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Academy Staff Q & A: Paul O'Donnell

Paul O’Donnell graduated from Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He started coaching and teaching at Kinnelon High School. He then started helping out with the MetroStars and was coaching for Kearney Thistle, which played in the Super Y League. He left his teaching job to become more involved with the MetroStars and became an assistant coach at Iona College. O’Donnell then went to being a full-time academy coach, when the club became the New York Red Bulls. He has been with the club ever since and is currently the U-17’s coach.

What is your soccer background?

After I graduated Columbia University it was 1995. MLS wasn’t around yet, started in ‘96, I did the USL Pro league for five years. So, then it was, at that point I actually majored in political science in college, thought about law school. Then the more I played, the more I got involved with coaching a little bit on the side. I was like, ‘I need to do this for a living.’ So, I think one of my first teams was basically right out of college and then my first job would have been 1996 with a high school team. So just graduated college ‘95, the next year I began coaching high school team in Morris County in Northwest New Jersey and I actually did that for eight years. Kinnelon. Halfway through there I got married in 2000 and I was still playing but wasn’t enough to pay all the bills and so sort of, ‘I got to get a real job.’ I was a high school history teacher for four years and then in 2002, we had our first MetroStars, you know, sort of academy. We did that in the old RexPlex in Elizabeth, New Jersey. And it was sort of just, you know, bringing kids together doing training. At that point I was also coaching Kearney Thistle team, that’s where I grew up, in Kearney. That Kearney Thistle team, there was a couple good teams, I think it was Kearney, Montclair. The nucleus of that team formed our very first team in 2003. So that team was in the Super Y League and the very first year, they got to the final, lost in the final to Kendall, who was very good back then. So that’s sort of how that began and then as that took off, I did leave teaching as the MetroStars took off and then when the Red Bulls came in, that’s when it really went full time. So, sort of good timing, you know, I left teaching in 2004 so I was really, working with the MetroStars part-time doing the admin, doing coaching. I did Iona college for two years as an assistant and then it really took off once Red Bull came in and started investing more money.

What motivated you to get involved with coaching?

I think it was just my passion for the game and the joy of working with kids. Even when I was a teacher in the classroom, I enjoyed it. But I just needed to coach at a higher level. For me, it was just wanting to coach and work at a higher level.

How do you see your role?

I think it is more of being a coach and developing those training sessions for the team and the individual that is trying to help them improve on a daily basis. With Sean [McCafferty] coming in as the director, I think it has really allowed all the coaches to be more focused and put more time into developing training sessions, doing video analysis, and sitting down with individual players. That has been a big improvement this year.

What upcoming events are you excited about?

The biggest thing for the 17’s is the MLS Generation Adidas Cup; I think that’s the premier event. With the 17’s we tend to push some of our better players up, sort of playing with the 19s. The GA Cup we tend to have all of our players in that age group and I think that’s a true measurement of where we are with the level of player we have. Sort of gauging where are we in relation to other teams. How do our players look against the best teams? What real prospects do we have? So, it’s a great test for the kids and again, from a coaching standpoint and even the players, going into games where you don’t know if you’re going to win or lose, you know, there’s a little bit more of a competitive edge. You've got to be sharp, you got to be focused. Those are the games that you want to be involved in. So, the MLS GA Cup I think that’s the premier tournament at this age group.

What is the one soccer session that has impacted your teams the most?

One of our go-to ones a day before a game, we have done a 3 v 2 transition game. The first team and USL have used this drill. It is tight and it’s probably 30 yards long. It involves a lot of transitions and a lot of going to goal.

How does it feel to have a couple of your players selected to Youth National Team camps?

It's great when you see our players get brought into the national teams, it's sort of, you know, indicative of, the progress and development they've made as players. The more players we can get to that next level, the better.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

I think just seeing the growth of the players over the years and really seeing the players move up the ladder, whether it’s getting into the USL squad or becoming a homegrown player, and really just moving on to the next level.  Just seeing how they progress on the soccer field and how they grow and develop as young men.

What is the most important lesson you want your players to learn?

I think the big thing is just learning the overall mentality. In regards, to being a good person, good professional, and getting those habits that are also life lessons. I think the players that we have had in the academy have come in here and they have had a great mentality in regard to working hard every day and that being part of the process.

What is your most memorable soccer moment as a coach?

I don’t know if there’s one, but I think it’s just it’s really sort of having been here from the start and seeing every single Homegrown player. Again, Connor Lade was brought in through one of my close friends, Hewie Ferguson, his senior year of high school. Bringing him in and seeing his mentality and work ethic, his character, his competitive spirit. You saw that then and that’s sort of how he was as a pro. So, I think it’s just seeing these guys, the development and growth as players, as people. Seeing them grow up in the academy and then I think really the best thing is seeing them take that next step. You know, seeing them succeed. 

What would you say to parents and players who are thinking about joining Red Bulls academy?

I think in terms of all the MLS academies, of course, I'm biased, but I think this is the place to be. I think there's tremendous talent in the tri-state area. With the Red Bulls, I think they have done the best job within the last several years of giving young guys a chance and getting the Homegrown guys minutes. You know, the great thing is now we have USL too, the second team. So, they're getting into those programs, they're getting the experience in those games and in terms of if you want to go professional, I think this is the greatest place to be in MLS, because we will give the young guys a chance.