Irish's Waldrum makes Dash for NWSL
College soccer is the primary development system for players in this country, but it's starting to feel like the college game is now also a stepping stone for coaches.
For the second year in a row, one of the country's premier college programs is looking to replace a coach tempted by a challenge beyond the college game. A year ago, it was B.J. Snow leaving UCLA to coach the Under-17 United States national team. Now, it's Notre Dame with a vacancy after the expansion Houston Dash of National Women's Soccer League announced Friday that Randy Waldrum will be the franchise's first coach.
One of only two college coaches with multiple NCAA championships (granted, he trails North Carolina's Anson Dorrance 21-2 on that count), Waldrum is a big name in the women's game. He has experience with the international game at youth levels, including the Under-23 team, and his name was even floated in some circles as a possible replacement for Pia Sundhage with the senior national team before the job went to Tom Sermanni.
A native Texan who previously coached at Baylor, Waldrum cited a desire to move closer to family, including his first grandchild, in his decision to leave Notre Dame.
What it means for the Dash: Waldrum knows Texas. Given that he now has to work within the confines of professional contracts, allocation, drafts and free agency, that won't be as useful in stockpiling talent as it was at Notre Dame, where his teams relied on Texans from Kerri Hanks to Melissa Henderson.
Nonetheless, his roots could make for more than a nice line in the media guide if those connections help spread the word about the team (operating as an extension of the Dynamo obviously helps, too, but the Venn diagram of MLS fans and women's soccer fans do not overlap completely). He knows the women's soccer community in Texas as well as just about anyone. That isn't without significance.
On the field, he takes over what remains pretty much a blank slate in Houston, with American international Whitney Engen, Mexican international Teresa Noyola and Canadian international Melissa Tancredi the only players currently on the roster (Tancredi played for Waldrum at Notre Dame, while he coached against the other two in College Cups). The franchise will continue to add players through an expansion draft next week.
The Dash will pick second in the college draft on Jan. 17. North Carolina and U.S. international Crystal Dunn is expected to be the first pick, but a deep class with which Waldrum is very familiar offers potential prizes like Santa Clara defender/midfielder Julie Johnston, Illinois midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo, Penn State forward Maya Hayes and North Carolina forward Kealia Ohai, whose brother-in-law Brian Cushing is a familiar face in Houston as inside linebacker for the Texans.
While there clearly will be other voices on personnel in Houston, Waldrum's time in both the college game and with national programs like the U-23 team should be tremendously useful in building a roster and evaluating both big names and sleepers.
As a tactician, Waldrum fell somewhere in the middle of the spectrum in the college game. The Fighting Irish weren't as much a possession-oriented team as Stanford or Portland, but neither were they beholden to a direct, bludgeon-by-athleticism approach (he likes to use the phrase "possession to progression" to describe his approach). He is known for his 4-3-3 formation, but he has shown flexibility with personnel and philosophy. This past season alone, his willingness to play Cari Roccaro all over the field and convert midfielder Elizabeth Tucker into a defender for her final season showed a willingness to experiment.
It will be interesting to see how Waldrum deals with the professional environment. He is used to starting most games with superior talent. He was rarely gracious in defeat at Notre Dame, which doesn't distinguish him from a lot of his peers but will be something to watch in a professional setting in which it will occur with more frequency than it did in college. Then again, any loss at Notre Dame prompted questions about what was wrong. An expansion team should come with more margin for error.
Next for Notre Dame?
What it means for Notre Dame: The job opening in South Bend comes with tremendous opportunity and plenty of potential pitfalls. Coaches being who they are, it's the former that should make this an opening on par with the UCLA opening a year ago (and all Amanda Cromwell did was win a national title in her first season in Los Angeles).
Notre Dame didn't have an easy go of it in its first ACC season. It opened conference play with a win at North Carolina, but a surprise loss at Miami sparked a four-game losing streak that made clear how quickly a slump can spiral out of control in what is far and away the most competitive conference in the country. Waldrum leaves his successor with a full cupboard, much as Snow did at UCLA. This season's team had just four seniors, and national-system talents like Morgan Andrews, Roccaro and Katie Naughton return.
That said, Waldrum is leaving at an opportune time to guard his legacy, the program still saddled with Big East expectations but living in a far harsher ACC reality.
No coach is going to win like Waldrum won at Notre Dame, in part because he is a gifted, driven soccer mind but also because he wasn't going to win that way in the ACC. It's a great job but also a dangerous job.
Notre Dame operates as a national program. Waldrum often went to Texas for talent, but kids from California (Carrie Dew), New York (Roccaro) and everywhere else are attracted to a school with the academics and athletic history available in South Bend. Still, while Midwestern ties aren't as important as they might be other places, a coach who knows the area is always attractive.
Kentucky's Jon Lipsitz fits that description and has done a remarkable job in just five seasons to build that program into a consistent NCAA tournament participant. Another option might be to see if there is water left in a familiar well. Waldrum made the leap from Baylor, and current Baylor co-coaches Marci and Paul Jobson brought that program back to national prominence after the decline that followed his departure. The two also know the recruiting territory from their time at Northern Illinois.
Press to Chicago
Waldrum wasn't the only big name added to NWSL this week. As part of the allocation process, the Chicago Red Stars announced they added U.S. international Christen Press, who previously played professionally in Sweden. In fact, her Red Stars debut this season will be delayed by remaining commitments to Tyreso FF in the Damallsvenskan.
A prolific goal scorer everywhere she has played, from winning a Hermann Trophy at Stanford to the Golden Boot in Sweden to her goal scoring rate with the national team, her return provides Chicago with some needed star power and gives fans here more opportunities to see a rising star.
One of the more contemplative players at the top of the world game, Press recently blogged about the pressure to come back to the United States in the buildup to a World Cup.