Q&A With Tacoma Stars GM And Head Coach Darren Sawatzky
After leading the Stars through their final games of last season, Darren Sawatzky returns as head coach and general manager for the team’s first full season playing in the Major Arena Soccer League. Darren took some time to speak about his background as a player, coaching experience, and what he’s most looking forward to heading into the Stars 2015 campaign.
You put together a long professional career as a player. What are some of your personal highlights from your playing days?
Getting drafted by the New England Revolution in the very first MLS draft. I played college soccer at the University of Portland and graduated in 1995. I went to Mexico to really try out for a couple of clubs down there. And then in 1996, they had the MLS draft for the very first year. Getting drafted into that league, and helping build that league, that was a really cool highlight.
There were times when I got called into an U.S. Olympic Team pool. Those were fun times. It’s good to be recognized like that.
Coming back to play for the Sounders at the end of my career was a lot of fun. We won some division titles and some different things, so that was a lot of fun.
You began coaching pretty early into your playing career. Is that always something you wanted to do? How did you get your start?
You know, I really coached throughout my entire playing career. I’ve always had an affinity for it. I was campsite director for the old FC Seattle Storm camps when I was 18 years old. I was running soccer camps at a pretty big level at a pretty young age, so I’ve been coaching pretty much since I graduated high school.
What are some of your favorite moments from your coaching career thus far?
The most important thing that I get isn’t the championships. We’ve won some, which is awesome, but more importantly you get to see people grow. It’s pretty unbelievable when you’ve coached a kid who’s a youth player, whether it’s in a high school program or an academy program, and then a decade later they’re married and they have kids and they come back and say, “You had a really positive influence at one point in my life.” That’s really what I relish about coaching.
When you get to the higher levels of coaching, you start winning things. In 2012, our Sounders U23 team made it all the way to the national semifinal. We won the Western Conference Championship and the Northwest Division Championship in the hardest division in the PDL. If you look now, so many players on that team are playing at MLS and the English Premiere League. You look back and it was really awesome to see them because at that point they were pimply-faced young guys eating off $5 dollars trying to make it. Now they’re all big professional soccer players.
Your background shows you have experience coaching both indoor and outdoor soccer. How different is it teaching those two styles?
Coaching and managing people, it doesn’t matter if you’re working in a business office or on the soccer field. You have to understand people and you have to build relationships. That trust piece is really important. I don’t think coaching at these levels, indoor or outdoor, is much different but the games are vastly different.
Indoor soccer is really about preparation and understanding. You have to be clever and set your team up. It is a very fast game and if it isn’t set up correctly and your tactics aren’t good, you’re going to get exposed very quickly. Outdoor is similar, but you have the ability to affect the game more. Bigger field, more time, more tactical pieces that you can adjust. With indoor, you have to get it right or you’re going to be toast.
Is there one style of play that you prefer over another?
I prefer a possession-based style. I like to build. I like the game to be entertaining for fans and I want them to enjoy watching. But sometimes you have to punch things in the face, and that’s just the reality of sports. Sometimes the game has to be more physical with more strength involved.
With indoor soccer, what I’ve really learned is that you have one of two kinds of teams: you’re either a smash mouth team or a possession-slower team. I prefer the possession but it’s always related to the players you have.
How did your relationship with the Stars begin?
Well, that’s an interesting thing. I was one of those kids at the Tacoma Dome in the 1980s who watched the Stars almost every week. I loved it. I had posters on my walls, and I loved all the Stars. The interesting part is that the guys on the original teams, like Neil Megson, I’ve been coached by them, coached with them, played with them, coached against them. It is really a cool evolution. So my connection to the Stars is from the origins of everything.
In terms of the Stars now, Lane Smith got a hold of the Stars as an owner, and I’ve already been a coach and general manager with him for the other teams we run. It was just a natural progression. He asked me if I wanted to coach and I said sure. I like leading and coaching, and that’s how it happened.
Going back to the older Stars clubs, how close are you with some of the older players? Have they helped you with your coaching career?
I would say very close. Alan Hinton and I are good friends, and he is one of the wizards of the game in the Pacific Northwest. I talk to him regularly. Those types of guys affect your career whether you’re working and planning alongside them or against them. You learn very quickly how they prep their teams to beat yours and you see how they manage people. You take something from everybody to try and get better at your craft.
As general manager of the club, you’re obviously charged with finding players to fill out the team, what is the process for going about that?
Obviously, I want players to play the best soccer and prettiest soccer we can, but with any sport at any level, it‘s always related to budget and access. Based on the budget we have, there will be a nice local flare on this team. There will be some guys that people will have seen before and guys I know very well. And we will supplement that with players from around the league and the world. I am lucky that I am pretty connected inside and outside of the US and am able to find players we can bring in.
Specifically to how we are going to do it, I’m using my network to find players but we are also going to run a combine and tryout format in August. That will come up soon enough. John and I are working on that. There will be an open tryout, invite tryout, and combine-type game to try to fill out the rest of the players to bring in.
What can Stars fans expect from the team this season?
Exciting, attacking, fun soccer with energy, and even more importantly, a group of guys with character and connection to the community. We don’t want to be an indoor soccer team where people just come and watch. We want to be something that is connected to our community.
What are you most excited about for this season?
I want to win things. I am not naïve. I know it takes time to build teams and win things. But when you put together a professional soccer team that is a part of things, you’re going to win things. Winning things means putting hardware in the cabinet, but it also means helping players develop and get better and win things, so they know who they are.