For the past 10 years, a collaboration between Major League Soccer and the French Football Federation has seen North America-based coaches head abroad to take the Elite Formation Coaching License program.
This past February, a group of 25 MLS coaches started the 18-month course to elevate academy player development around the continent.
For the first time in the program’s history, a female coach was part of the MLS contingent. In February, San Jose Earthquakes Under-15 head coach Erin Ridley traveled to Clairefontaine, the prestigious French football training center, to begin the course.
“It’s like a highly competitive grad program where people are in it, they’re trying to perform well, and they know that there's pressure on them to do so,” Ridley told MLSsoccer.com. “But there's a sense of cohesiveness within the group because we’ve got to lean on each other in order to succeed. And it's pretty cool how that all comes together.”
With the schedule – barring any complications or setbacks – set to run from February 2023 to July 2024, Ridley quickly realized how demanding the course would be.
After completing the Clairefontaine portion, the 25 coaches were dispersed to observe training at clubs around France. Ridley went to RC Lens, a Ligue 1 team in the north of France. Once they return to the United States, more work awaits before the next in-person session featuring zoom calls, assignments and the like.
“It's really in-depth, and it's designed to be just very, very demanding of what they want, there's a certain pedagogy that they want to see if you can utilize,” Ridley explained.
Global perspectives in San Jose
Ridley’s been coaching San Jose’s boy’s teams for the last three years. Her time with the organization began with Girls’ Development Academy sides, but when the Development Academy shut down in 2020, the Earthquakes opted to shutter their girls’ teams. That left Ridley temporarily in limbo.
Later in 2020, she was hired to coach the Earthquakes' Under-13 teams by then-GM Jesse Fioranelli. Now Ridley coaches the Under-15 team in MLS NEXT. But she isn’t the first member of San Jose’s organization to take the ECFL course.
First team head coach Luchi Gonzalez is an alumnus, along with members of the technical staff, Chris Leitch and John Wolyniec. The combination of Leitch’s experience in the coaching course and the background of Director of Methodology Alex Covelo, who hails from Spain, brings a slew of different ideas to the academy setup. It’s something that she’s already noticed since her initial exposure to the coursework.
“It's like a shared sort of process where you kind of interweave certain aspects of it,” she said. “So even a very Spanish sort of influenced methodology has this sort of fringe course, interwoven into some of the pieces of it because of Chris's experience.”
Learning from the best
Beyond her current peers, Ridley has several coaches in her life that helped shape her into the coach she is today, including accomplished girl’s club coach Andres Deza, who was the catalyst for Ridley’s move to the Quakes.
The pair worked together on a United States women’s youth national team camp in Korea, starting a working relationship that culminated in Ridley relocating from Tennessee to the Bay Area in 2018. From there, she joined San Jose as the goalkeeping director for the girls’ teams, coaching the Under-17 and U-19 teams, and serving as an assistant for the U-15 and U-14 teams. Ridley also cited how Covelo, the Earthquakes' Director of Methodology, has been crucial in her coaching journey over the past few years.
Before that, during her time with the women’s program at Davidson College, she got to know Scott Schweitzer, a local goalkeeping coach for Charlotte Independence in North Carolina. He’s mentored Ridley throughout her coaching journey.
As a player at the University of Virginia from 2001-2004, she spent several seasons under longtime stalwart Steve Swanson, and it was UVA's staff that originally suggested she go into coaching one day. Since she left school, the two have kept in close touch as she’s built a coaching career of her own. Her success has not surprised Swanson.
“I think she deserves all the credit for where she is now,” he said. “Because I think, you know, a lot of times so many coaches, it's about lighting the fire, but once you light the fire, you've got to give it air, you got to grow it, [keep it] cultivated, those kinds of things. And I think she just kept pushing herself and kept growing and kept investing and kept educating herself. And she's still doing that now.”
Beyond her participation in the Elite Formation Coaching License, Ridley has blazed a trail as the first female coach at an MLS Academy in MLS NEXT.
Her peers on the trip to France asked what that was like, and her response was that it’s much different. She faces obstacles that her male colleagues rarely share. Sometimes it can be the referee checking in with a male assistant on the bench ahead of a game; sometimes it’s a player asking her for pregame treatment, assuming she is the athletic trainer. At rare points, parents push back on their son being coached by a woman.
“It's challenging for ways that take a while to sort of unpack because most of the resistance, or most of the things that are hard, are not always completely overt,” she said. “They're more subtle, or underhanded, or even things that are exhausting that guys just simply do not have to deal with. But it's also not hard, because I'm doing it. Do you know what I mean?”
Her position presents challenges for the future, as there isn’t always a clear path forward when it comes to climbing the coaching ladder. But, just like any high-level coach around the country, she remains focused on improving herself, whether taking on the EFCL course or learning more from colleagues near and far.
Recently, however, she’s realized what an impact her presence on the sideline has made on others, which provides even more motivation to keep creating new pathways.
“The last game at GA Cup placement in December, three women [were] waiting for me after the game. They didn’t know each other,” Ridley said. “And each one just wanted to say, ‘Hey, I want to let you know I support you, love what you're doing. I think it's amazing.’
“So there’s women watching what's going on, they're seeing that I'm there and they're like, ‘I want to do that too.’ And I think that's like the coolest piece of it. Because you’re like, this isn’t about me. I have a certain desire to progress and grow as a coach. But also, because I’m here in the States, you get to maybe hope that it inspires someone else to be there. And maybe they’re the ones that are going to end up on an MLS professional sideline someday.”