Brian Ching, a star for the Houston Dynamo during his 12-year career in Major League Soccer and the first native of Hawaii to be part of a U.S. roster for the World Cup, retired as a player in late 2013 and made a quick transition to the business side of the game. He became the Managing Director of the Houston Dash, a team that is entering its second season in the National Women’s Soccer League. The Dash finished last in the league last season but have acquired the U.S. national team star Carli Lloyd, who is expected to be part of the American team at this year’s Women’s World Cup in Canada. The Dash also had the first pick overall in the recent NWSL college draft, selecting Morgan Brian out of the University of Virginia.
Ching, 36, spoke with Jack Bell of Womensoccerinsider.com about his transition from soccer player to soccer executive, and what it means for his future in and out of the game.
Q: How and why did you decide to move from the field to the front office?
A: There were two different things. When I was looking at retiring I decided I wanted to stay involved in soccer somehow. I also knew I wanted to start a family and I know that going into coaching would mean a lot of travel, as much as a being a player if not more. That was one of my reasons. I thought it would be a lot more stable. I wouldn’t have to leave town as much.
On the business side, I always thought it would be better to be in a position to hire and fire a coach than the other way around. Those were my thoughts going in.
Q: Has it been what you expected–especially after a tough inaugural season?
A: Last year, getting into it and seeing the day to day, it was a difficult transition in the sense that I think getting out of being a professional athlete after doing it for so long – to put it lightly — is really difficult. It takes a while before you can adjust to the different lifestyle, the different friends and responsibilities. But halfway through last season I was over it. I knew I’d be sticking with it and learning. I was learning about everything that comes with business side of soccer and learning about myself, although the transition was difficult.
It’s a real challenge when you go from being told where to be every day as a player to having to set up schedules for other people and being responsible for a whole lot of things.
Q: There’s this perception that athletes have it made after their playing careers. Do you think the reality is a bit different?
A: There’s a big mental adjustment. Most people work up to their dream jobs in their careers while professional athletes really have to work backward. For me, I found out that I was passionate about soccer. I love it. But jumping into the job right away, that passion wasn’t there. Part of that is when you’re among the best at what you do you have such high-level expectations. Then the next thing you go into you expect that from yourself and the truth is you’re not going to be the best and you have to learn almost from scratch how to do everything. It’s difficult. I would get frustrated, and felt that I always needed to be doing more, that I was never doing enough.
Q: How did it evolve with the Dynamo people asking you to consider being a part of a new women’s team, the Dash?
A: We always talked about me being involved. I was always going to be part of the organization; it was only a matter of finding a role that worked. Chris (Canetti, Houston’s president of business operations] came to me one day and said the club was thinking about having a women’s team and putting me in charge. At first, I was ‘I don’t know, I want to be involved in the men’s side, that’s all I know.’ But the more I thought about it, the more I saw it as a great opportunity to learn quickly on a small scale. So I jumped at the opportunity.
In hindsight, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I would have loved to have taken six months off and then jumped into it. I just had to take the chance when it was offered. I learned a lot and started to develop a passion for it. At the end of last season, I really saw the challenge. We were last on the field and not as successful off the field as we wanted to be. I definitely started to care more; it was less of a job and more exciting for me.
Q: What’s different this year?
A: This year, I feel a thousand times better off than last year. I’m more confident about things. It’s funny because as a player you don’t realize all that that goes on off the field. Simple things, like time management when the focus is on the business side – how to run a meeting – things I’ve never done before. These were skills I had to develop in a short amount of time.
Q: In your opinion, what’s the difference between dealing with professional players, men and women?
A: One thing that’s really helped me is that I’ve been in their shoes. I’ve been in A-League only making $1,000-$2,000 a month. I understand what they’re going through and can relate on that level. I try to leave my ‘this is what I did and how I did it’ out of it. I’ve been a player and now I see both sides. I can explain things and be open and honest. The big difference between men and women is that I think women just want an explanation. Men? You tell them something and they’ll just do it when you say do it. That’s a fine difference in gender and the way they approach things. With women, you have to tell them why.
Q: The Dash is among only a few teams in the NWSL that have a close working relationship with an MLS team. Do you think that’s the right model? Is it necessary to be affiliated with a men’s team, like many women’s teams in leagues in Europe?
A: There have been other models, but I think MLS affiliation gives us the best chance to succeed. We have built-in infrastructure, staff, practice fields, stadiums. We have a fairly similar fanbase. We have a lot more resources than if we had to start everything from scratch, which takes a huge investment. The investment is a fraction of what it would be without an MLS team involved. There are other models. For example, look at some USL teams. They’re not really in MLS markets, they’re in smaller markets and have found a way to operate and be successful. The same thing could happen on the women’s side, like minor league baseball teams, which have been successful in smaller markets.
We struggled last year. We jumped in without adequate time to prepare. It made it difficult but I don’t think we could have done it without the support of an MLS team. What’s also important for us this season is to show we have a successful business model. When you look around the league, Portland is a bit of an anomaly and a unique situation. But I still believe we can have a lot of success.
Q: With a men’s and women’s team in partnership, there always seems to be the question about possible doubleheaders. What are your thoughts on that?
A: We had a doubleheader preseason, but to be honest I think we won’t need that to be successful. There has been some talk, but we’re hopeful of getting more than 10,000 for three home games, and 5 to 6,000 for our other games. On the men’s side, there are near sellouts for most of our games [at BBVA Compass Stadium), and the Dynamo averages above 19,000 in a 22,000-seat stadium. I don’t think we really need to have doubleheaders. We’ thought about it, but decided against it.Q: After such a tough season last year, what are your expectations in 2015?
A: To make the playoffs. Randy [coach Randy Waldrum] and myself learned a good lesson last year and that is we couldn’t rely on only on young players to have a successful team. We needed some experience and we needed some of best players in the world, and I think we addressed that in off-season. We’re not exactly where we want to be yet, but the roster compared to last year is a lot better. We have one of the best players in the world in Carli Lloyd [acquired from Western New York], and an up and comer in Morgan Brian [the No. 1 draft pick over all]. We’re solid at left back in Meghan Klingenberg [who played in Sweden for a couple of seasons]. Last year some of our experienced players were injured. Randy and I were both on a learning curve. We’re excited about what we were able to do this off-season. The goal is the playoffs. In my own career it really bothered me when we lost. Being in last place last year didn’t sit well with me. We knew needed to have a better team. I think we’ve accomplished that, but I’m still not satisfied.
Q: How is the club going to handle the prospect of losing eight to 10 players during the Women’s World Cup?
A: It’s an extreme challenge. We have 10 new players already this season, most of whom are international players who are not going to be around for the preseason. There’s talk that the Canadian players will be in and out for the first three games. The U.S. players should be around for most of preseason and games, and the Brazilians won’t come in until after the World Cup.
It’s extremely important that we gel on the field because won’t have much time to play and practice together with World Cup players not around all the time. It’s another challenge. It’s been my experience that teams need six to 10 games to come together and compete. Without our best players it will be a huge challenge for us. We’re one of the teams that will have the most players gone for the World Cup. With rosters of only 20, you can count on an injury or two and we know we’re going to have to rely heavily on amateur players. We have a huge amount coming in to preseason and some will stick around.
Q: Again this year you’re planning an open tryout (on Feb. 15). What can you expect?
A: Last year we had two or three players who came out of the tryout we signed and they got into games. It is realistic that we’re going to need possibly eight more players for two months. If players show well during the tryout we will bring them in for preseason and they’ll get to compete for a roster spot. Last year we had about 180 at open tryouts; this year perhaps 100 to 150.
Q: What is your ultimate goal in terms of the front office. Women’s soccer? Men’s? The Dynamo? Or someplace else?
A: My goal? To be honest, I’m still trying to figure that out. Yes, I would like to be involved on the men’s side, but that involvement all depends on where my passion takes me. I don’t mean to be vague, but I don’t think I’ve figured out exactly what I want to do yet. I really enjoy what I am doing now, the process of learning the business, but I’m not 100 percent sure where I want to be in the future. Owning my own business, running an MLS team one day or is it staying on the women’s side? I don’t have answers. What I do know is that I’m enjoying learning and enjoying the process of trying to turn a team around on and off the field.