From Pro to Coach: Ohio Coaching Staff Brings Unique View

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People often say that those who have played the game at the highest level are the greatest teachers. This phrase seems cliché—especially in today’s culture when it seems that almost every professional coach has played in some facet of the game for a period of time.

But for the Ohio soccer team, the former players have become the greatest teachers to a new generation of players, who could use the discipline of an older guard.

All three of Ohio’s coaches have played professional soccer at some point in their careers and each has an experience or relationship that made them a better player and coach.

Head coach Aaron Rodgers played in the—now defunct—United Soccer Leagues, assistant coach Allison Whitworth played in the—also defunct—Women’s Professional Soccer League and assistant coach Elizabeth Woerle played in the Second German Fraun Bundesliga.

While each of them has quite unique experiences, each of the coaches can agree on one thing: playing at the professional level was an endeavor worth pursuing.

“It’s something that you kind of dream about,” Whitworth said. “I mean it was every kid’s dream to be a professional at any sport it is they play. So that’s the experience I had.”

Whitworth spent her professional days as a goalkeeper for the WPSL’s FC Gold Pride after being drafted 54th overall from Auburn and played both with and against some of the best players in the World during her time at the Santa Clara, Calif., based club.

Some of the more notable names she played against include U.S. women’s national team leading scorer Abby Wambach, Brazilian star Marta and U.S. women’s team stalwart Nicole Barnhart.

Barnhart and Whitworth were teammates during the 2009-2010 season in which FC Gold Pride won the WPS championship, and Whitworth said that the still active U.S. goalkeeper was one of the best teammates she has ever had.

“Barnie is one of my favorite players,” she said. “[I] respect her so much for her hard work and her abilities. Extremely talented, and she has been with the national team for years.”

Whitworth also talked about how Barnhart, who has been a backup to Hope Solo on the national team for a number of years, taught her how to take the position in stride and how to fight for a starting role.

“It’s sometimes tough as a goalkeeper, but [I] learned so much from her,” Whitworth said. “It was good just learning from all her experience.

“[She] had so many games, so many memories, so much expertise to learn from, but a quality teammate, a quality leader off the field.”

Before Whitworth began learning her goalkeeping expertise from a seasoned professional, Rodgers was riding in rickety buses and vans to games during the mid-1990s.

Major League Soccer, America’s current massive domestic league, wasn't established until the late-1990s, but the less-marketable USL has been around since 1986. And while it is still in existence as a lower league to MLS, a smaller league came with larger challenges.

Asked what the USL was like while he was a part of it, Rodgers described how the league of a couple decades ago compares to the MLS of today.

“Well it’s probably a lot different than it is today,” he said. “We barely got paid any money. I think the most I ever got paid was $100 a game.”

To put that into perspective, the median wage for an MLS player in 2013 was $100,000, quite a difference. But Rodgers said that despite the low pay, it was a great time.

“It was an awesome experience to have,” he said. “To be able to play after college a little bit, that’s something I’m so passionate about.”

And that is something that all the coaches agreed upon, saying that the opportunity to play after college was too good to pass on, especially playing in a professional setting.

Woerle, who played in Germany from 2011-2013, jumped at the chance to play professionally, but her experience was definitely different from those of her colleagues.

“It’s just a different world over there,” Woerle said. “If there’s games going on, people just want to be a part of the experience. It’s a culture.”

Her experience also differed because of the discrepancies between American soccer and European football. The biggest difference, according to Woerle, was the technical style of the game, the speed at which it’s played and less of a focus on athleticism with a broader focus on tactics.

Woerle’s foreign professional experience may differ from that of her colleagues, but it doesn’t make her teaching techniques or coaching style any more-or-less valid. For Woerle it is simple; set your expectations high and expect your players to meet them.

“[Germans] know what it’s like to compete at a high level, the expectation is just set. And I think it’s something we are trying to do here at Ohio with these girls; just set the standard high,” she said.

As for Rodgers and Whitworth, both of whom were goalkeepers, their professional training can benefit the Bobcats each day they step onto the field for training. Whitworth, who works predominantly with the goalies, has helped improve the goalkeeping of the program ever since her introduction last season.

During the 2013 season, Ohio racked up 115 saves, recorded four shutouts and averaged 5.75 saves per game, good for second in the Mid-American Conference.

Former Bobcat goalkeeper Mattie Liston was also prolific between the pipes during her last season in 2013, tallying 107 saves—third most in a single season in school history—and recording a .811 save percentage.

Current senior goalkeeper Nicole Amari has followed Liston’s footsteps well, with a 1.628 goals against average so far this season and being ranked No. 25 in the nation in saves per game. While much of the Bobcats' success between the pipes can be attributed not only to the prowess of the players but to the experience and expertise that Rodgers and Whitworth bring.

And as the season continues, that expertise will be needed if Ohio is to repeat the type of season it had in 2013. In Rodgers’ first season at the helm of the Bobcats, the team posted its first non-losing record since 2009, going 7-7-5 record, with five of those wins coming away from Chessa Field—the program’s most away wins in almost a decade. Both of those marks will be hard objectives to replicate this season.

But with the background and wisdom of the Ohio coaching staff, the task is not impossible and if Rodgers, Whitworth and Woerle can bring a professional style to the Bobcats, they could potentially be the team to beat in the MAC. And if they play well enough, maybe one of the Bobcats can go on to live the dream their coaches have and come back to pass their expertise on to the next generation.

Until then, Ohio’s trio remains among the best teachers not only in the MAC, but also within college soccer.