In a Part 2 of our latest Soccer Nation Sitdown (find Part 1 here), the conversation between Ziggy Korytoski and Nate Abaurrea takes a wild turn to the hills of Guatemala, with stops in San Luis Obispo and San Diego. We also learn what the craft of coaching means to Ziggy, and what he hopes to accomplish before his career is all said and done.
Nate Abaurrea: We know that your position with the San Diego State Men’s Soccer program is what originally brought you to America’s Finest City. What has the experience of being an assistant coach with the Aztecs been like for you?
Ziggy Korytoski: It’s been great, Nate. Working with Lev (Kirshner) has been phenomenal. He has embraced my ideas since the moment I got here, and I’ve already learned so much from him. I’m invigorated by the vision of the program and the success we are trying to attain. I knew the time was right to come here and be a part of a team that is competing in one of the best conferences in the country.
We’ve had some great wins, such as the 1-0 over the number one nationally ranked Akron Zips back in September, and there will be plenty more. As I said before, I missed the college game. Helping these young men persevere academically with soccer as their vehicle is fantastic.
NA: You say you missed the college game after you left your job as an assistant at Cal Poly. What stays with you most about your time coaching at that university and living in San Luis Obispo?
ZK: SLO was a special place. It was a piece of paradise for myself and for my family. Our first child was born in SLO, so the town will always be a strong part of our lives. It’s a small town where soccer is vibrant. From the students at Cal Poly to the people of the community, they truly love the game there.
As a coach, I was able to work alongside Paul Holocher, a man for which I have the greatest respect. I also developed a relationship with former U.S. Men’s National Team and L.A. Galaxy Manager Steve Sampson, who is currently the Head Coach at Cal Poly, with Holocher now coaching in the San Jose Earthquakes system. Professionally and socially, it was amazing, and when the opportunity arose to move to Guatemala and take the job at Antigua GFC, it was difficult. We could have stayed in SLO forever, and been more than happy with our lives. But SLO also helped me see my career in a different light, and inspired me to take on more challenges. Getting to go back up there with SDSU this season was awesome, and just added to my sense of gratitude.
NA: We’ll head down to Guatemala in a bit, but before we do that, I’ve got to ask you about one particular match-up that you were a part of in SLO. The Mustangs of Cal Poly and the Gauchos of UCSB (Santa Barbara) share arguably the most intense rivalry in all of college soccer. The play on the field is quality, but it’s the fans from both schools that make the match-up what it is. What do you remember about some of those games against the Gauchos, specifically those at home in SLO?
ZK: I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world, watching, playing, and coaching the beautiful game. Those matches between Cal Poly and UCSB are right up there with anything I’ve ever been a part of. I remember one year walking around Spanos Stadium early in the morning on the day of the big rivalry match. It was about eleven hours before kickoff, and I saw numerous “sold out” signs hanging from the walls outside. There were over 11,000 people at the game that night. I’ll never forget the sight of people packing adjacent stairwells and climbing up to nearby rooftops just to get a peak of the live action. You had a mass of traveling UCSB fans, banging drums and throwing tortillas. And of course you had this seemingly endless wall of green. It’s a series that is still alive and well, and I encourage anyone who calls his or herself a soccer fan to get up to SLO or Santa Barbara when these two teams go head to head.
NA: When you left Cal Poly in 2010, you took a job with a recently relegated Guatemalan professional club known as Antigua GFC. You’ve compared the soccer aspects of your job there to what you’re currently tasked with at Albion. There was lots of building from the ground up, balancing the revamping of the club’s youth system with the immediate necessity of getting the first team promoted back to the top flight. What’s one story that stands out in your memory bank from your time in Guatemala?
ZK: There are a lot of good memories from Guatemala. It was a life changing experience, and there was a lot of “when in Rome” mentality that I lived with. I wanted to be a part of the culture, part of the community, one of the people you could say.
There was some resentment when I first got there. People were frustrated. The team had just been relegated to the second division. Some people were resentful of bringing in some American outsider they’d never heard of into the managerial role. My first game in charge, there were about 400 people in attendance. By the time I left, we had consistent capacity crowds of over 10,000. That’s something I’m immensely proud of, the way we helped to bring that community together.
ZK: As far as a specific story, there’s one match that I’ll never forget. It was the second leg of our 2nd division playoff semi-final. The winner would go onto the final and play for promotion to the top flight.
We were on the road, playing Lanquin, a team from a tiny village to the north, in the middle of a dense and mostly uninhabited rain forest. We had to take the most precarious route to the stadium. It was at least a seven hour trip, traveling less than 200 miles. We had a couple of large buses, and about 100 of our supporters made the trek as well. At one point, as we were really beginning to ascend into the hills, we were all stuck on a muddy road. We looked around and saw some local men in pick up trucks with huge guns in the back. Some of the players were a little spooked by the whole thing, but I feel like that bus trip got us ready for what we were about to endure.
We had won the first leg at home, 1-0. We managed to take a 2-0 lead in Lanquin, before conceding two penalties. Their crowd had already been going at the officials, who at one point stopped the game and put both assistants on the same side, as far from the main section of home fans as possible. We somehow held on to win on aggregate. Our guys began to celebrate. Then it got scary.
Their fans started hurling projectiles as we were trying to leave the field. The officials tried to run to the tunnel but retreated. At first, they were going after the referee, but then the fans started going after our players and coaches. We all retreated to the center circle, as the fans fought with security. They were throwing anything they could get their hands on. Eventually, the military police were called to the stadium, and it wasn’t as if they were nearby. We were still on the field almost an hour later.
The police finally arrived, armed with AK-47s, and they began tear gassing the stands to make the crowd disperse. There was so much tear gas that we began feeling the effects. We had to get out of there, but with the crowd now moving outside the stadium, there was no way for us to get to the bus. We ended up walking over a mile with a police escort to meet the bus somewhere in the town. As we were walking down a dark street, I heard an old man’s voice.
“Hey profe! Felicidades! Tu tiene un buen equipo.”
This random guy on the side of a dark street, as we were walking alongside military police strapped with assault weapons, just casually telling me “congratulations” and that I “had a good soccer team”… that just put it all in perspective.
The next morning when we got back to La Antigua, there were close to four thousand people waiting for us, singing, hugging, and embracing their newfound heroes. A week later, we beat Sayache in the final to gain promotion back to the top flight. Helping to give that happiness to those fans is one of the greatest feelings of my life.
ZK: Antigua GFC have since gone on to even better things. They are the current champions of the Liga Nacional and were a part of the CONCACAF Champions League this year. Six of the players who were a part of the CCL side here in 2016 are guys who came through the youth ranks when I was there. One of the youngest players we brought into the first team during my time at Antigua, Rodrigo Saravia (who now plays in MLS) started in the midfield for the Guatemala National Team when they beat the U.S. 2-0 in World Cup Qualifying back in March of this year.
There will be a piece of that club and those people with me forever. What it did for me as a coach and as a person, it’s almost indescribable. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for the people of that community.
NA: Ziggy, you’ve coached kids and adults. Coaching has taken you from college campuses to the rain forests of Guatemala, and there will surely be plenty more stops along the way. What does it mean to you to be a soccer coach?
ZK: It means I’m the luckiest man in the world. Every morning, I wake up and give thanks for the fact that this is what I do for a living. Whether it’s at the youth level, college, or the pro ranks, I have a responsibility to give everything to my players. Data analysis, tactics, development of all types… They are all cornerstones of my life. At the end of the day, this is a results driven business. In practice and in games, I’ve got to give my players the best possible opportunity to succeed. As a coach, I need to always be improving.
NA: What’s the most difficult aspect of being a soccer coach?
ZK: I’d have to say time management. You’ve got to make time for everything and everyone. I enjoy it, honestly. I want to be a true people’s person. I want to share my time and I never want to disappoint. It’s my goal, whether in the short-term or the long-term, to please as many people as possible. But as a coach, you can’t always please everyone. That is also one of the most difficult aspects of this craft.
NA: What do you enjoy most about being a soccer coach?
ZK: I love the preparation. I love putting together game-plans and seeing them executed to perfection. There’s nothing better than seeing a group of players prepare for a collective goal and follow through with the execution. The same can be said on an individual level as well.
NA: As a coach, what does it feel like when the plan doesn’t get executed properly, and all the preparation essentially blows up in your face?
ZK: [Laughs] Hopefully you prepared for that too! You’ve got to have pride in this business, but you can’t have too much pride. You should always take pride in your preparation and your game-plan, but you better always be aware of what may go wrong, the variables so to speak. And you’ve got to make sure that your players are comfortable with your leadership, confident in their coach’s ability to solve soccer problems.
NA: When did you know you wanted to be a soccer coach?
ZK: I knew at a very young age. I started coaching when I was 15, helping with my sisters’ teams. I had belief. I knew it was the path I wanted to follow. My parents and other family members were incredibly supportive.
NA: Who have been some of your greatest mentors as a soccer coach?
ZK: Joel Harrison at Saint Leo and Paul Holocher at Cal Poly immediately come to mind. My relationship with Steve Sampson is one I value immensely, and it was Sampson who gave me one of the greatest pieces of advice as a coach. It was in the build up to the promotion final in Guatemala with Antigua. I spoke to Steve on the phone, and he told me to “take the passion out of the game”. At first, it didn’t make sense. You need passion. Then I thought about it. It was a final. There was so much emotion building around us. If those players were alive, they would feel it automatically. There was no need to add to it. We needed to take the passion out of the game and find a sense of calm. This allowed us to focus on tactics, and do what we needed to do to win the game.
NA: With all your experience in the game, it’s sometimes hard to believe you’re only 39 years old. You’ve only been in San Diego for fourteen months, and we know how much you love Albion, the Aztecs, and this city as a whole. But what do you want to do with your coaching career?
ZK: Right now, I’m in a great spot. We are happy here. But I certainly have ambitions to coach at the highest possible level. I recently completed my UEFA A License, meaning I’m now eligible to coach professionally in Europe. I want to be a part of the highest levels of soccer in the world, the best players, the best teams, the best coaches. I love my job at SDSU, and this project with Albion is a blessing, and has me inspired every day. I am determined to do a great job here in San Diego, and we’ll see where it all goes from there.