Editor's note: This is the continuation of Friday's story about Matao head coach Karl Dodd, who has changed the Guam Men's National Soccer Team's strategy, and recently led the team to a 5-0 victory over the Bhutan Thunder Dragons in the first round of the FIFA World Cup Qualifier.
When Karl Dodd was hired as the head coach of the Guam Men's National Soccer Team in January 2018, there were major struggles right from the start. The national program had been dormant for a few years. Before Matao’s 5-0 victory over the Bhutan Thunder Dragons on June 11, it had been four years since Guam hosted a major game on its home turf. And the Matao’s most recent home FIFA World Cup Qualifier victories dated back to 2015, when they defeated Turkmenistan 1-0 on June 11, and India 2-1 on June 16.
Dodd brought his philosophy, experience, system and playing style to Guam. Now, he is ready to take on the challenges and help develop and rebuild the island’s program.
‘I am not afraid of a challenge’
“It’s a challenge, and that’s what you take as a young coach,” Dodd said. “If you work with top clubs, everything will come easy. You will have all the resources and all the good players, but what do you learn as a coach? But if you go somewhere where the challenges are huge, it tests you. I am not afraid of a challenge.”
When Dodd stepped into his role, he assessed the team’s situation and found it wasn’t great. At first, it was impossible to find players. And when he did mange to track down former team members, they weren’t interested in getting back into the program.
“Maybe, in the past, Guam was running a little too quick for what it could do at a sustainable pace," Dodd said. "And that is something I came up with in our strategic plan: Let’s make this a sustainable program for all the age groups.”
Slim pickings in the U23 age range
Guam has a deficit of players, according to Dodd.
And there are no fully developed under-23 players, the age range into which Dodd would be tapping ideally.
Right now, the team has a few players at the other end of the spectrum, the age 28-and-over athletes, who are probably in their last four-year cycle.
So what’s Matao’s transition going to look like?
“We have been working really hard with the juniors, and the numbers are flourishing,” Dodd said. “The U16s are excellent and that’s probably our better age group next to our U19s. With our 19 group, we are playing catch-up. And then we have a gap with a handful of players between the ages of 17 through 23 that we are trying to keep and have them train with the Matao. Unfortunately, there are no games for them, but they just have to keep working and training.”
Plan 1: ‘Get success and get wins’
Dodd proposes a two-pronged approach to help the program flourish and expand. He suggested both a short-term and long-term plan. The short-term strategy involves the current team. The longer plan involves the juniors.
“The ones who are on the team don’t want to hear about the next four-year cycle. They are thinking about now,” Dodd said. “We have to get success and get wins as well because that helps get credibility. Otherwise, people will start to doubt the program.”
Right now, the system is working because the Matao worked hard and already got a key victory when they ousted the Dragons. That victory allowed the team to advance to the second round and presented the opportunity to play eight more games.
“If we can play four World Cup qualifiers on our own home soil, and the kids can come out and see it firsthand, it will not just be for us, but it could influence a future generation of footballers," said Jason Cunliffe, Matao team captain. "That is the plan all the way through. It’s not about us, but it’s for the future of Guam football. I am just glad we got results so we can continue on.”
Dodd expects that the Matao will work even harder than they did for Round 1. The first matches of Round 2 will begin on Sept. 5 and continue until November.
Plan 2: Motivate and train younger players
“The long-term plan involves the juniors. It’s easier with the younger players, because they haven’t been influenced, and we are teaching them a new way of football. It’s a very hard way to change the mentality of older athletes. The older people are, the more they are set in their ways," according to Dodd. "The older players have done excellent work for Guam. But you will get more traction with the younger ones.”
During the home game against Bhutan, most of the people in the crowd were kids smiling and cheering for the Matao.
“It’s awesome and really pleasing to see that,” Dodd said. “We worked so hard, and we talked about the culture we are trying to create. With this national team, everyone has a place with this tribe. ... Some of our team members are giving back to the junior national teams, and a lot of them are coaches in the national team program.”
From flag bearers to Matao team members
Dodd started out as a ball boy helping his dad’s soccer team. He slowly progressed and became a professional player and coach. He pointed out that some of the younger Guam players take on apprenticeship roles – such as flag bearer, ball boy or ball girl – which can lead to greater things for them, just as it did for him.
“About four years ago, Ethan Elwell and Kyle Halehale were flag bearers and ball boys in Guam’s last qualifier. Now, they are members of Matao,” Dodd said. “If kids are playing in the youth league, there is a chance some of those kids could be on Matao. Which one of those kids out there will be playing for the Matao or the Masakåda (Guam Women’s National Soccer Team) in the next four-year cycle? How many ball boys or ball girls will progress and play for the national team?”
Long-term personal sacrifice
For more than 18 months, Dodd has made sacrifices while he builds Guam’s program. He left his wife Shannon in Australia while she completed her doctorate degree in criminology. Dodd is focusing now on getting his wife to move to Guam.