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Where are they Now: MNT Defender Cle Kooiman

As a blond, curly-haired American defender, Christopher Clemence “Cle” Kooiman wasn’t expected to last long in the Mexican league when he signed with Cobras de Ciudad Juarez in 1989 – at least according to the local sports pundits.

“I was expected to be the first player to be kicked out,” Kooiman says with a laugh.

His first game – which many thought would be his last – was against perennial power America, and its newly acquired Paraguayan striker Raul Vicente Amarilla, who later was chosen as one of the Mexico City giant’s top 100 players in the club’s history.

“He was 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5, tall lanky guy, but I ate him up in front of a sold out crowd of 29,000.” Kooiman said. “I had a fantastic first game. I had a great ride.”

It was a ride that would include six seasons in Mexico at a time when “white Americans” playing south of the Rio Grande were literally unheard of. Kooiman would rise to become captain of Cruz Azul, America’s crosstown rival and another perennial power and pave the way for other Americans to follow: Marcelo Balboa, Tab Ramos, Mike Sorber and Dominic Kinnear.

“He’s still probably more recognized in Mexico than he is in the U.S.,” said Thomas Rongen, Kooiman’s coach with the Tampa Bay Mutiny.

It was a career that - while also including the 1994 FIFA World Cup - seemed unlikely at best. Kooiman was drafted and signed while still in high school by the Los Angeles Aztecs, the NASL team partly owned by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Elton John.

But the team folded in 1981 before he got a chance to play a game and – after “thinking of doing the surfing thing” - he ended up enrolling at San Diego State. He was drafted by the indoor San Diego Sockers, but preferring to not play in the MISL, he held out for the Tulsa Roughnecks. When that didn’t materialize, he ended up on indoor side Los Angeles Lazers.

It was a way to make a living playing soccer in the United States, but had its less-than-glamorous moments, if not all that bothersome to a 20-something Californian.

During preseason training for the Lazers, life was a little more casual than during the regular season.

“We’d have three training sessions a day, starting with a beach run,” Kooiman recalled. “I had a VW camper bus. I’d park it on the beach and stay the night so I’d be ready the next morning. I used to go surfing all day. I’d take any chance to go surfing.”

But after five seasons with the Lazers, he made the move outdoor to the California Kickers and then the San Diego Nomads, which at least earned him a look from the U.S. Soccer Federation. While playing with a U.S. “B” team at a tournament in Tijuana against Cobras, he impressed even more.

“After a couple of games, I was approached by some guy speaking Spanish. I didn’t understand a word he was saying,” Kooiman said. But with teammate Mike Getchell as a translator, he found out Cobras were interested.

They met, and now with Getchell as an agent, the pair flew to Juarez to sign a contract.

Although pale in complexion, Kooiman was 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds. With an aggressive game honed on the artificial turf covered hockey rinks of the United States, he forged a formidable and intimidating presence in the middle of the back line.

While playing in a league that relied on skillful but slightly built players, some Mexican teams had begun to introduce bigger, more physical forwards.

“The biggest players in Mexico were (Carlos) Hermosillo and Zague (Luis Roberto Alves). They were the two biggest tanks,” said Balboa, a U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame defender, a teammate of Kooiman’s at the 1994 World Cup and now a TV analyst for the Colorado Rapids.

“They were both over six feet, good in the air, and when they came into prominence, Mexican teams went looking for defenders that could maneuver and stay with them.”

It was an environment Kooiman thrived in, jumping from the relatively obscure Cobras to Cruz Azul in 1991.

“He was the first American to break into Mexico and he was captain of a top-three team in Mexico,” Rongen said. “Not many have done that, particularly at a time when white Americans were frowned upon.”

When he moved to Cruz Azul, the press speculation of his demise was reinvigorated. With the team struggling in the first two months of the season, media pundits predicted he was ripe for transfer. But Kooiman remained steadfast in his attitude and stuck to his routine: staying after practice to work on technique, continually working on his fitness and visiting the gym – usually alone - regularly to improve his strength and conditioning.

“But then couple of reserve players joined me, then some of the big pros,” he said. “Eventually, it created an environment of going the extra step.”

By midseason, Cruz Azul manager Nelson Acosta was let go, and assistant Enrique Meza took over. “Los Azulinos” had a practice of secluding themselves two days before a game and when Kooiman checked into the hotel Meza said he wanted to speak with the American the following day.
“Now I’ve got 24 hours, and I’m thinking, maybe he’s changing my position or putting me on the bench,” Kooiman said. But the conversation turned out to be drastically different.

“I remember like it was yesterday. He brought into his room; he sat on corner of the bed; I was nervous, and then he said he was making me team captain,” said Kooiman. “He spoke a little English and I spoke a little Spanish. He told me ‘I’m just really impressed with you as a man. I believe in you, the team supports you as well.’ It was one of the most emotional things in my career.”

Looking back on a team that included current Mexican national team coach “Chepo” de la Torre and Carlos Hermosillo, Kooiman was overwhelmed.
“I get choked up thinking about it now,” he said.

All of it would lead to the 1994 World Cup and playing a full 90 minutes against Switzerland as the United States earned its first point at the world championship in 44 years. But with a torn meniscus in his right knee, injured in a friendly against Bayern Munich less than a month before the start of the World Cup, he was limited to the one match as the United States reached the second round.

Kooiman finished his Mexican career with Morelia before returning home to help launch Major League Soccer in 1996. He played two seasons with the Mutiny and another with the Miami Fusion before injuries ended his career at 35.

“I was very depressed and felt very alone. I lost my passion,” Kooiman said. “I got back to California in 1999 and did a year of nothing.”

But after a period of time, Kooiman was drawn back into the game. A mysterious phone call led to the big defender rediscovering his love for the game by working with kids.

“I got a call on my cell from a guy and I didn’t know him, but he told me: ‘I have a girls’ team. They went 0-15, lost every game; they were outscored 97-1.’ I started training the team and it was my biggest challenge outside of my career. From that point forward, I found an incredible passion working with youth players.”

He became the director of Arsenal FC in Temecula, Calif., for seven years. Along the way he helped Rongen in two stints with the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team and when the Dutch native coached Chivas USA.

For the past five years, he’s been the technical director of Platinum FC in San Bernardino, east of Los Angeles, in charge of a club with 30 teams for girls and boys ranging from U-9 to U-19.

Located in a city with traditionally high rates of crime and poverty, Platinum – officially called Platinum Academic Club of Excellence - pushes its educational component as well its successes. It’s a point of pride Kooiman makes sure anyone is aware of when they ask about the club.

“He really was content. He felt very good where he was at,” Rongen said of his former protégé. “I don’t think he feels the itch to go to (the professional) level. I think he’s found his niche. There’s more stability, considering what he’s done as player, he has more to offer as coach. And as far as an educator, he cares about that, as well.”

For a player who charted an unconventional path as a player, Kooiman seems to have settled into a career without as many doubts.

“For 17 years I was traveling every week. Now I’m working with youth, and I’m where I need to be,” the 49-year-old Kooiman said. “I’ve had a great life.”

--Brian Trusdell