90 Minutes With John Kerr
Something John Kerr said at the end of our chat stuck with me, and I think it makes a pretty good introduction to a guy who has lived the soccer life from his earliest childhood right through college stardom and into a journeyman professional career, before ending up as head coach of the mens program at Harvard.
He said of soccer, Its a disease you know. Its something that I cant get out of my life. Sometimes its frustrating to my wife that my relaxation time is spent watching an MLS game or watching Champions League on a Wednesday. Sometimes it gets in the way of other family things, but its in my blood and in my heart and its something that will never go away.
This from a guy whose wife Tracy is the head coach of the womens team at Providence college, whose father was a successful professional and is now head of the MLS Players Association and whose best friends are current and former national team stars.
Kerr, who is usually known as John Kerr Jr. to distinguish himself from his famous father, claims his earliest soccer memories are from infancy. I was fortunate enough to have a father who was a professional soccer player, so I would have to say it was quite early, probably when I was in the crib. I remember when I was two or three years old, running around the house juggling a balloon in the air five or six times and thinking I was the greatest player in the world.
He lived in Canada then, where his father was a star in the Canadian League. He says, In Toronto hockey was the big sport, and we used to watch Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday night, but soccer, because of my fathers influence, was always the number one sport in our house. I used to go watch him play all the time and hang around practice sessions. I have some great memories of his days when he played.
Kerr Sr. had turned pro in Scotland when he was sixteen, playing for small club, Partick Thistle. When Kerrs grandmother emigrated to Canada one summer, her son followed and quickly established himself on the soccer scene, eventually representing Canada at Senior International level. In 1968 he moved on to play with the Detroit Cougars of the old NASL (or NPSL), and then in Washington for the Darts in the early 70s. By the time he got to New York in 72, he was an all-star, and was recruited to play in the Mexican League for Club America, the first Scots player ever to play in Mexico. John Jr. drank in the rich soccer culture of Mexico. That was a great experience for me, because I was seven at the time, and soccer was a huge deal down in Mexico. I would go play in the park every afternoon when I got back from school. I went to a Mexican/American school, and we would play before school, at lunchtime and again after school, so I think I got a lot of passion for the game from playing in Mexico.
And it was south of the border that Kerr Jr. first tasted the limelight. One of my fondest memories is of playing on the Club America Junior Team, and we used to play at half-time of Club America games. I remember one evening we were playing at half-time of a game against Cruz Azul, and there were 120,000 people in the stands. I think I was the smallest guy on the team, and the ball came across and was trickling towards goal, and I ran over and kicked it in. I thought I was the greatest player ever. I ran around like Id just won the World Cup. That was a great memory for me.
It turns out hes got a lot of great memories, many of which stem from his fathers return to the States in 74 to play with Pele in New York. I have another great memory of a road trip with the Cosmos to Toronto where my grandmother and aunt and cousins lived. We rode up on the bus from New York with the team, and after one of the games in Toronto, Pele was three seats behind me and my father. You could feel this kind of electricity in the air. It was one of the first games he played with the Cosmos, and he invited me back to his seat. He said, John come back here. And when I sat in the seat next to him he opened up a jewelry box and there was a medal of Pele, with his jersey engraved inside the country of Brazil with his full name, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, on one side and on the other side it had his head and just Pele with his signature. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. The worlds greatest soccer player gave me a medal of himself. What a great man.
After the 75 season the Kerrs moved south where Kerr Sr. finished his career with the Washington Diplomats in 76 and 77. And thats basically where I grew up, claims Kerr Jr. I went to ten different elementary schools before I landed in DC and Virginia, but from then on I stayed in Virginia until I went to Duke in 1983.
In the soccer hot-bed around DC, Kerr Jr. began to really shine and fell in with another future American star. When I was thirteen or fourteen I played on a club team in Maryland, about half-an-hour from my house, called Montgomery United, a very good club team. We had some really good players, and my father was friends with the coach whose name was Gordon Murray. His son is another famous US Soccer Player, Bruce Murray. Murray is of course the third leading scorer in US Soccer history, only recently passed by Joe-Max Moore.
So Bruce and I grew up together and played on the same club team, he explains. We won three national championships together, one under 16 in California, one under 19, the MacGuire Cup and also as amateurs we won when we were both in college. He was a junior. I was a senior. He won two at Clemson actually, and I won one at Duke. And we both won the Hermann Trophy Award, so that was a pretty good club team we had, way back in the day. We had some pretty good times together.
Of the Hermann Trophy Kerr says, It was a big thrill for me to be considered the best college player in the country at the time, but it didnt mean anything to anyone outside the country. It was a big deal in college, but I went to England right after college, and nobody could care less about the Hermann Trophy or a national title, or being an American other than they didnt think Americans could play.
At the time, Kerr didnt know what was in store for him in England. It was only some bull-headed determination and a lot of luck that delivered him into one of Europes top leagues. I went over early. I spent my senior spring abroad, which is sort of unheard of, but I knew I wanted to play professional soccer and I knew that I wanted to go to England to try my luck. I knew that I could play amateur soccer in England and maybe get seen while finishing off my degree.
It seems like a crazy plan in retrospect, but Kerr had planned it all out. I made sure I could take care of the requirements for my Political Science major, so I could take four electives that senior spring. So I went over to England and I played for team called Harrow Burough, which is probably in the sixth or seventh division.
They had been pretty mediocre before I got there, and I scored some goals and was lucky enough to get spotted by Peter Osgood, a big star for Chelsea and a former England international back in the late sixties. At the time he was the youth team coach at Portsmouth, which was being promoted from the second division to the first. He invited me down to play in a reserve team game Portsmouth played against Crystal Palace, and Alan Ball was the manager of Portsmouth at the time.
Then things came together pretty quickly for the young American. So I traveled down to Portsmouth by train, and at the last minute got my international clearance from US Soccer to play, he explains. I played in the game and we won 1-0. I scored a pretty good goal, receiving the ball just inside the half, dribbling four or five players and smacking the ball past the keeper with my left foot, which was a fairly unusual event.
And then came the moment that would make Kerrs career. Afterwards I went into the dressing room and Alan Ball offered me a contract there on the spot. He said, I want you here at Portsmouth next year. It was one of the biggest thrills of my life. I thought I had arrived. When a player of Alan Balls standard, the guy won a World Cup medal at the age of 19 for England in 1966, to think that I was good enough to play at that level was a thrill for me. It was almost like a little plan I had, had worked like a charm, that I wanted to go get spotted in England, and it had worked.
It was an amazing time, for me to come from playing college at Duke in 1986, and then starting my first professional game in 1987 in the English First Division at the age of 22. And my father flew over for the game. I had quite a good game. We lost 4-2, but I played pretty well and was maybe oblivious to how big a jump it was from college in the States to the First Division in England.
Suddenly Kerr was playing against seasoned professionals. Im playing against pros who are top notch, and internationals and played in World Cups and all of a sudden Im amongst them and doing pretty well. It didnt last too long though, because I wasnt ready for prime time. I played maybe six or seven first team games that year for Portsmouth, and then played a lot of reserve team games, though I was the leading scorer for the reserves. It was a great learning experience.
What overwhelmed me was the intensity of the game there. You had to perform everyday in practice. You couldnt take days off and there were no slouches out there. There were no easy games. There were no easy practices, no easy sessions, no easy segments in a training session that would allow you to relax. The intensity was just immense, and I loved it.
The physical aspect of the game was difficult to handle at first because some of the stuff you get away with over there, youd get called in a heartbeat back here, and thats a big frustration for me now sometimes, when I see referees calling little tugs here and there, or a slight push or even a shoulder charge.
He goes on, When you step up to the next level the referees never call that, therefore because of the refereeing were not prepared for the next level when we go abroad because were used to a situation in this country, at the youth level, where if you touch someone a foul gets called. For me as a coach now, I see it and think, Youre doing a disservice to these players.
Over the next five seasons Kerr became a true journeyman. He played in the old American Soccer League for the Washington Stars, then for Wycombe Wanderers back in England. He went to France and played in the third division for Boulogne-Sur-Mer, and also to Northern Ireland with Linfield Football Club. In 1991 he was in Canada with Hamilton Steelers.
The next year he was in San Diego winning a Major Soccer League Championship with the Sockers. Right after that season the league folded. This was the MISL, actually the MSL in the final year. So the league folded and I was in a dilemma as to what I wanted to do. Did I want to go back to Europe? At the time I wasnt too keen. Luckily I got a call from John Renny, my former coach at Duke, and he was looking for an assistant.
I told him I wasnt necessarily ready to stop playing, but he said this, Why dont you come and spend eight weeks with us, pre-season and maybe the first few games, and if you want to go on from there then you can. Itll give you an opportunity to see if you want to get into coaching.
And thats when the coaching bug bit Kerr hard. I was probably three or four weeks into the job when I knew that this was what I wanted to do, he explains. This was the environment I wanted to be in. This is the level of soccer. I knew that I could be successful preparing these guys as players, but also as people, and have some influence on their lives.
That was very appealing to me, and I knew after that experience at Duke, we went to the Final Four that year and lost to Virginia. It was a wonderful program at Duke. They produced players like Jason Kreis and Garth Lagerwey. I still keep in touch with those guys and a few others. I knew eventually when I stopped playing I wanted not only to get into coaching but to get into collegiate coaching.
Still, his playing career wasnt finished yet. He went back to England and played at Millwall with current US National Team keeper Kasey Keller. From Millwall I came back to this country and played in MLS with Dallas Burn, and then half way through the season I got traded to New England Revolution, and that had an enormous impact on my life because my wife and I moved here and fell in love with this area right away.
We knew that if the opportunity arose wed like to stay here, and Tracy, my wife, got involved with Harvard right away while I was playing for the Revolution and she was the assistant coach here for two years. That led to other opportunities. She got the head coaching job at Providence College two years later.
Then when my career ended with the Revolution in 1997, I was recommended to play and coach for the Worcester Wildfire, which was the A-League. That was an ideal transition for me, moving down from Major League Soccer to minor league level and getting my feet wet as a coach. At the time the team was struggling and there wasnt a lot of money. I had to do a lot of things. I had to negotiate all the contracts. I had to recruit all the players. I had to take the training. I had to order the equipment, all the things. I had to organize the trips. It was a great learning experience for me, which was probably beneficial to me now because as a collegiate coach you have to do similar things, schedules, uniforms, recruiting and travel. Its almost the same job.
So when the Harvard job came open in 1999 I was in my second season as an A-League coach. They had changed the name by then from the Worcester Wildfire to the Boston Bulldogs. I really enjoyed what I was doing with the Bulldogs. I loved playing, and I loved coaching. Maybe the next step was to try to get to MLS as an assistant coach and be a head coach one day, but that wasn?t really a goal of mine. I knew I wanted to end up as a collegiate coach, so when the opportunity came to go to interview for the Harvard job, I didn?t hesitate one bit. It was the best move I could have ever made. I love it here, the environment and the facilities and being able to stay in Boston. It was a dream come true
There?s no athletic scholarships here. There?s only financial aid based on need. The admissions process is pretty diligent and pretty competitive, and I?m fortunate that a lot of soccer players out there are intelligent and motivated in the classroom as well as on the field. In some ways recruiting is pretty easy. Right away you know that you?re not dealing with money, and secondly I get a list of players and can look at there SAT scores and GPAs and know I can slash that list in half right away, so there?s only a small segment I can recruit knowing the standards that they have here.
John Kerr, Jr. Career Timeline
|| Begins playing for United States National Team at age 19.
|| As team captain, leads Duke to NCAA championship. Receives numerous National Player of the Year awards, including Hermann Trophy.
|| Graduates from Duke with a BA in political science; plays for Portsmouth in English Premier League.
|| Plays for Washington Stars of ASL and Wycombe Wanderers of English Vauxhaul Conference; begins coaching in London youth league.
|| Plays for Boulogne-Sur-Mer in French Third Division and for Linfield in Northern Ireland First Division.
|| Plays for Hamilton Steelers Club in Canadian Soccer League.
|| Wins Major Soccer League title with San Diego Sockers; serves as assistant coach at Duke; then begins play with Millwall Football Club in English First Division.
|| Plays for Dallas Burn and New England Revolution of MLS.
|| Serves as head junior varsity and assistant varsity coach at Wellesley High School in Wellseley, MA.
|| Serves as player/coach for Boston Bulldogs of professional A-League.
|| Named head coach at Harvard University.
As a coach, Im improving. Our team, the first year we ended up 6-9-2, and last year we were 7-9-1, so we improved by a win. The first year I didnt have any of my recruits. I came too late. I got the job in June, and we started the season in August. To be honest we had some good games. We went out to the Stanford Tournament and lost to Stanford, who I believe went to the final that year, 1999, and we lost 1-0 in the 87th minute on a scramble in front of our goal. We had missed a penalty in the first half, and so I felt in some of the games I got the maximum out of the players. It was a great experience.
Then I got to work on recruiting. I knew that was a big part of the job, getting the recruits, getting them to come to your school, and having the type of player that you like come to your program. So I brought in thirteen guys my first recruiting class, and it was great. I needed quality and quantity and I got both. We improved our depth tremendously. This year the freshman class is excellent. We brought in seven guys, and I think currently three of them are starting. Jamie Roth is starting in goal. Jason Anderson is starting at right fullback, and Jeremy Transer is having a great year up at right forward. So that aspect of our program is very pleasing. I think were going to do really well over the next few years.
I think I made a big boo-boo my first year here, recruiting players who were never going to get in academically. I wasted a lot of time doing that. I remember having a special meeting with the admissions people. They called me in to say, Look. Guys with 1040 SATs arent going to cut it here. And heres me trying to get national team players with 1040s and minimal grades to come here, and it just wasnt going to work. So I learned that lesson quickly, and I think Ive improved in that respect a lot. Coaching-wise I learned a tremendous lesson last year. We got off to a wonderful start. We were 7-3-1 at one point, and beat BC and were doing pretty well. Then we hit the wall as a team. We lost the last six games of the season, and five of those were all Ivy League games so we ended up being at the bottom of the barrel. Then I learned what its like to be a student/athlete here at Harvard. I found out after the fact that several of the students, in particular the freshmen, and I had five of them starting last year, were staying up all night cramming for mid-term exams. And I had no idea until later on in the season, that that was the case. So weve gone to great lengths already this season to make sure that doesnt happen again, by making sure we stay on top of them academically. Were approaching that time of the season again now, so itll be a real test of my coaching ability to make sure the team is prepared, understanding what theyre going through as students and not just as athletes. Tactically were more prepared as well. We took some lumps last year, but I think through experiencing some disappointments were more ready to take on some of the challenges of this season. Hopefully were in a good position now that we wont falter mid-season. Well keep chugging away, and keep grinding out results through the Ivy League this year.
I go to MLS games, and Im very much into keeping abreast of whats going on. Like I told you earlier though, my real ambition is to be a college coach, and Im exactly where I want to be right now. Its intriguing to think of coaching the pros, but at this stage of the league I dont think Id be comfortable going there. Both financially and structurally I dont think the league is in a good position where you can really do well with the players. You cant negotiate with teams, and you cant get the players you want because of the way the league is structured. So at the present time I have no interest in being a pro coach.
My father is now the head of the MLS Players Association, and I played in the league for two years, so I know how it works. I know what you can do and what you cant do. The league is great. Its improving every year with the talent and the standard of play, but theres still that element of control there that causes the league not to be taken seriously by the rest of the world. Im not going to criticize the owners, but when you have guys who own multiple teams people abroad look at it and wonder, How can you have an owner that owns three teams in one league, and its only a twelve team league? Its kind of a dilemma they have to go through, but saying that you have some guys who, if it wasnt for Kraft and Anshutz and Mr. Hunt, they wouldnt have a league, so I really cant criticize too much.
I would have like to have played a lot longer in my own country, although the experiences I gained playing abroad in England and in France and playing indoor to an extent, made me the person I am. And I didnt make a lot of money as a player. I played the game out of love, and just having the opportunity to play this game as a professional was something that I always dreamed about. I wish MLS had been around. When I came out of college, the only opportunity was indoor. The NASL folded in 1984. I had a little bit of an opportunity in 1983 when I graduated from high school. I was drafted by the Cosmos in the first round, and at the time you were allowed to go train for 48 hours with a pro team and not lose your eligibility. So the flew me up to New York and I was lucky enough to train with Chinaglia and Cabanas and some of those big stars. Johann Neeskens kicked the crap out of me. I remember I was in training, and I nutmegged Eckhardt Kapp. I was pretty proud of myself, and then next thing I know Neeskens comes in with a sliding tackle and says, You do that again and Ill break your leg. So I figured, Ok. I wont be doing that again. I cant duplicate those kinds of experiences, and maybe I wouldnt have gotten them if there had been an MLS. On the other hand it would have been great to be able to play in my own country. Its about time soccer was taken seriously here.
I like going to watch my wifes team play, and sometime when we get home and have a spare moment, though we just had twins recently and there arent too many spare moments, we watch each others videos and make comments on what we should be doing tactically. Its pretty interesting. Its fun.
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