Friday, December 6, 2013

Award-winning Waibel guiding Huskies into unprecedented territory

Waibel was named Far West Assistant Coach of the Year by the NSCAA Thursday | Photos: Gerald Barnhart
Only three years removed from playing his final Major League Soccer game for the Houston Dynamo and in his second season as an assistant coach for his alma mater, Spokane native and former Spokane Shadow PDL standout Craig Waibel was honored Thursday by the NSCAA and has the University of Washington on the verge of the NCAA Final Four with a home contest against New Mexico. The game can be seen on the Pac-12 Networks.

“It has been a year of steady growth and continued improvement for our guys,” Waibel told INWsoccernews. “They have battled as tough as any of their competitors and have found ways to win game through efficient play, and at times beautiful soccer.  But their spirit and their humility is their true strength. They also possess the ability to win games ugly when needed.  They have the confidence in themselves to set aside their ideals of the beautiful game and roll up their sleeves. And in doing so, they show their maturity as a group and their overwhelming desire to succeed on the field.

“Throughout the year we have had a number of guys step up to the challenges in front of them. We have played in three different formations and our guys have played them all with confidence and dedication to succeed for one another.  I can’t say enough about this group of guys. Camaraderie and respect within the team is a unique balance in any locker room... and right now they have it.”

The Huskies are in uncharted waters having won two NCAA tournament games and reaching the Elite Eight for the first time in program history. The second-seeded Huskies are 16-1-4 this season and are statistically 17th in the nation defensively under the tutelage of the 11-year MLS defender, who helped the LA Galaxy, San Jose Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo win a combined four MLS Cups, a Supporters’ Shield and a US Open Cup title.

The team’s defensive success garnered honors for the former Husky as he was named Regional Assistant Coach of the Year for the Far West by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America Thursday. He was one of eight around the nation to be recognized.

“I am honored to get the award as it is voted on by my peers only,” Waibel said of the award. “I have always treasured awards voted on by peers as they are the people that truly understand the ins and outs of this job.”

Shadow 1998 game program
INWsoccernews caught up with Waibel when he was in Spokane earlier this season for the Huskies’ showdown at Gonzaga, a close-fought contest that finished 1-0 in favor of Washington.

“It's been a long time, been a long time, but I have been back,” the Lewis & Clark graduate said of his return to Spokane last August. “I had never seen this complex since it was finished. There are a lot of buildings that weren't around here when Brian Ching and I played soccer golf all over campus. Doesn't look like our course would be playable now.”

“Feels good, I mean home is home. I went to high school here and had some great years at LC, and it's always comfortable coming home. I guess that's the word I would use. I have moved so many times and been in a lot of uncomfortable situations that being in Seattle now and coming back to Spokane is really calming. It's quite nice.”

It has been a long road that has taken Waibel through much of the country west of the Mississippi. After finishing his career with Washington and the Shadow, he was drafted and signed by the then A-League (USL First Division) Seattle Sounders in 1999. It did not take long for him to make an impression, getting a short loan to the Colorado Rapids in 2000 before being signed by the Galaxy in 2001. While playing sparsely for LA he would also be loaned back to the Sounders both seasons before finding a permanent place under coach Dominic Kinnear, who was an assistant coach under Frank Yallop for the San Jose Earthquakes in 2003 before taking the head coaching role a year later. Waibel remained with the club through the team’s move to Houston in 2006, continuing to play under Kinnear, a former A-League Sounder himself in 1995, until his retirement after the 2010 season.

“A-League was fun. I realize in hindsight that - if we could all look forward - hindsight really showed me that those two years in the A-League were essential.,” he said of his early days as a professional. “Without that development I never could have even competed to win a roster spot in MLS. For Sigi to give me a chance at LA and Frank  to give me a chance in San Jose; it was unique that I got three chances.

“It's not normal for anyone to get that many chances, but I was able to grasp onto that third one. Took me to five MLS Cups and I won four of them; so, if I had to pick one [as a highlight] I'd be lost. They all feel good, and you never know if your ever gonna get a chance to win another one, so every one of them felt like the best - the best time and the absolute worst fear of never getting there again.”

Photos: Houston Dynamo
Perhaps the biggest honor of his career came in 2012 when he was among 16 individuals honored by the Dynamo on the pillars of the club’s brand-new home BBVA Compass Stadium. Waibel, and Ching, were immortalized as key members of the team and community since its arrival in 2005 with large images on pillars throughout the stadium.

“Pretty cool. I am a pretty humble kid from up here you know, and to have my picture there in the stadium,” he said before pausing to deflect with a joke.  “It's been there since they built it, and I joked with the general manager. I said 'Hey, I know I am the first one to come down when you get a real soccer player up there on the wall.' But no, it's an honor, and I did a lot of good things, you know, and looking back I am really proud of my career on the field, but I am very proud of what I did off the field while I had the opportunity.”

Off the field, Waibel got a head start on collegiate coaching experience with the Rice women’s program, but what he is most proud of is the time spent volunteering at the Texas Children’s Center.

“Through that I was fortunate to be a founding member of the Bald is Beautiful Campaign that the club took over when I left,” he said of the TCC. “When we started it, it was a group of families and myself, Stu Holden, and Mike Chabala that got the whole thing off the ground.  We rented the space outside the stadium, promoted it ourselves and got the whole thing going from the ground up. [The Dynamo] now run it a bit more corporate as it all goes through the team but that was one of my babies that still exists down there.”

Retirement set the second phase of Waibel’s career into motion, though he initially was not sure what that would be in the beginning.

“About a seven-month soul search,” he said of what took him to the University of Michigan, where he served as assistant coach in 2011. “Talked to lot of people - ownership of MLS teams - friends, family. Went through about five or six months of really trying to discover what my path was after playing, and most discussions came back to my love of the sport and wanting to be involved.

“My dad grew up just outside of Taylor (between Detroit and Ann Arbor), so I grew up a Michigan fan. So, I was fortunate that job was available, and that they hired me,” he said with a chuckle.

Waibel and UW coach Jamie Clark
Then the Huskies and their new head coach Jamie Clark came calling.

“At the end of the day it was an easy decision for myself and Shaka Daly, who was coaching Michigan at the time. He kinda walked up to me and said 'hey, Jamie called.'

“We both knew what the answer was, but we both tried to be polite about we decided: that I would part ways from Michigan to come back to my alma mater. I left on great terms there and I loved my time there, but it's not hard to come back to your alma mater.”

As for the re-launch of the Shadow men, Waibel is all for it.

“I love it. Those were some of the best days for me. I would play all school year at Washington and come back here during the summer and play in front of loyal, big crowds,” he said of his first experience of playing before big crowds. “I mean, back then we were getting 3,000 to watch our PDL games and more. And to have that experience is priceless because it puts you in environments with pressure and performance anxiety - those things you need to deal with when you are young so you're ready for the next opportunity that comes.”