With the USA-Honduras, Presented by Volpi Foods set for Friday at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, ussoccer.com dug into the story of Soccer America magazine. An institution of the game in this country, the magazine was started by Clay Berling in nearby Albany, Calif., in 1971 and continues as an online publication under the direction of long-time editor Paul Kennedy, who will be recognized as the latest recipient of the Colin Jose Media Award prior to Friday's game.
At the outset, Paul Kennedy never intended his personal and professional life to intertwine so neatly. He just wanted to find a good place to live in Albany, Calif. some two decades ago.
Kennedy turned to a trusted confidant to facilitate the process. The search through Berkeley and its surroundings brought his family – including wife Cheryl and son Paulie – to a home down the block from the birthplace of the magazine where he worked.
Soccer America founder Clay Berling, in 2016 with first issue of Soccer America (then Soccer West) published in 1971
“It was a total coincidence,” Kennedy explained to ussoccer.com recently. “[Soccer America founder] Clay Berling was an [insurance] agent in Albany, the town where I live, right next to Berkeley. My wife and I and our son, we were living in Emeryville and looking to buy a house here in 1996. It just happened to be that it was across the street from the church where Clay used to lay out the pages for Soccer America.”
The proximity between his home and the formative location for his passion and his pursuit proved as fitting then as it does now. The short walk across the way illustrates the enduring bonds formed during a journey started some four decades ago and reinforces why Kennedy is slated to receive the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame Colin Jose Media Award prior to the World Cup Qualifier between the United States and Honduras in San Jose, Calif. on Friday.
Receiving the most prestigious award for an American soccer journalist in northern California represented a completely unexpected outcome for a child who grew up in Tuxedo Park, New York.
This unanticipated course started with a curiosity about the world at large. Kennedy followed baseball and football like many other kids of the time, but gravitated to soccer more and more as the years progressed. The influence of a neighbor, Peter Elser, one of the founders of NASL side New York Generals, and a European vacation played their part, too. He liked a lot of things about exploring clubs from overseas and reading missives in foreign publications, but he truly embraced how everything intersected.
“The thing that always struck me about soccer was the fact that it was an international sport,” Kennedy said. “When I was a kid, I always loved history and politics. That’s something with soccer, you can immediately learn so much about a country by following its soccer.”
Former U.S. national team coach Bora Milutinovic visits Soccer America’s offices post-World Cup 1994. (L-R: Former Soccer America associate editor Duncan Irving, Milutinovic, Paul Kennedy, senior editor Ridge Mahoney)
As Kennedy navigated his way through college at Colgate and law school at the University of Richmond, he nurtured his interest in the game. He learned about Soccer America after visiting the U.S. Soccer Football Association offices in New York, procuring a yearbook and spotted an ad for it in its pages. He started as a contributor on the East Coast in 1974 and eventually joined France Football as a U.S. correspondent a few years later.
The seventies were heady times for soccer in the States. NASL commanded column inches and headlines. Kennedy monitored those proceedings and tracked the emergence of promising college coaches like Bruce Arena at Virginia and Anson Dorrance at North Carolina.
By the time he completed his J.D. in Richmond in 1982, the landscape had changed considerably. NASL petered out and eventually folded. Kennedy followed his burning desire to practice law and spent two years as a lawyer in Virginia. His weekends inevitably included excursions to Charlottesville and Chapel Hill to file his latest dispatch, but a trip to Annapolis during the Olympic soccer tournament in 1984 set him on course toward California instead.
“I was there with all of the French reporters, covering the games and helping them off the field,” Kennedy said. “I remember leaving when they were going onto California on their way to France winning the gold medal and driving back to Richmond and thinking that it convinced me that I wanted to find a way to be in soccer and find those opportunities.”
The path took Kennedy from Virginia to California and a full-time role as Managing Editor for Soccer America in 1985. The lawyer-turned-journalist joined a vibrant publication with an increasingly critical role in a tattered landscape.
For the coaches and players scattered across the country, Soccer America provided a weekly touchstone for news they could not find anywhere else. The magazine delivered updates from across the country and across the world. Its writers, including 2010 Colin Jose Media Award winner Paul Gardner and current staffers Ridge Mahoney and Mike Woitalla, chronicled everything from the U.S. National Team down to the bustling youth scene.
As Kennedy recalls now, Soccer America “grew tremendously” for more than a decade as readers craved more information. The magazine served as a hub for the game in the country as the 1994 FIFA World Cup generated headlines, MLS made its first steps a few years later and the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup took the nation by storm. The magazine profiled the standouts and the stars as the game ascended once more.
Soccer America booth at 2016 NSCAA Convention. (L-R: Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner, Hall of Famer Paul Caligiuri, Paul Kennedy)
During that period and throughout his tenure, Kennedy played a key part in directing coverage and steering the conversation. His enduring and vital contributions reinforced Soccer America’s place as an important conduit of information for a growing sport. The magazine even landed on the Chicago Tribune’s list of the Top 50 magazines in 2003, an accomplishment made even sweeter because his younger sister also claimed a spot on the list with a magazine she started.
“To me, the magazine is what left our mark on the soccer community,” Kennedy said. “It was our contribution to the sport. It was also something where -- in terms of the product -- I’d go back and look at issues and be amazed at the stuff we produced every week.”
Soccer America exists in a different form now as the Internet age dictates a different model. The weekly tabloid transformed into a glossy quarterly. Kennedy, Mahoney and Woitalla focus on daily newsletters and postings, not periodic updates. Their continued place in the landscape reflects the enduring nature of the magazine started in that familiar church a minute or two away.
The opportunity of a lifetime rose from those humble beginnings and paved the way for something unique and special. It eventually allowed a determined lawyer to chase his dreams, serve as General Manager and Editor in Chief of a prestigious magazine since 2008 and stake out his own influential place in a developing world.
“I remember once early in the morning, I had the radio on,” Kennedy said. “It was some talk show and they brought on some expert. The expert was saying that if you want to be happy in life, learn something that only you know about, become an expert at it, and you’ll be happy. That was me. My itch in life was to know a lot about soccer. Now there are dozens of guys who know it. I was fortunate to do it in a day when there weren’t so many people.”
Kennedy gave his career to the magazine and it repaid him in spades. He met his future wife when she worked in customer service and requested answers to reader questions a long time ago. They raised their son – now a junior in college and a baseball player at a local university – in that house they found by chance and funded through soccer.
Albany United Methodist Church, where Clay Berling began publishing Soccer America (then Soccer West) in its basement in 1971
Coincidence or not, that church just a few steps down the way from the family home offers a daily reminder of a pursuit worth chasing and a life well spent.
“We’ve lived here for 20 years,” Kennedy said. “The thing is that we were all very lucky. We were able to contribute to the sport and do something that we loved.”