Keri Sarver (middle) with former U.S. women’s technical director (left) and U.S. national team head coach Jill Ellis (right). (Photo courtesy of Keri Sarver)

By Michael Lewis

After spending several years on the U.S. Soccer youth national training staff, Keri Sarver has returned to Internationals Soccer Club.

Now, that should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with Sarver and her background.

“I’ve been a part of this club since the age of 12,” she said. “Just like soccer is in my blood, this club is in my blood, so to speak.”

Sarver is running the show as director of coaching after directing the U.S. Under-19 women’s national team and being an assistant coach in various capacities with the organization, including at the U-20 level.

Needless to say, Sarver was welcomed back to the club on a fulltime basis by founder and director Zdravko Popovic.

“Obviously, having her back right now is a blessing,” he said. “Her exposure and experience at the national level and the experience and knowledge that she is bringing back to share with the youth within our club, I am ecstatic and happy to have her back. Her contribution to the growth and development of our members is above and beyond. I am happy that she had this opportunity and I am happier that she is back now.

“She grew up in the club, she developed in the club, she perfected herself at the national, international level and she is bringing it all back now. It’s priceless.”

What she is bringing back to the club is priceless after serving for U.S. Soccer for eight years, the last two as the U-19 national coach.

Sarver’s learning curve was great, and she hoped to share much of that with the players, coaches and staff in the club.

“I learned every single day,” she said. “I learned from players at the highest level, they taught me just as much as I taught them. I think it was mutual. When you’re working with players who are driven and are pursuing excellence and trying to be the best at what they do, you have to find new ways to help them reach their goals.

“During each international event, I learned something new, whether it was reading the opposition, or gaining a better understanding of your players as you see them deal with a different style of play, or finding new solutions to break down an opposition. In scouting, sometimes you learn a little about that country culturally as well. We also had an amazing support staff. Whether it was educating players on their nutrition, their recovery habits, or analyzing GPS data – sports science is helping players reach new levels, I think I have learned a lot in that realm that I hadn’t been using as a club or previously as a college coach.

“It was really interesting to me and it helped me train the players more efficiently and effectively. And course,on the tactical side, I had to learn how to adapt quickly and how to teach more effectively. We did not have a lot of time with the players and therefore had to be efficient with planning and implementing our style of play. I also had to learn how to adapt to different learning styles of the players and how to most effectively coach each individual. Being surrounded by so many great coaches helped learn new methodologies of coaching. At times, I personally tended to do what I know I am good at, what comes natural to me. Learning form others and being challenged outside my comfort zone helped me grow. And then just traveling and learning more about myself along the way was an interesting and exciting journey.”

Sarver’s journey took her to about a dozen countries. One of her major highlights was an assistant coach on the team that participated in the FIFA U-20 World Cup in France last summer.

“Being part of last year’s U-20 World Cup cycle and going through a World Cup qualifier, to qualify for a World Cup and then to actually be at the World Cup in France is kind of culmination of a lot of hard work and a dream come true for me,” she said. “It was something that I had aspired to as a player, but never quite got there. But to do it as a coach, it was pretty amazing.”

One single experience did standout — when the U.S. defeated Iran, 5-0, in the CFA International Women’s Youth Football Tournament in China in 2017. It wasn’t the final score that stood out, but the way the Iranians comported themselves.

Iran recently implemented a women’s youth national team program.

“They played with a lot of passion,” Sarver said. “They played with the love of the game. Technically and tactically, they weren’t at our level just yet. It wasn’t that too long ago that females weren’t allowed to play soccer in Iran. With more programming and with more opportunity, of course they can improve from there. Playing with modified uniforms to cover their skin, they had the intangible… playing with passion and love, they never gave up.”

Afterwards, the Iranian captain asked Sarver: “What did you think of us?”

“I just walked away thinking about how brave that question was, again knowing our history in women’s soccer, playing against one of the best female soccer nations and having the courage to ask — what did you think of us?” she said. “I thought that was a pretty unique for sure and amazing experience for us to compete against the Iranian women.”

Sarver’s passion, background, experience and coaching ability did not surprise former U.S. women’s national head coach April Heinrichs, who had brought the Jackson High School graduate onto her staff. Heinrichs, who recently retired as the youth women’s national team director, who was named the 2019 winner of the Werner Fricker Builder Award. She will be honored at the U.S. Soccer Annual General Meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz. Feb. 14-17.

“She is a modern coach. She is extremely intelligent and analytical and picks up things quickly,” said Heinrichs, who recruited Sarver to play for the University of Maryland years ago. “So the tactical side of the game is one of her strengths. She has this incredible ability to articulate her perspective on what she would like to see, what her players should do. She is very sharp, and they respond to that quickly. As a [former] player, she can connect the dots for forwards, the midfield play.”

Sarver was the U-18 assistant coach under Heinrichs

“She just became so incredibly invaluable,” Heinrichs said. “I didn’t want to go into camp without her. To have somebody with Keri’s skillset on and off the field to be able to delegate a lot of things to her, to be able to delegate without monitoring especially when i had so many other things going on … she just became an incredible resource. So, when a position opened as our Under-19 coach, it was a no-brainer.”

Now, returning to ISC is another no-brainer for so many reasons.

“This is so special,” Popovic said. “She had the option to either to pursue or enhance her personal goals and such or to come back and share and give it back. It speaks the value of one’s commitment and dedication of one’s loyalty to see the value of the character. … I refer to the International Soccer family. She’s definitely a leader of it.

“Keri has something that you can’t necessarily teach or buy. You have or you don’t have it. Keri has unparalleled passion and love for the game and everything that she is doing is driven on those grounds.”

Upon returning full-time to ISC, Sarver reintroduced herself to the staff and members — there were several new faces — but
the club’s philosophy of player development remained the same.

“We operate on a club-based model, so, organizationally nothing has changed even though I have been away for a couple of years,” she said. “It’s exciting. I love working with young players and being able to inspire them and making an impact in their lives. That’s one of the things I love about coaching youth soccer. You see a player come into our club at the age of eight or nine and watch her develop, not only as a player, but as a person. Not only watch, but you have a hand in her development. So. our coaches are very much committed to developing soccer players and developing people.

“It’s not just about the game, it’s their daily lives, and lifestyle and teaching them how to take care of themselves off the field as well as on. The stress of performance in the classroom as well. We’re hoping we’re teaching them how to be good people, good citizens, good students, good athletes, and just using the sport of soccer as a vehicle to do that.”

Now, its Keri Sarver’s turn to continue to build on the foundation and continue the club’s tradition.

“The core values that of our founder, Zdravko Popovic, set in stone are still there,” she said. “He started and built the club 42 years ago. It’s grown and developed and changed along the way, but the foundation of who we are has been consistent and that’s why it’s easy for me to re-integrate quickly as it is part of who I am.”

After all, Sarver has soccer and the ISC in her blood.