MLSsoccer.com continues its look back at the stars, personalities and cult heroes who made Major League Soccer what it is today. Our second annual “What Ever Happened To..." series rolls on with former New York Red Bulls goalkeeper coach Des McAleenan.
Where He Was Then
Through a decade that saw seven different head coaches, a rebranding, a new stadium and a double-handful of top-quality goalkeepers, there was one constant on the New York sideline: Des McAleenan.
The Irishman became the MetroStars goalkeeper coach in 2002 under Octavio Zambrano, a spot he held until late in the 2011 preseason. He saw legends of the game come (Thierry Henry) and go (Youri Djorkaeff), helped tutor a future English Premier League Best XI ‘keeper (Tim Howard) and worked under the last two US national team head coaches (Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena).
In short, he’d seen just about everything. And along the way, he built a résumé that assured he’d land on his feet when he was dismissed by the Red Bulls last winter.
Where He Is Now
“I had chances to work with other MLS teams, but after 11 years, I wanted to experience something different,” McAleenan says now of the months after his dismissal.
And different is what he found. McAleenan ended up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, about as far – geographically, culturally and otherwise – from New York as you can get. He’s now the goalkeeper coach for Al-Hilal FC, Asia’s “Team of the Century.”
“I had been to Gulf region several times before, so I wasn't concerned with what to expect,” McAleenan explains. “I went from the airport direct to training and jumped right into the session, so I just made my final decisions on which activities I would use in the session.
“It was during Ramadan. We started at 10 pm and it was still 110 degrees at night.”
It could have been culture shock, even with his previous experience in the area of the Persian Gulf, but McAleenan immersed himself in the football culture. And while he recognizes the passion of Al-Hilal’s fans, there were some barriers when it came to the job itself.
“I enjoy working with my four ‘keepers immensely, but it is a big challenge some days,” he explains. “They are not as disciplined or driven as their American counterparts.”
To be fair, the netminders with whom McAleenan got to work in the US were some of the best North America has ever produced. In addition to Howard (“In the two-and-a-half years we worked together, I don't think I hurt his career,” McAleenan says self-deprecatingly, giving the lion’s share of credit for Howard’s development to Tim Mulqueen), he spent time with Tony Meola, Jonny Walker and Ronald Waterreus, to name just three.
And while he had kind words about all of them (and nearly every other ‘keeper in New York history), it was Meola who stood out.
“Big Tony Meola – he had a profound impact on my career because he had such presence and I had such respect for his magnificent career,” McAleenan explains. “Best hands and feet of all the ‘keepers I’ve worked with. He deserved a bigger stage than MLS to showcase his talents. I learned a lot from him.”
And no, that’s not intended as a slight toward the league. McAleenan was there through the lean years, in front of sparse crowds at Giants Stadium and plastic training pitches scattered throughout central New Jersey. They all persevered, though, and got to see the league grow to where it is today.
Through it all, he still considers himself “The ultimate ambassador for MLS” in the Arab world.
“I always talk proudly about the great changes I've seen over the years, much of it driven by the vision of Don Garber, who I feel has done a fabulous job following the contraction in the early part of the decade,” McAleenan says.
But while he’s proud of the league he left behind and talks it up every chance he gets – he swears Al-Hilal’s Swedish international Christian Wilhelmsson is very, very interested in coming to MLS – he’s not quite ready to end his Arabian adventure.
“I'd love to come back at some stage, but not yet,” he says. “I'm having an amazing experience here.”
And that includes, among other things, some meetings with royalty and fond discussions about his former home.
“At a recent away game in Jeddah, I spoke with a prince who confirmed strong Saudi interest in acquiring a franchise, so I shall have my ear close to the ground,” McAleenan explains. “I enjoyed my time in New York immensely and wouldn't rule out a return.
“But I think if a return to New York does happen,” he adds, “it would most likely be with the Cosmos.”
What They Said
“The biggest thing was his passion for the game. He made coming to work every day fun and exciting, he was passionate about getting better as a coach and passionate about making his goalkeepers better. And it really made a difference.”
– Jon Conway, former Red Bulls goalkeeper