Thu. Sep 21st, 2023

Vlora FC Women’s staff: Assistant Coach Mohammed Gubara, Team Manager Katie Brink, and Head Coach Marcus Anthony, credit: Matthew Johnson

Marcus Anthony was born in Manhattan in New York City, but at age 2 his family moved to the small Caribbean island of Antigua. However, at age 15, his family moved to Minnesota where Marcus Anthony played high school soccer for Robbinsdale Cooper.

After playing he started coaching at Robbinsdale Armstrong. He was recently chosen to be the head coach of Vlora FC’s new women’s team which will play in UPSL in 2023.

If you have not read Part I of my interview with Vlora Women’s head coach Marcus Anthony, you can read that here. Marcus Anthony’s journey from New York to Antigua and Barbuda to Minnesota deserves more attention. We also dig into his playing and coaching career. Again, thank you to Marcus Anthony and Vlora for giving Sota Soccer access for this interview.

Antigua, Cricket, Football/Soccer, and the United States

Matthew Johnson:  Okay, so let’s dig into your past a bit. You said you grew up in Antigua, but where were you born?

Marcus Anthony: I was born in New York, New York City, Manhattan.

MJ: And what age did your family move to Antigua?

MA: I was about one or two when I moved. So, I don’t really remember the move itself.

MJ: When did you move to eventually move to Minnesota?

MA: That was December 15, 2005. I was 15.

MJ: Did your parents move because they got work in Minnesota?

MA: My stepdad had already been living in the US since 1991 or around that time. He and my mom got married, and then we all just moved in 2005.

MJ: Do you have any siblings?

MA: Yeah, I have two sisters and two brothers.

MJ: What’s your first soccer memory?

MA: I started playing around 2004. I kind of just [played] pick up. I didn’t really get a full experience because I was doing track and field; I was playing cricket. I didn’t really get any experience. I was just kicking the ball around.

MJ: Oh, so about what age are we talking about?

MA: That’s around 12.

MJ: 12? What age do you start playing cricket?

MA: Cricket? We were always playing cricket. Yeah, it was one of those things that we always did after school or during school, you know? Like, it was just one of those things. I wouldn’t say it was so seasonal. But if we were in the mood to play cricket, we played cricket.

MJ: So in Antigua, when the Cricket World Cup comes on, everyone’s watching team West Indies, right?

MA: Yeah, definitely. You know, Brian Lara [Trinidad], Curtly Ambrose [Antigua], Vivian Richards [Antigua], those guys. That’s my background. Andy Roberts [Antigua] is from around where I grew up. So yeah, it was a big thing for us. Cricket, the track and field part of it, and then playing football, but always cricket because it was a daily thing for us.

MJ: Football was kind of your third sport.

MA: Yeah.

MJ: You move to the States, and you end up playing both club and for your school.

MA: So that’s a really interesting story. I would say like 2006 was when I started playing soccer. I was more so just trying to get the layout of the room and get acclimated. I was more focused on meeting family that was already here and getting accustomed to the environment. My real soccer experience started here because I didn’t know anything about how to get into a sports team per se. I didn’t know if they had cricket or track and field. I played high school in 2006, and club soccer for me started like 2007.

MJ: What was soccer like in Antigua and Barbuda? And then what was the culture shift like coming to the US?

MA: There’s a saying that football is universal; the ball is the ball. What I understand now is there’s not a youth club system [in Antigua] that develops you. Being at a young age, you’re either playing with men, or you’re just kicking the ball around. So that is one thing I would say. From a cultural standpoint, being in there and coming to the US, it changed. Because when I came here, even though I did play with [the varsity team] in high school, I had to go to the club level in order to really get a competitive drive.

In Antigua, youth are playing with men who are playing on the national team; they’re playing at the premier level in the league. Whereas men here, if you’re not in college or playing the next level, it’s kind of like Sunday’s best [i.e. pickup]. And that was a huge difference for me. As soon as you hit 12 years old, you’re playing with guys that are in their 20s and going into their 30s, that are playing at a competitive level. It’s a lot different here [in the US]. Here you have youth development: you get to play with your age, and you could develop. It gives you the opportunity to really grow with where you’re at and not force you to be something that you’re not ready to be.

MJ: I have heard that in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, they have that model of mentorship. You’re playing with men as a kid. Do you think there’s something positive that USA could learn both from a mentorship standpoint and from access to pro players?

MA: I’m not too sure. It’s tricky. Because at a young age, if you’re playing there and you could keep up, then you can keep playing. But if you can’t keep up, it kind of kills your confidence. So, the youth system here that allows kids to grow is more realistic than being forced or being pushed to play in an older way when you’re not comfortable or ready to do it. I honestly shift more [to the US model] and say the youth side of it, like academies, is very helpful. Even though you could argue the costs, being able to build a bridge that connects youth to the next level, that’s developmentally good compared to you being drawn into a generation of older players, and you [have to] make your own way out.

“Those were the style of tackles that were happening when I grew up, and those are what I adapted to. After my first year of playing here, I found out between a lot of yellows and red card, I can’t really do that”

— Marcus Anthony

Marcus Anthony the Player

MJ: When you started to play club, that was with Minnesota Thunder Academy (MTA)?

MA: Yeah, Wings before they become became MTA. So I did what one or two years Wings and then one year MTA. I was 15 playing on a U19 team because I couldn’t afford the actual age group. So they put my friend and I on U19 team for what two or three years.

MJ: Can you name your friend?

MA: Yeah, Linus Onuoha. We used to play for NCTC. We did Wings and MTA and then in between that it was just high school.

MJ: Speaking of high school, Robbinsville Cooper Hawks. Who was your coach there?

MA: I had Pat Smith and then Tim Darsow. They were my two coaches.

MJ: What was playing in high school like for you?

MA: It was different. Coming from the Caribbean, the level of intensity, the style of play, the slide tackles are so different from what was done here.

MJ: Was it more intense here? Were there more slide tackles? Fewer slide tackles?

MA: It was less because we grew up in a British system, and we would watch the English Premier League, watch all soccer that are outside of the US, watch the world’s game. And the style of tackles you’re hittin’ are those of like Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, the [Nemanja] Vidić. Those were the style of tackles that were happening when I grew up, and those are what I adapted to. After my first year of playing here, I found out between a lot of yellows and red card, I can’t really do that ─ not to say they didn’t get the ball, they got the ball ─ but [here in the US] they started more enforcing safety play. But that allowed me to adjust and adapt to just the environment and change my game too.

MJ: what position did you play?

MA: I played defense.

MJ: Yeah, my type of guy. Centerback? 

MA: Centerback, yeah.

MJ: You went to Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa. Did you participate in any air band competitions? 

MA: Nah, I always watched the air band, which was pretty fun.

MJ: It’s a big deal down there. Did you play centerback for Graceland?

MA: I played forward. I moved to forward and midfield when I played at Graceland. My playing career wasn’t that great at Graceland due to injuries. Firstly, I broke my ankle. Second year. I tore my ACL going into the season.

MJ: Were [your opponents] putting Marcus-Anthony-like tackles on you?

MA [laughs]: No, not at all. A lot of it was just from overplay, overuse. It ended up being stress fractures and actually broken ankles and tearing my ACL from non-contact, just from plant and making a turn.

MJ: You move from Iowa. Do you go directly back to Minnesota?

MA: No, I lived in Chicago for a year. And during that year, I would say probably played and enjoyed some of my best soccer there.

MJ: For what team did you play in Chicago?

MA: A team for a Romanian coach named Armando. He put a team together, and we would play throughout Chicago and many tournaments.

MJ: Fun, did the team or program have a name or was it just “Chicago Romanian”?

MA: No, it was Pro Patria.

MJ: After Chicago, you come back home to Minnesota?

MA: Yeah, I came back home.

Marcus Anthony the Coach

MJ: Back in Minnesota, you get a job coaching 10th grade?

MA: Yeah, I started off coaching at Armstrong 10th grade.

MJ: Cooper rival, right?

MA: I did go for Cooper [alma mater], but they didn’t consider me. So, I went around the other way around.

MJ: You’ve enjoyed a lot of roles with [Armstrong], moving up to eventually being the junior varsity coach. Now you’re the varsity coach. What has that progress been like?

MA: It was really good. It showed me growth, my personal growth. And I also was able to attack my fears, because I was always the guy that said, “I don’t want that much responsibility.” And then here comes all the responsibility. And I realized: it’s a part of who I am, and it’s a part of what’s going to help me grow into the coach that I’m gonna be. It’s been great so far. I’ve been able to build a program and build it around coaches that are all club coaches who have experienced playing at the collegiate level as well.

I even get to bring back a former Armstrong player Mohammed Gubara to be my assistant coach. He played at Armstrong, and we’ve worked together ever since he’s graduated. He’s my boss at my other club Boreal. It’s been fun to build a community of coaches and former players of Armstrong and ones who are in the world of soccer all the time.

MJ: How did you get involved at Park Valley United?

MA: Park Valley? The club director at the time Jeremy Driver was looking for coaches to bring into Park Valley. The head coach at the time of Armstrong recommended me.

MJ: Who are your soccer mentors that helped you either as a player or as a coach?

MA: Honestly, one of my biggest influences was last year Vlora coach Carter Albrecht. Now, he’s the head coach of Blackhawks UPSL men’s team. In terms of just coaching and communication, he was the leader that allowed me to see different ways I could build my game. Also, all the players I’ve been able to coach ─ being able to see different players and just seeing them from different backgrounds and also different learning styles ─ they’ve also allowed me to grow and understand how to really step forward in the different ways I choose to teach, the different ways I choose to coach because everyone learns at a different pace. How do you meet them where they’re at and help them really develop, buy in, and execute?

MJ: Since I’m a super nerd about US Soccer Federation coaching licenses, I have to ask you about yours. A lot of people don’t know how many levels there are. Can you talk about what you had to do for the grassroots license? And then what more you had to do for USSF D license?

MA: Yeah, the grassroots I would say I had to understand the different levels of 7 v 7, 9 v9, and 11 v 11 [and] what it takes to coach and how to go about coaching those levels. Remembering that the kids are kids, you can’t train them like they’re playing a World Cup, and how to get them in with the game and get them to come back. It’s all about the return, to come back, that I give you an experience well enough to love the sport to want to come back and go again and keep trying. So the grassroots stage was just about that and the play-practice-play method that they use to just keep kids engaged. No amount of line drills will keep kids engaged. Just keep them playing and make sure that they’re having fun while you’re teaching skills and while they’re playing amongst each other.

MJ: So the balance between doing drills and doing more free play or scrimmage type stuff?

MA: Yeah. When you go to the D license, it became more about structure and still eliminating line drills but applying how to organize training sessions, the importance of leading the team, leading the individual, talking to parents, working parents, how to build a session plan ─  and what areas do you focus on before a game versus after a game, and how to just stay consistently structured in your training session.

MJ: For our readers that don’t know what a line drill is, to what are you referring?

MA: Kids just standing standing and waiting their turn

MJ: Oh, they’re in a line! Yeah, like do this thing . . .

MA: . . . and then wait until this person has done too for you to start.

MJ: Yeah, so, not a good use of time

MA: Not a good use of time, exactly. So eliminating those and making sure kids are playing small sided games, focus your OLI points [Orientation, Learning, Implementation] when you’re coaching them. Where is [this situation] happening in the game and how do you go from there?

MJ: What more can you say about OLI?

MA: So you have your focus team, and you have your non-focus team. What are the success rates and what you’re focusing on? And how do you help both sides? It could be offense one moment and the defending team is the one that you want to teach how to stop the offensive team.

MJ: So in that drill situation, the focus part would be the defensive side?

MA: No, the focused side will be the offensive side, allowing them to play. But then as they’re playing, you work on fixing the defensive side of how to stop them. Because in the game, they will see the same thing. How do you set teachable teams at the same time.

“One thing we’ve been able to do with that is invite all kids who are just interested in playing soccer or being a part of a program to come in ─ doesn’t matter where they’re at or what background they are in. We’ve had kids who are in the Special Ed program at Armstrong try soccer.”

— Marcus Anthony

Not Just About Soccer

MJ: Where did you get your Emotional Behavior Disorder or Special Ed training?

MA: So I started out as an Education Assistant, an EA in intermediate district 287. And from there on, I just, I wanted to grow; I wanted to develop. One thing about me: I’m all about growth and where can I grow? How can I do it, and what are the steps of execution? To begin the process to grow, I left the intermediate district while pursuing my master’s in Coaching and Exercise Science.

When I went back, I took the role as a physical education day teacher. At the same time, I applied for my Tier Two license [in Special Ed]. I’ll be starting my day courses to be fully a licensed teacher.

MJ: For those that don’t understand DAPE (Developmental Adapted Physical Education), how did you get involved in that? Are you able to incorporate that in some of your Armstrong classes?

MA: Yeah, I got into it just because I liked the fitness world. I guess being a Special Ed teacher and educational assistant made me more aware of what I wanted my journey to look like, where I want to go. I fell in love with it because I was helping kids in need. And I was also learning how to be patient. So the things I was able to learn from it that I could apply to what I do at Armstrong is meet kids where they’re at. One thing we’ve been able to do with that is invite all kids who are just interested in playing soccer or being a part of a program to come in ─ doesn’t matter where they’re at or what background they are in. We’ve had kids who are in the Special Ed program at Armstrong try soccer. It was a way for them to be in with a program and to be in the community and engage and try an activity. The one thing we were able to do was never to force it, never to push it; just bring them in with open arms and meet them where they’re at.

MJ: I’ve noticed that some high schools are even offering varsity level for adapted sports. Have you seen that world grow, and what more can you say about that?

MA: I have seen it grow. I know at Armstrong we have adapted teams for hockey and soccer and a few other sports. I can’t really say much on the full growth of it because it took me a while to really understand what it was before I got into special education. But then when I started to understand what it was, why it is an important program for students. Special Education students need to have have something to be a part of, to engage in, and a community that will work with them. In the world of DAPE, we’re teaching skills. We’re teaching how to get comfortable, and how to fill in more and more motor skills.

MJ: That’s awesome. Last part, I just have some rapid-fire questions. Favorite Foods?

MA: Jerk chicken. 

MJ: Yeah, you like the Caribbean food, and you miss it?

MA: Right. Definitely, all the time.

MJ: I just noticed a Jamaican joint on on Rice Street on the east side of St. Paul that I’ve never been to, but is there a good Jerk Chicken joint that you’d recommend?

MA: Irie Vybz

MJ: Any favorite music?

MA: I listen to a lot of reggae and dance.

MJ: Favorite movie?

MA: The Count of Monte Cristo

MJ: Favorite European soccer club?

MA: European? I would say Real Madrid.

MJ: Since you said you grew up watching English Premier League, do you have a favorite English Premier League club?

MA: Manchester City

MJ: Do you have a favorite Canadian, US, or Mexican club/

MA: Mexican? Pachuca

MJ: Favorite non-sport hobby?

MA: Playing video games. Yeah, play Call of Duty a lot. 

MJ: Do you play Call of Duty more than you play FIFA?

MA [Laughs]: Yep.

MJ: Hey, Marcus, thank you for your time. I really appreciate this.

MA: Yeah, no problem. Hopefully [after MJ’s technical difficulties] it went well.

By Matthew Johnson

Matthew "MJ" Johnson is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis. In 2007, he discovered UEFA Champions League. His complex spreadsheets went from college football bowl season to European club soccer, and his fandom soon followed. In 2011, a friend Wes made the mistake of inviting him to an NSC Minnesota Stars game, where he fell in love with local soccer. Matthew co-hosts The Daves I Know podcast and occasionally guest hosts the MN Fútbol Show. When not playing broomball or watching soccer, he repairs bicycles and sharpens knives for money but fuses cuisines for fun. Follow Matthew on Twitter @mjmattsui

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