10 Questions with Mike Ryan

If you don’t know Mike Ryan, chances are that you know someone who does. Ryan’s in the bedrock for the local soccer community.

If you don’t know Mike Ryan, chances are that you know someone who does. Ryan’s in the bedrock for the local soccer community, having settled here in 1962 and been active in its development ever since. He served as the first president of both the state youth and women’s associations and has coached, among others, the University of Washington men and U.S. national team women. Today you can find him on the touchline for Lake City’s Nathan Hale High School, where he guides the girls in the fall and boys in the spring.

You’ve been involved with the game for so long. What got you hooked?
While in Germany and in the service, I was a big fan of Eintracht Frankfurt and how they played. I went to Glasgow for the European championship. Frankfurt was playing Real Madrid, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Real Madrid played in such a way that it took my breath away. This was the soccer I wanted to see, that I wanted to coach.

As a native of Dublin, how did you come to settle in Seattle?
I had come back from overseas and was stationed for a time at Fort Lewis. I picked up a newspaper and read about a big soccer game with a fight. I said to myself, ‘I’ve found a home.’ The next weekend I went to Lower Woodland and the first person I ran into was Whitey Craggs. He said the other team was short a player that day. I went over and played against Whitey’s team, Buchan Bakers, and scored three goals that day. His players were mad as heck at him for letting me go, but they invited me to come back the next weekend and stay with them. I fell in love with Seattle and decided I wasn’t going back to New York. I took my discharge here and have been here ever since.

Describe the soccer landscape when you came here in 1962.
We had ethnic teams, Buchan, the Hungarians, the Germans, the Russians. A lot of the Hungarian guys had gone to Austria, and then got visas to come to the United States as refugees. Ballan Duetz, who owned the bakery in Burien, he put an ad out looking for player who wanted to relocate. And they attracted some absolutely fantastic players who could’ve played in any division.

It sounds so colorful. So what was the weekend scene like a Woodland Park?
It was unbelievable, like a carnival. You would see the people six deep around the fields on a Sunday. To be all there, singing and having picnics. Ed Craggs, George’s dad, was the organizer and would publish the soccer news and we’d get that before the game. It had all the lineups and the scorers and the guys loved that. The people loved it.

How do you recall the youth game getting a foothold?
The CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) was the hotbed. There were lots of kids but nowhere for them to go. I went to Buchans and said how about a 2nd team? First game we went out and played the Hungarians beat us 16-0. But they were so gracious and told them not to worry about the score. Three years after that, those same boys were first division champions. For about five years, we won about everything around here. The league had gone up to 3-4 divisions. But this was the start.

How quickly did it spread?
Well, I’ll give you an example. In Bellevue, it started one Saturday morning with 38 kids coming to the field, and we split them into four games. The kids didn’t know what they were doing, but at the end we asked them to bring a brother or sister or friend the next weekend. We had 90 kids the following Saturday. Jack Goldingay worked all the Eastside and soon there were teams coming out of the woodwork.

How did all the local clubs unite and eventually form a state association?
I called the first meeting at my house, which I’d just bought and hadn’t furnished. We sat by the fireplace and determined we had to get a league, had to get an association and communications. I guess you could say that was the first meeting Washington State Youth Soccer Association. We had a meeting down in Tacoma the next month and I was elected the first president.

You were named the University of Washington men’s coach, and your name is also associated with helping the women’s game take shape. How’s that?
A lady came up to me one day after our men’s practice. Her name was Debbie Barlow, and she asked if I would help start a women’s program? There were 32 women playing intramurals. We asked anybody interested in a women’s to meet at the Sherwood Inn to meet about a women’s league. We had nine teams from Bellingham and Tacoma the first year. I was elected the first president, for one year. After one year they were more than organized and went ahead of the guys in terms of organization after one year with their leagues. It went from nine teams to 40 to 153 to 300, and pretty soon we ran out of the field; the parks department told us we couldn’t add any more teams.

It must be mind-boggling to see what’s occurred 30-40 years later.
When Manchester and Celtic played at Qwest Field, it sold out in two hours and I couldn’t believe it. That night, my friends and I stood and looked around at the crowd. I said, ‘Isn’t this like Disneyland?’ This is what we had always wanted. Our national team should be playing here. It’s been unbelievable, and now MLS is coming. There are some fabulous players in that league and I’m really looking forward to that.

And at 72 you’re still coaching. First the Nathan Hale boys and then becoming the girls varsity coach last fall. You’re not exactly retired, are you?
I’m more vigorous than I ever was. I keep studying and watching games. I may be a little older but my mind’s sharper than it ever was. I didn’t go to the high school to prove anything, I just love working with kids. I love teaching.