From Player to Coach: Fernando Clavijo’s Indoor Soccer Experiences

The following article originally appeared in GoalIndoor magazine in 2006

Fernando Clavijo came to the United States as a young man in 1979, looking for new adventures and a new way of life. He knew no one in the United States, but he and his wife were looking for new adventures, and a new way of life. He may have been somewhat naļve, but he wasn’t afraid of anything, and they took off for the land of opportunities. And the opportunities were bountiful and led to a successful career and enshrinement in the US Soccer Hall of Fame. A major part of Fenrnando’s career was in indoor soccer, and he cherishes his years in the MISL, and CISL as highlights of his soccer experiences.

Fernando had signed with his first club at age 15, Atenas in Uruguay’s 2nd division. When wanderlust struck, it was 1979, and professional soccer was flourishing in the States, and teams were looking for skilled foreign players. Within a month of his arrival, Fernando landed a four-day tryout with the New York Apollos of the American Soccer League. That tryout led to Fernando signing a four-year contract with the team. But the Apollo was not able to pay a transfer fee to Atinas, which led to Fernando’s receiving a 1-year suspension by FIFA.

After a tough year playing for a struggling team (The Apollos went 6-4-18 and then folded), Fernando moved to their successors, New York United, and helped them in their surge to the ASL finals in 1981 where they lost to the Carolina Lightning. Fernando’s big break came that year when he played in a friendly game against the New York Arrows of the Major Indoor Soccer League. The Arrows were defending MISL champs game him a tryout, and the coach asked if he would like to play indoors. “I explained to him the situation and he said ‘absolutely, no problem’ because at that time indoor was not affiliated with FIFA. So that’s how it started.”

This was a fortuitous move, as the Arrows were the hottest team in the league. They were drawing ten to eleven thousand at Nassau Coliseum, having just started their string of four consecutive league championships. “I was fortunate enough to not only play and be seen by a great coach, but to play with great players” The Arrows included Branko Segota, then one of the hottest players in the league, along with Shep Messing and Steve Zungul, the MISL’s first scoring legend. Clavijo would go on to help the Arrows win league titles in his first two seasons. It was a great time for indoor soccer, with MISL and NASL Indoor fielding more than 30 teams in the early 1980s.

There were some adjustments when making the transition to the indoor game. Being a fast player, Fernando was able to adjust fairly easily. “It was a different game, a lot of thinks for us to learn. The biggest difference was the quickness of the game. The change of speed, the recovery time. You run for 1-2 minutes and were exhausted. In outdoor, because of the space you have a little more time to recover.” Some teams specifically trained on how to attack from different angles, and on hitting the ball, but the Arrows never focused on custom attacks, they simply played straightforward soccer throughout the field and counterattacked effectively.

The schedule could be grueling, especially during his time with the Golden Bay Earthquakes of the NASL in 83-84, who played both indoors and outdoors. With up to 70 games inside and a full summer season, there was little time to rest, and only a brief respite before the next season started. “I enjoyed it , having the opportunity to play something I love, and I’m able to keep in shape all year long.”

Clavijo was fortunate to play on numerous championship teams, from the Arrows in 1981-82, a near-miss with New York United in 1981, further MISL victories with the San Diego Sockers in 84-85, 85-86 and 87-88, and the CISL Seattle Seadogs in 1997. A key to the success of those teams was having skilled players but even more important was having players of great character who worked together well. Team chemistry was the key to success. When the team chemistry wasn’t there, the team suffered. Fernando played the 1988-89 season with the Los Angeles Lazers who had accumulated many top players, but the team didn’t gel, and the results showed. Fernando was one of the most outstanding defenders in the history of the MISL, being named to the All-star team 12 times.

Fernando clicked with many of the great MISL players. “Unbelievable, I mean, like Julie Vee, Brian Quinn, Brian Metzer, Gene Willrich, Kaz Dayna, Eddie Coker, tremendous players. And good people, we spent great times together.” Steve Zungul was one of Fernando’s favorites and the two of them moved together from New York to the Golden bay Earthquakes of the NASL, and then on to the San Diego Sockers. “It was like a big family… Zungul was not only an outstanding player, but also very unselfish. He always made those around him better and was one of those players I was able to benefit from playing with.”

One of Fernando’s best experiences was the finals of the 1985-86 season, where he won his second league title with San Diego. The Sockers played the Minnesota Strikers in that series, and they were behind one game to two, fighting to tie the series. The fourth match went to a shootout, which the Sockers won. When the plane landed back in San Diego the Commissioner called and said he had recalled the game and given the win to Minnesota because ineligible players were used in the shootout. “But we had followed the referees orders. The referee had said we could use anybody on the bench who wasn’t a reserve to take shots, so we did. But now we had lost the points – instead of being 2-2 we were 1-3.” On the brink of defeat, the team pulled together and pulled off three consecutive wins to win the series.

“We did a lot of comebacks. One year we were against Kansas City in a series and the owner said if we don’t win, the franchise would fold, and of course we came back; it was a lot of motivation for us!”

Fernando got his first coaching experience when he came to the St. Louis Storm in 1989 as player/assistant coach. The Atmosphere in St. Louis nearly matched that of the legendary St. Louis Steamers, but by this time the league was beginning to fall apart, and in 1990, he was called to play for the national team.

“The transition was funny because at the time, I was pretty old then, 33, 34, and I was , the first thing that came to mind was I want to play a couple games for the US, and my first game, Bob Gansler was the coach and he invited me to play against Russia in a friendly game in Trinidad and Tobago. So I hadn’t played outdoors for a couple years, but absolutely, it was an honor, to take that call and that was my first game in Trinidad & Tobago. November 11, 1990, just right when they came back from the World Cup from Italy.”

That one game became a series of them. Bora Milutinovic called his back upon taking the reins. Fernando felt honored to play for the United States. and when the one-game-at-a-time thing became an offer to play full-time as a salaried player, he jumped at the offer. The US didn’t have a division 1 league at the time, and the USSF established a full-time player pool to provide adequate training to make the team competitive for World Cup ;94. This was a gamble, as Fernando had been offered a three year contract to coach the Storm, but he took the risk of a six month contract and a possible roster spot at the World Cup. And the gamble paid off.

After World Cup ’94, Clavijo was approached by the Ackerly family, who owned the NBA Seattle SuperSonics, who were launching an expansion franchise in the Continental Indoor Soccer League. “We started from nothing. I got up to Seattle and all I saw was basketball. My General manager was Sean Dressel, who was incredible, we became good friends; I still talk to him at least once a month. We promised Mr., Ackerly that in the third year we’d win a championship.” It was a challenge as they started; the front office staff had no background in soccer, and the Sonics season was still in full swing when they started building the SeaDogs, and there was some apprehension on the part of the staff. But things improved greatly in the second season, and the staff support was effusive.

Fernando brought a lot of players onto the team for the third season. “I told the owners ‘this is it. We have a team to win it.’ Now of course you don’t say that in the NBA, they’re going to hold you responsible, but we felt we had everything we needed (barring injuries and the unexpected). But we forgot about it, and finished the season at 27-7. Outstanding. I was very very proud of the coaching staff, the fans, the players. The fans were unbelievable. We played Houston 6-5 at home, and then went to Houston and beat then 7-1 to win the title. It was awesome.“

Unfortunately, the league cracked apart after the 1997 season, due to political infighting and just like that everything was gone, the team dismantled virtually overnight. Several teams stuck together and eventually formed the Premier Soccer Alliance (later the WISL which merged into the new MISL (formerly the NPSL) — are you still with me?) But the SeaDogs weren’t one of them. They had been invited to join the National professional Soccer League but would have been the only team on the west coast. “My duty was to inform the ownership of the expenses of running a franchise and flying the team halfway across the country every other week. Even though it would cost me my job, it was my duty to inform them of the costs and that I could not recommend it. That’s probably one of the saddest things I had to do, but we just didn’t find the opportunity to keep the team going. When you are treated the way I was by the Ackerly family and Dressel, you need to be honest, regardless of the outcome.”

Fernando was devastated with the turn of events, but was soon on his feet as an assistant coach for the US Project-40 team and as head coach of the US Futsal Team. He was then called by Bora Milutinovic to join with the Nigerian National team as scout/assistant coach, helping prepare Nigeria for the 1998 World Cup. After the Cup, he was called by his good friend and former boss, Milan Mandaric, the former owner of the San Jose Earthquakes to coach his new NPSL team, the Florida Thundercats. Fernando was hesitant, because he had recently advised the SeaDogs ownership not to join the NPSL for various reasons. Mandaric had reassured him that he had been advised that it was very feasible, and he offered him an attractive three year contract. So it was off to Florida.

“We had to pull together a team from nothing again. About three and a half months into the pre-season, Milan realized he had been misled and that the losses would be tremendous. He asked me what I thought. I asked if he had an obligation to his players, and that he should let them know, pay the contracts for the year and close the door on it. He was losing his pants on this, had been badly misled. The Thundercats played the season, but halfway through the season, we sold all the players, and finished out with fifty dollar a game players… He called me to his office and said he ‘I had brought you hear to do a job, your team was in first place when we agreed to this, and you have a contract for three years, which I will honor.’ Unbelievable. I never signed a contract with him. We shook hands on it. Same with Ackerly. I don’t think a piece of paper ever held more ground than my handshake did with these two gentlemen, and Milan honored his obligation with me to the end.”

Fernando joined Major league Soccer in 2000 as head coach of the New England Revolution and in his first season, the club broke .500 for the first time, and subsequently making the finals of the Lamar Hunt U. S. open Cup in 2001. In 2004, he coached the Haitian National team through qualifying. Since December 2004 he has been head coach of MLS’s Colorado Rapids and in 2005 he was inducted into the US Soccer Hall of Fame.

When asked about the future of indoor soccer, Fernando feels the key is the ownership. “You have great ownership in Milwaukee; it should be a model for other franchises. They’ve survived any and all situations. But it’s a numbers game. Sometimes its better to have fewer strong teams than a lot of teams folding each year. But it’s going to take some time before things happen. It’s getting very hard to get quality players because they have to filter down through MLS and ASL and PDL. That’s why you don’t see a lot of new players in the MISL. But I do believe there’s a place for indoor soccer in America. There are still arenas that are always looking for dates to be filled, and I think the timing of those seasons is what’s going to make it or break it.“

“Soccer’s a long-term situation, but I do believe there’s a place for the indoor game. It’s absolutely a great game, both for the players and the fans.”