Paul Riley: “Everyone thinks coaching is just about winning games. It’s not, man. It’s about teaching, being around people and educating.” (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)
Sixteen years ago in March 2004, Paul Riley, then a youth coach, took several Albertson Fury girls teams to Montauk, N.Y. for pre-season. This story will give you insight about the passion and discipline of the North Carolina Courage coach. The Courage are two-time defending National Women’s Soccer League champions.
By Michael Lewis
MONTAUK, N.Y. — On a recent blustery March Saturday morning, members of the Albertson Fury girls soccer teams took on the wind, cold and sand at a deserted eastern Long Island beach to start their outdoor season preparations.
Some 60 hearty players ran and kicked the ball in the sand outside the Royal Atlantic Hotel.
It wasn’t just for training, but for team bonding.
“Everyone thinks coaching is just about winning games,” Riley said. “It’s not, man. It’s about teaching, being around people and educating.”
When Riley came up with the idea — he took teams here last year — he admitted there were skeptics.
“What was he nuts?” he said with a smile, explaining the initial reaction to his idea. “Most of the parents said: Why are we doing this? What’s the purpose of it?”
“As the Fury started to get bigger, we felt it was a chance to get away for the pre-season,” he said. “What happens — it’s winter and all of a sudden you’re playing. You don’t get a chance to have a pre-season. You come out playing on a roller rink type of indoor playing.
“We felt it was an opportunity to get some fitness done. And really more than that — team building. When you do this kind of thing, most of the time people go to practice and they leave and go home. When you coach a team like the Rough Riders for six years and college for 12 years, I always felt that pre-season was one of the most valuable parts of the whole year.
“You lunch together, breakfast together. You’re in the treatment room together,” he said. “You’re always with each other. In kids soccer, you don’t always get that opportunity. It’s a good opportunity to get to know the kids a little better and what makes them function.”
So, Riley decided on Montauk at the southern tip of the South Fork on Long Island.
“It’s a quiet town, so we don’t have to worry about a lot of different things,” he said. “There’s nobody in the hotel. Safety is a major issue when you bring a team away.”
This year’s special weekend was held from Friday, March 12 through Sunday, March 14, a week after the Long Island Junior Soccer League convention weekend. Meals will range from pasta to sandwiches to bagels.
By placing four girls in a room and with rates at off-season rates, the cost came to a about a manageable $40 a player. Each team has two Moms as escorts.
Five Fury teams participated in the training — the Under-13, U-14 (Fury ’89) , two U-16 sides (Fury ’87 and Fury Madrid) and U-18.
“We don’t bring teams before U-13,” Riley said. “We didn’t think they were ready.”
Not only do the players like it, they welcome it.
“They get a nice, vigorous workout and they love it,” one parent said. “Kids live for this. The ones that were here last year couldn’t wait to come out this year.”
Two of those girls were Region 1 players — Fury U-16 midfielder Kelly Henderson and U-14 defender Mariella Romano.
“Last year there was snow on the ground.” Henderson said. “It’s better now because we know what to expect. It prepared us for the worst. It was pretty intense training.”
Romano remembered how last year’s training helped her to get to know her teammates.
“I came from a lower class team,” she said. “I just joined the team (Fury) and I came to Montauk. I was surprised and impressed of how the people trained and how intense the training was.
“It’s an honor to be with this team because we do the same exact training as the Rough Riders do,” she said.
“It mentally strengthens myself and it creates a strong bond for the team.”
The best part of the practice? “It was more fun when we were able to fool around after because it was good to have a light session after we worked so hard,” Henderson said.
For the players, one of the highlights of the weekend is the Saturday night talent show, where many of them parody Riley and the other coaches.
“I thought it would take 45 minutes. It took 2 1/2 hours,” Riley said.
“It was such a laugh. Skits were of the coaches There are certain habits everyone has that you don’t know you have. Kids will find every single habit you have. . . . They’re a very creative group.”
Riley remembered how that U-16 side reaped the benefits of last year’s bonding weekend.
“We think the U-16 team is the epitome of what can be done, with a little bit of time and a little bit of care,” he said. “They’re made some really great strides. I can’t believe where they’ve come in a year.
“They looked slow and lethargic and there was no fire in them. Now, they have fire.”
Now, it’s the U-14 team’s turn. That squad boasts 12 Eastern New York Youth Soccer Association ODP players.
“It’s a big-time team, very talented,” Riley said. “But they don’t have that little bit of chemistry, that little bit of team thing. I’m hoping when they come out of here this weekend that they’re really going to be hopefully the key team.”
Riley wasn’t expecting to see immediate results from the Montauk venture, but rather over the course of a season or even seasons.
“They’re learning about life,” he said. “The discipline — being able to get through it. It’s not easy. It takes a lot of commitment.”