In his 30-plus years of coaching, David Richardson has never had a soccer player come through Sockers FC in Chicago and later find success without seeing them overcome some sort of adversity.
Richardson, who will turn 50 later this year, has helped develop nearly 50 professional players and even more collegiate ones during the course of his career. He’s seen them all face various obstacles.
It’s that community within Sockers FC, which is a U.S. Soccer Development Academy club, that Richardson often turns to with his current players – there are about 800 players in the club now – to help them overcome their own hurdles and attempt to reach new heights in their development.
“A strength to being a part of a community for 30-plus years is you have a library of times where you can go back and say I know what you’re facing,” said Richardson, who is Sockers FC president and technical director. “I have seen other players go through this. Look at what they did and this is what he does now and you can do the same. We have been stable in this community for a very long time, and that’s because we have a stable program that has been about placing players for a very long time.”
Richardson has stories for Sockers FC alumni Jay DeMerit, Mike Magee, Will Johnson, Baggio Husidic, Jonathan Spector and many others who went on to play professionally. The one example that especially grabs the attention of his current players is Michael Bradley, who will be playing in Chicago with the U.S. Men’s National Team against Costa Rica in the Copa America Centenario at Soldier Field on Tuesday.
Bradley played for Richardson for about five years when he lived in the Chicago area while his father Bob Bradley coached the Chicago Fire. Richardson fondly remembers Michael spending a lot of long days after school training or hanging out at the club.
“Here’s the thing: Michael is somebody all the kids in our program can identify with,” Richardson said. “I can tell many stories with Michael about how many challenges and obstacles he faced. They only see him as the captain of the National Team and a guy with opportunities to play in Europe and now leading a MLS club back home here. Their eyes and ears perk up.
“I can tell you this – those are the unique things about it. You can give perspective to some young players that don’t realize even for the best guys it wasn’t so easy from the beginning, wasn’t so easy all the way up. They had challenges. They weren’t the strongest guys. They sometimes had injuries. They sometimes made mistakes, had deficiencies in their games.”
How Sockers FC came to be what it is today began with the vision of Richardson and Nilton Batata, Sockers FC’s vice president and director of operations. They began building the club in the late 1980s while they were still playing professionally. In time, they transitioned from part-time coaches to full-time ones.
Richardson and Batata were very much on the same page for what they wanted their club to be.
“I would say we were very passionate about the game,” said Richardson, who moved to the Chicago area from England when he was eight. “We were passionate about wanting to teach the game. We were passionate about wanting the kids to have an experience I don’t want to say different, but it was just something we loved to do – training a lot, traveling and doing things with groups. Putting it together wasn’t difficult because it was the vision we started with.”
Sockers FC has been developing youth players in the Chicagoland area for more than 25 years and is now a well established member of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy.
Richardson and Batata have always placed an emphasis on player development. The club has won its share of tournaments over the years, but that’s never been their focus. Richardson believes the creation of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy in 2007 has swayed many other clubs to that mentality as well.
“I think about soccer now nine years later,” Richardson said. “The boys game is in a much better place where success is ultimately measured. It’s done a lot of good things to guide the thought process to move away from the result-based success model to people thinking about the actual development and the actual placement and actual performance level you can get a player to.
“I always say the responsibility of the club is to be a launching pad for the players, not the players being a launching pad for the club. That’s the essence of who we are and what we should be doing and how we are measuring our success.”
Richardson holds many duties within Sockers FC from on the field to off it. He’s considered himself a mentor for players for many years. In the coming years, he’d like to be the same with coaches within youth soccer.
“I do see my role moving forward to develop and mentor others within our program, start to take on those functions and those responsibilities and in that way in terms of culturally, methodology,” Richardson said. “Where I’ve mentored players for 32 years, now I think I start to take on that role how to mentor and how to help develop other coaches and leaders within the youth profession.”
Among what Richardson will pass on to those coaches is just how much influence they can have on a player.
“It’s very humbling you realize how important the role of the coach is not just X’s and O’s, but in being able to provide hope for the player and motivation for the player,” Richardson said. “Those things are critical. Sometimes coaches don’t understand that the right word at the right time can make the biggest influence in a kid’s life. Just like the wrong word at the wrong time can make a difference the other way. We all must know we have a huge responsibility because we’ve been entrusted with this.”