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November 28, 2012 at 3:45 PM

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Scarves up for the man who helped put the soccer in Seattle

Scan today’s rich local soccer landscape and you'll find Hope Solo, Sounders FC and, yes, large, loud crowds.Yet becoming this country's capital of the sport required a huge amount of underpinning.

Several unsung individuals served as pillars, and none played a more prominent role than the late Mike Ryan. From his arrival in Seattle 50 years ago until his death last week, Ryan went about building a foundation spanning virtually every area of the sport. Whether it’s youth, college, women’s or professional soccer across Puget Sound, you will find his handiwork.

“Mike did a world of good and Seattle soccer is his legacy,” said Jimmy McAlister, one of Ryan’s star pupils, a breakthrough professional and now Seattle United coaching director. "There are a lot of legendary players for the (original) Sounders, but we didn’t get this started. The cornerstones of this success were guys like Mike Ryan.”

For sure, Ryan was not alone. He loved telling tales of the old days, when he joined the likes of Jack Goldingay, Tom Webb, Karl Grosch, Karl-Heinz Schreiber in getting things started.

A young Irishman new to America and soon to be discharged from the Army, Ryan reveled in the charged atmosphere featuring teams of Hungarians, Germans, Scandinavians and Brits playing Sundays at Lower Woodland Park. Yet he knew that for soccer to thrive, it must become mainstream.

“Immigrant soccer could not sustain itself,” he said. “Attracting youth was essential to the game’s growth.”

In the early 1960s, youth soccer was confined to Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) teams. Ryan, who played for Buchan Bakers, persuaded Balint Ducz to sponsor a second team composed of teenage boys coached by him. Within three years, the Buchan youngsters had learned, matured and become the state’s top side.

In 1966 he joined others in organizing the Washington State Junior Soccer Association (WSJA). Ryan served as the first president. Soon teams began sprouting everywhere.

He invited involvement. “Nobody ever turned Mike down,” said former Seattle Pacific University coach Cliff McCrath. “You had to help, dig in, and get something rolling.”

Ryan loved teaching the game more than coaching. “With coaching you have a goal, like a championship,” he said in a 2007 Seattle Times story. “I just want people to love the game.”

Recalled McCrath, “He was an immaculate teacher. He understood the game like few others. It was like he was born into it. The implicit particles of the game were in his blood stream.”

Paul Mendes had just arrived from Brazil at age 15 when he was recruited to Ryan’s men’s team. He then followed him to the Washington, where he coached from 1966 to 1976.

“Mike was a big part of my life for those years,” said Mendes. “He was fully dedicated to the game. He was an old-school coach, not very complicated. He was all about work ethic and full commitment.”

Nothing deterred Ryan. Mendes recalls Ryan addressing a group when someone took a hard shot. “It hit him square in the head, so hard it knocked him down," Mendes remembered. Barely missing a beat, Ryan rose to his feet and resumed talking.

Ryan prized discipline. It was essential that players be on time, wearing clean uniforms, polished boots with shirts tucked in and socks pulled up.

“They were lessons that serve you well your whole life,” said McAlister, who first played for Ryan at age 11. “And he never let you know if he thought you were a good player. You had to earn it every day."

Debbie Barlow played 13 years for Ryan, who served as the first president of the Washington State Women’s Soccer Association (WSWSA).

“He was unique. He was difficult, demanding and a yeller,” Barlow said. “It wasn’t personal. He had invested a lot of time and energy in teaching us. It was usually something to the effect of, ‘I coached you to do better.’ ”

His command to break into small groups was, “Go get in threes,” although his Irish brogue made it sound like “trees.” He often forgot names. “If he thought your name started with a B, you were called Bonnie,” Barlow said.

Even the opposition fed off Ryan’s passion. Michelle Akers, a future world player of the year, remembers, at age 16, her Under-19 club beating his national champion FC Lowenbrau in a training game. That sent Ryan into, “a frothing mad fit on the sidelines,” Akers said.

“I loved it and rose to the occasion to play against a top team and impress Mike,” she said.

Later, the Shoreline native played under Ryan on the U.S. women's national team. “I enjoyed Mike’s intensity to win, his passion and expectation to be the best," she said.

His gruff ways probably contributed to his brief stint as first head coach of the U.S. women’s national team. “I yelled a lot but I wanted to leave a dynasty behind,” Ryan told Soccer America in 2000. “I believed in them from Day 1. I told them they were the future coaches of the nation.”

From 1980 through 1982, his women’s teams won five national championships in the open and over-30 divisions.

When those teams reunited two years ago, Ryan expressed his pride in seeing them coach and teach the next generation, their daughters. And not only about soccer, but about excellence.

“We laugh now, but it was the only way he knew how to coach,” Barlow says. “He didn’t allow for excuses. He didn’t care about the rain, the field, the referee, whether we were tired, and he never scouted the other team. Just do your job. If we had the right players, he believed we would win.”

Other than the UW job, which was part-time, he "didn’t make a dime,” according to Barlow. After work, he often volunteered to coach three teams at once.

“Mike would coach anybody – women, men, high school, college, national team and U-8 rec team," McAlister said.

Barlow came to his bedside along with other teammates in the final weeks of Ryan's life. “He was in rare form, sharing photos and stories from his recent trip to Manchester United, telling jokes, Irish blarney stuff,” she said. “He was hilarious.”

Some believe Seattle’s soccer tradition started recently, or dates to when the original Sounders came to town in the 1970s. Not true, insists McAlister.

“It started in the '60s and with guys like Mike Ryan going door to door, just trying to put together teams of 11 players," he said. "They were the cornerstones, people who put in tons and tons of hours without getting paid. Without those guys like Mike, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Frank MacDonald is a publicist, writer and local soccer aficionado. He served as Seattle Pacific University's assistant athletic director for sports information and also worked for the original Sounders, FC Seattle and Sounders FC as communications director.

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