Ten Questions with Craig Waibel

For a big central defender, Craig Waibel has got a golden touch. Everywhere the Northwest Native goes in the MLS; ­Los Angeles, San Jose or Houston–Waibel winsFor a big central defender, Craig Waibel has got a golden touch. Everywhere the Northwest Native goes in the MLS; ­Los Angeles, San Jose or Houston–Waibel wins. Those communities have also benefited from his commitment away from the field. The Washington graduate and former Sounder has been the Dynamo franchise’s humanitarian of the year for each of the last five seasons. He’s now in his ninth pro season, with Houston beginning CONCACAF Champions League play this week and league play later this month.

Given the MLS Cup and now the CONCACAF Champions League, Houston’s offseason was relatively brief. What did you do to make the most of the winter months?
I’ve been extremely lucky, playing 8 full seasons in the MLS and in five of them I‘ve gone to the championship. The season has run 9-10 months, so I spend the better part of November and December trying hard not to break a sweat in any way, shape or form–unless it’s on a beach. I take 5-6 weeks off, and I mean completely off. Zero physical activity other than walking around and letting my joints heal. As of Jan. 1, I’m back in the gym and by end of January–it’s an intense month–I go on a strict diet, get in the gym, get back on the treadmills and work on my core strength. I try to avoid the ball until a week before the season starts. Our preseason is about eight weeks long so it gives us more than enough of time to get our touch back.

Are you able to stay away from the game, even on TV?
I love the game and study it quite a bit. I watch it to a fault, where I’m also too involved in it. I need to get away from it sometimes. When I’m watching defenders, I’m not watching for enjoyment; I’m watching to study. In MLS I’ve learned a lot from Carlos Bocanegra. When I started with the Sounders, and both Bernie James and Neil Megson and helped me an extreme amount, not only technically but mentally. I learned what it is to be a professional defender, not just a guy who goes out and participates.

Did you give yourself any timeline once you graduated from the UW?
At first, I suppose I was disappointed not to get drafted by MLS. But I look back and the best thing for me was that, first, I got to play, and, secondly, it put me around people who had played at the top level. Looking back, it happened at the right time. I suppose if I’d spent a third season in the A-League, I might have started to lose hope. But I didn’t put pressure on myself to achieve certain things by a certain time. I do put pressure on myself to improve and win.

You moved around those first few years. How challenging was that to your outlook?
To go from where you’re playing every week to where you’re not, it’s a challenge. Regardless of your talent level, it’s a hard thing to take for your ego as well as your development. To go from Seattle to Los Angeles was a wonderful thing. There were days I trained with Jurgen Klinsmann. It was insane, to be there with Cobi Jones, Mauricio Cienfuegos and Luis Hernandez. It was fascinating to be in that environment and around such quality players. And it was a little frustrating, not being able to contribute as much. But that made moving from L.A. essential for my career. Personally, I had to convince my wife that moving around is fun, even though it’s not the easiest thing to do. She’s extremely supportive of what I do, so she didn’t make it difficult at all.

What were the steps in your development at each stop?
It dates back to college, when I didn’t touch the field much my first two years or so. I redshirted a year and sat back and learned by watching. With the Sounders, I learned so much mentally. I realized I didn’t having to be the most skilled player on the ball; what I needed to be was a good defensive player who kept the ball out of the net. When I went to Los Angeles, it was the next step. It was learning to play quicker, with players who demanded more from me, and anticipate a better service from every player on the field. The move to San Jose was obviously huge for me. To play for Frank Yallop and Dominic Kinnear in a situation where I was now in the lineup, doing all the things I had learned, and I also had to learn how to manage my body. I had to make sure I was ready for every Saturday. If you pick a little bit up from everywhere you go, you’ve done well. It’s helped me maximize what I’ve got as far as talent goes.

What about the team moving from San Jose?
Continuing on to Houston was the easiest move, simply because the whole team moved. The climate here, for someone who grew up in the Northwest, is brutal. We’ll train in the morning and it’s 95 degrees with 90 percent humidity, so you’re losing 4-6 pounds sweat and water weight per training session.

Certainly, winning championships the first two years has helped. You won last year’s MLS Cup without two of your key players. What’s the secret to your club?
From a player’s prospective, we definitely struggled in the first half. New England was pretty darn good in the first 45 minutes. But this team stays on their feet, because of the experience, because of the veterans. All of the older players have won championships. I’ve played with most of this team for the better part of five years, and core of this team has really stuck together. We know what to expect of each other. We know the signs of when someone else is struggling and what he’s struggling with. That understanding has given this team its longevity. That has a lot to do with management and the coaching staff being careful about who they bring into this locker room, and who to keep around.

You can appear quite imposing out on the field and yet your off-field awards show you have a soft heart. How are your on- and off-field personalities consistent?
They’re both intense. Off the field, I’m a little less confrontational. I’m much more approachable. I love to laugh, love to joke. You’ve got to be able to laugh all the time. On the field, I’m somewhat confrontational. I’m physical and not shy. I pride myself to lead by example type player. When I coach, I tell my players that one thing you can always bring to a game is physicality and intensity. You can’t always bring quality because no player’s that good every time they’re on the field. What you do have is your effort and intensity, and I think that’s what my teammates respect about me. When I’m on the field, I’m never giving anything less than everything I’ve got.

Finally, what do you want to do after your playing days?
I’d love to coach professionally, I’d love to be involved with the growth of the sport in America. I think it’s been a dream of mine to get soccer to be a mainstream sport, and after being involved in this league, I honestly believe that can happen. It would be fantastic if I could stay involved either in the office or on the sidelines. I’m already involved with an online coaching business called ProtégéSports.com. That’s something I’m extremely interested in because the whole idea of our site is to take ex-professional athletes or current pro athletes and provide video clips on, explain how to strike a ball correctly, and offer tactical drills. Not every coach or parent or kid has access to professional players and expertise, and this offer that online for minimal expense. It’s one more way to give back to soccer communities in the U.S.

As a Washington native, you must have had more than just a passing interest when Seattle received an MLS team, right?
I only wish they would’ve had it eight years ago. I’ve lived there, I went to school there and I love it there. There’s a lot of Wow factor and it’s still happening, especially with me. I have ton of interest in that franchise because that city’s near and dear to me and that’s where I started my career. It’s a city that loves its soccer. It’s a city that deserves a team. It’s always been one of those mysteries with the players in the MLS who have been to Seattle, how they didn’t have an MLS team was just beyond us. It was amazing that nobody had seen the potential of it as an investor. Thankfully it’s finally been realized, and it’s realized by the right people. These are people who really want it to work up there, not just getting involved because it’s about money. I really think they have a good understanding of the community, and they want to have a better understanding of the community to understand what it is they want to make it succeed.