Mike McNeill watches the ball’s path as it cuts through the air toward the keeper, judging the potency of the strike and the movement of the ball. He decides what the next move should be all in a matter of seconds.
But McNeill isn’t in front of the net. The former goalkeeper for the SF State men’s soccer team is now taking on a different role as one of its assistant coaches.
Though he knew coaching was what he eventually wanted to do, McNeill’s latest line of work came at an unfortunate price. A recent back injury cost him the rest of his season after playing only 66 minutes in conference play. The Gators ultimately lost the game to UC San Diego 1-0.
“It’s been a tough four years here,” McNeill said. “I’ve been injured more often than I haven’t, but being injured has given me a new perspective and I think (it has) prepared me as a coach. I see how the college game works here, and coach (Joe) Hunter and coach Kelly (Coffey) put me under their wing.”
Neither head coach Hunter nor assistant coach Coffey could be reached for comment.
As a player, McNeill was a team captain and respected member of the team, according to other players, including senior Sasha Chalak.
“The rest of the team loved that Mike joined the coaching staff because they knew that he would still be a part of the team and be supportive. And his presence really helps the younger guys,” Chalak said.
According to McNeill, he has always known that he wanted to be a collegiate soccer coach and started taking steps toward this goal at age 15.
“I’m still a long ways away from it, but I feel like I got a good jump on it when I was young. I’ve known what I wanted to do since I was young,” he said.
At 15, McNeill was balancing playing competitive club soccer and acquiring coaching credentials that would eventually give him the opportunity to coach competitive soccer teams and set up clinics for local club soccer teams in his hometown of Oakdale, Calif.
While training teams, soccer club directors from Oakdale and Modesto approached him about the possibility of setting up soccer clinics. These clinics gave McNeill a forum to show younger players some skills they couldn’t get from their regular club coaches. With the help from his parents, he was able to set up a string of summer camps for the top club soccer teams in Oakdale.
“My mom and dad helped a lot when it came to the hard stuff, like registering the players and the insurance for every player, but it ended up being worth it,” McNeill said.
He worked through the journey of coaching players at a young age, while constantly learning about the game himself. Even as a kid, McNeill demonstrated his leadership skills and the ability to coach his peers.
As a goalkeeper, McNeill was able to survey the entire team so he can effectively mentor less experienced players from all different sides of the game.
“I talked to a couple of my teammates before becoming an assistant coach and they said that it wouldn’t be too much of a change because I’m on the field,” McNeill said. “I was coaching anyway. I was always screaming at my defenders and midfielders, coaching them. On the other side, as a goalkeeper, I always have to know where the defenders need to be and where the attackers are coming from as well.”
While he still finds it strange to suddenly be on a different side of the ball out on the pitch, McNeill said his prior relationship with the players strengthens their bond. He considers himself to be the middle ground between the players and coaches, and thinks that he can bolster the entire team’s communication.
“I think his experience as a player will help the younger players in a way in which they will look up to him, as well as relate to him for the simple fact that he already went through what some of the young players are going through,” said senior midfielder Edgar Villagrana, who has played with McNeill for four years.