head coach there. I have a bit of SFU in my blood. To be honest, it’s quite tough to stand and see that [pointing at the UBC Thunderbirds logo]. Is it a Thunder Duck or what is it, standing over there!
“No, I’m a proud SFU alumni and it’s sad to leave to be honest. I had a moment before I pressed the send button with my resignation letter. But we’ve achieved a lot. I’m very proud of the work that we did and I wish them nothing but the best.”