There is no higher honor for a coach than to become involved at the national team level. It’s what coaches work for, dream of, and aspire to become. A huge majority of coaches never even get the opportunity because there are so few jobs and so many quality applicants when a job becomes vacant. To say it is competitive is a massive understatement.
But the former head coach of Midland-Odessa Sockers FC, Matt Barnes, has done just that, joining the Turks and Caicos Islands Football Association (TCIFA) as the head coach of their men’s national team program. Barnes will be at the helm for four qualifying games in the CONCACAF Nations League, literally leading the TCIFA against other CONCACAF nations, both big and small.
TCIFA General Secretary Oliver Smith liked what Barnes brought to the program.
“We wanted to expand our search outside of the Caribbean. We liked that even though it was going to be a lot of work and a long-term project, Matt embraced the reality of it. He had the coaching pedigree and the background.”
Barnes certainly has some serious credentials.
He’s experienced absolutely incredible success as a head men’s soccer coach at four collegiate programs: St. Mary’s University, San Francisco State University, Lubbock Christian University, and Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. His first collegiate gig was a big one as an assistant at California State University Bakersfield as the team ended up winning the Division II national championship in 1997. At every stop he garnered results and pushed his teams and himself up the ladder.
He also has gotten the job done at the youth and high school levels. He was the Director of Coaching at Peninsula Youth Soccer Club and LA Galaxy Bakersfield in addition to serving as head coach at Centennial High School and/Stockdale High School.
He has all of the training, including the USSF “C” and NSCAA Premier licenses. He’s also working on a UEFA “B” license. In 2017 he was part of the World Football Academy Mentorship Program with Raymond Verheijen in Amsterdam, Holland.
Barnes’ coaching career came at the heels of an amazing playing career. His time at Judson University was nothing short of legendary. He led the program to two national championships in 1991 and 1992. He was able to claim a plethora of individual awards along the way, including All-American, Athlete of the Year, Academic All-American, and Student Athlete of the Year honors. He was even named to the Class of 2009 for the Judson University Hall of Fame. He also played professionally with the USISL’s Rockford Raptors.
Working for the TCIFA is an absolutely incredible opportunity, one that Barnes does not take for granted.
“I’m not sure it has completely sunk in yet. I’m just entering month two on the job. Last weekend FIFA sent me to London with the other 200+ head coaches in the World, and we were able to enjoy a three-day symposium with a focus on the technical studies from the FIFA TSG put together for the World Cup. We also attended the FIFA Best Awards, which was incredible. When I was sitting in the conference room with Gareth Southgate, Didier Deschamps, and some of the best footballing minds in the world, I started to realize just how important this role is for me in the big scope of things. Even though we were celebrating the champions of the World Cup, FIFA has a great commitment and passion for growing the game globally. The small developing countries like Turks and Caicos Islands play a very important role in this vision. This is the best part of it for me; helping develop the grassroots platform and growing our player pool as we gain much needed experience on the pitch. The experience so far has been an amazing one, and I’m very proud to be at the helm of a national team as we strive daily to represent the people of the Turks and Caicos Islands.”
It’s not an easy assignment, but Barnes has already proven himself at every level.
“Football is still developing here and as with most federations, we have some unique challenges. TCI is a small nation, approximately 30,000 people. Our grassroots program is fundamental to our future success and it’s been growing rapidly. The sport is popular, but still battles with cricket, rugby, and track and field. Having said that, the federation here is outstanding. The president has a clear vision for youth development, and has made a commitment to the community. This is what it will take to grow the sport in the islands, and I’m confident that her vision will come to fruition.”
He has set some goals for the program and has been working towards them since day one.
“I was very fortunate that the federation gave me this opportunity and liked my preparation model coming into the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League. I have been tasked with some specific things within my role as the manager during this cycle and that’s my complete focus currently. Our short-term goals generally focus on building the foundation for the future and next years’ Nations League matches which will be in a promotion/relegation format. We are extremely realistic about where we are at right now and what targets we should be aiming for. Several people asked me about my experience in Cuba and taking a significant loss there – Cuba has 12 million people and a very healthy and active national team program; we don’t have the luxury of a player pool that large and we haven’t had opportunities to play much in the last several years so we look at matches like that in a very different way. CONCACAF is now helping us with opportunities to play and grow. With the Nations League as a platform for this, we need to focus on operating the right way, for the right reasons and at the right time.”
The CONCACAF Nations League is an exciting opportunity for all national teams in the region.
“The CONCACAF Nations League is the key to our future as a footballing nation. Without the vision of CONCACAF, I don’t think countries this size would have a legitimate chance to grow and develop. The rich would get richer. We have four games in this first qualifying cycle and these games will determine which pod we play in for 2019 as we begin the promotion and relegation competition. This will seed us into groups of similarly ranked nations and then we will truly get our first glance of how much improvement we have made. Outside of the Nations League, it will become a necessity that we find friendlies and tours with our men’s national team to further develop our identity.”
Coaching in postseason games in the NPSL allowed Barnes to compete on a big stage in front of big crowds.
“My time in the NPSL was invaluable in so many ways. Several things still really resonate with me; We played in front of some large crowds on our run to the title game two summers ago, 10,000 or more people watched us play live over the course of our last three matches. You can’t recreate those moments as a coach, and it brings new challenges to a staff and to a team itself. Playing in Detroit in front of a massive and very rambunctious crowd was the highlight of my summer. Even though the fans were crazy, I loved it – I kept thinking that night to myself that soccer has come so far in this country, I never would have imagined playing or coaching in front of this sized crowd growing up in the U.S.. I say all this because in my debut last month away to Cuba, I wasn’t affected by the large crowd and big stadium – my experience in the NPSL helped me manage that detail.”
Barnes believed his NPSL experience provided him with a great foundation, one that allowed him to move to the highest level of the game.
“The NPSL also gave me a platform for development. Coaching at the collegiate level is a great experience, but I was only managing about 20 meaningful matches a year. Like players, coaches need opportunities to grow their ideas, skills, and visions. The NPSL presented a platform for me to double my matches in a calendar year, which led to me exploring some new ideas, especially as they relate to periodization and coaching methodology.”
Leading a team to the national title game put his NPSL program on the map, bringing national attention to the work he had done. It didn’t go unnoticed.
“Leading the Sockers to the title game was one of the most proud moments in my life. When I accepted the position three years earlier, The Sockers were coming off back-to-back three-win seasons. It was a massive endeavor and getting players to spend their summers in West Texas was a challenge. I laid out a plan in the beginning and stuck to my guns throughout my time in Midland so it was an amazing four-year journey for me on a personal level. The run itself was interesting because we peaked at just the right time and it was a testament to our players. We were not the most talented and experienced squad that summer, but we were a true team. Once we got in the postseason we just started to snowball. I still wonder what the final would have been like if we could have had our regular team, but we lost all of our college players. We were ultimately outclassed by a very good, and very professional Elm City Express.”
Midland-Odessa Sockers FC General Manager, Soccer Operations Jeff VonHolle was glad to see that Barnes was given an opportunity at the highest level of the game.
“We couldn’t be any happier or more excited for Matt as he gets a chance to prove himself as a coach within the ranks of FIFA. Matt did an amazing job for us here in Midland for four seasons from 2014 through 2017, including a NPSL National Championship Game appearance in 2017. He’s a hard worker, and it’s great to see good things happen to good people. We have no doubt that the results of his new job with the Turks and Caicos Islands National Team will prove him to be the outstanding coach that he is.”
And right now he is an outstanding coach that has been given the chance to make a massive difference in the footballing future of an entire nation. That is a great responsibility, but those that know Barnes know that he will be the true gamechanger that this country needs and deserves.
Photo Credit: Russ Pinkerton /Midland-Odessa Sockers FC, Jeff VonHolle/Midland-Odessa Sockers FC, and Mark Nicholas/Midland-Odessa Sockers FC