Oct. 18, 2002
By Josh Griffin
The Santa Clara
In 1994, Brazil won its fourth World Cup by defeating Italy in a classic final. During their time in the United States, the Brazilians held their practices at Buck Shaw Stadium, and Santa Clara women's head coach Jerry Smith was able to gain some valuable insight from Brazilian head coach Carlos Albert Parreiro.
"Carlos Parreiro told me that the best defense is when you can control the ball on offense," recalls Smith. "That has become an adage in our program here at Santa Clara."
That is only one of the philosophies behind what has become one of the nation's premiere women's soccer programs, which finally won its first national championship in 2001.
Smith's rise to the upper echelon of soccer coaches in the U.S. has taken a parallel path to the rise of his program. Since taking the reigns of the Santa Clara program, he has a career record of 251-63-15, and has taken the Broncos to eight national semifinals.
Beyond his coaching resume, he has coached 13 players who are active in the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA), as well as 14 players with experience on the U.S. National Team, three Olympians and four World Cup participants.
At the core of all this is Santa Clara's style of play that has not only lured many talented recruits to the program but has also become a common system among other collegiate soccer programs.
The Broncos play with a focus on possessing the ball, which requires that the team be stocked with talented soccer players. Essentially, all 11 players on the field at one time must be skilled in controlling the ball.
"We attempt to impose our style of play on the opponent," Smith says. "I have never felt that we need to keep more than two defenders deep, and as a result our outside defenders are very involved in the offense."
This is not lost on players on the team, or incoming recruits.
"The role of the outside defender had a big influence on my decision to attend Santa Clara," says sophomore defender Jessica Ballweg. "I am a very offensive-minded player. With no outside midfielders, I can take a big role offensively."
Smith is quick to point out that the outside defenders initiated two of the biggest goals that the team has scored in the last 12 months. Sophomore defender Jessica Ballweg assisted senior midfielder Aly Wagner on the goal that won Santa Clara its first ever national championship and, more recently, sophomore defender Lana Bowen assisted junior forward Kristi Candau from the goal box for the game-winning goal over then No. 3 UCLA.
This exciting style of soccer is rare in today's game, and is a huge help in recruiting top talent to Santa Clara.
"Players like Danielle Slaton ('02) would not have come to a school like Santa Clara if we weren't so assertive in pushing the ball up field with our defenders," says Smith.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Smith's 15-year coaching career is his ability to adapt and allow the team's style of play to evolve over the years. As a younger coach, he focused on changing the team's game plan and style of play for every contest after exhaustive scouting of the opposition.
"The different formations every week brought the team good short term success," recalls Smith. "But we were not having ultimate success when it really mattered in the NCAA tournament."
That all changed prior to the 1996 season, when Smith decided to choose a definitive formation and style of play to impose on the opposition. Since that year, the team has run a 4-4-3 formation, with four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards.
"In soccer, I don't feel that coaches have as much influence on a game as they would like," says Smith. "So, I felt it best to find one system, and use it every match. We try to keep it simple for the players, and make it so when a pressure situation presents itself, we are so comfortable with our system that we have no problems executing it."
This permanent change had roots in two different incidents in the mid-90s. The first was built around his interactions with Parreiro in 1994, and the second came with a rare rule change from FIFA in 1995. FIFA disallowed players from playing the ball back to the goalie so that the keeper could pick up the ball.
Parreiro's influence validated two of Smith's beliefs: a four-player zone defense was the best approach to team defense, and possession style soccer was the best defense. The FIFA rule change dictated that using three forwards to pressure the defense was the most effective front line.
The changes reached full swing in 1996, as that year's squad reached its first of four consecutive Final Four appearances. Since then, very few changes have resulted.
"The forward line is the only thing that we play around with depending on the strengths of our three forwards," says Smith. "We put in little nuances every year based on the strengths and weaknesses of our team."
Beyond his strategy on the field, Smith has been able to foster a strong relationship with his players that includes both respect and camaraderie.
"Jerry is a very unique coach," says senior midfielder Devvyn Hawkins. "It is hard to explain and put into words. He has been coaching so long that he has found a great style that makes him an amazing coach. He has pushed me to become a better player, especially on the defensive end."
During his 16-year tenure at Santa Clara, Smith has had several opportunities to leave for other positions. In 1997, he was courted by UCLA to take over their program but immediately upon returning to Santa Clara from an interview in Los Angeles, he knew he would never leave for another college program.
"I had a meeting with Carroll Williams, the athletic director at the time, and Father Locatelli, and they made it very clear that they did not want to lose me. That meeting with both of them sealed the deal, because I knew they were both so committed to making this program one of the most recognized in the nation."
He very recently turned down the opportunity to coach the San Diego Spirit of the WUSA, and there will be an announcement soon that he has resigned his position as head coach of the United States Under-21 team. His recent commitment to Santa Clara, a new five-year contract extension signed last spring, should give hope that he will lead Santa Clara for years to come, but he does have several aspirations beyond the bubble.
"Coaching the senior women's national team is something that I really would like to do," says Smith. "But, right now my wife [Santa Clara alum and national team star] Brandi Chastain is still on the team, and I can't imagine a more awkward situation than coaching her.
Plus, coaching the national team seems like a last job in coaching, and I am certainly not ready for that."
The Santa Clara women's soccer program can breathe a sigh of relief, at least for a little while.