GOALS

Mayowa Owolabi

Executive Director, Miami United FC Youth Academy

Like a shark needing to remain in a constant state of activity just to survive, Mayowa Owolabi can’t stop moving.

But his are not the movements of a man searching for something. They are calculated – though often serendipitous – actions of a soccerphile bent on leaving a lasting impression, fueled by a natural urge to give back to others. There’s a clear thread running through every one of Mayowa’s moves: We’ll find a way to make it work. Nothing illustrates this more than his story of starting a program in Nigeria from scratch, which involves him recruiting players on his morning runs through town and ends with shipping containers of donated goods under the Rush Soccer banner.

Where most of us would’ve second-guessed ourselves or considered sitting this one out, Mayowa never stopped pushing forward. He coached high school teams when he was the same age as most of his players. While attending college he coached two club teams. He moved to Miami for the warm weather and opportunity to play soccer 365 days a year and started a new league model in South Florida. He went home to Northern Virginia for holiday break to help his sister, and inevitably her club, grow in the game. 

Mayowa is a glass-half-full kind of guy, but what he gives will make your cup spill over. In this interview, he shares his journey of finding the right climate, his optimism toward challenges, and how he uses soccer to influence healthy lifestyles and strong communities. 

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You come from a family of athletes.

MO: My mother was a volleyball player, but my dad was not an athlete in that sense. He’s a businessman. When he was 16, he already owned a bank in Nigeria. My parents, older brother, and sister moved from Nigeria to the United States before I was born. My sister ran track. My brother still plays soccer in adult league pick-up games. I was the baby of the family for about 14 years until my little sister was born. She is a soccer player through and through.   

When did you start kicking a ball around?

MO: I grew up in Northern Virginia just south of Washington, D.C. I’ve had a soccer ball at my feet for as long as I can remember. I kicked the ball around with my brother and started playing organized recreational soccer in the first grade, back in the good days where you got put on a neighborhood team and trained at a school or a park field close to your house. We had our parents as coaches. I was on a team with my best friends from school. It was a great growing experience, and we had a really good club, Prince William Soccer. They had it all done and dusted. I was a forward growing up. As I got older and played collegiate soccer, I started as a center back.

When did you realize that you wanted soccer to be your career?

MO: I fully got into coaching during my freshman year of college. I was a high school varsity coach at 18, so I had players who were my age. I was also coaching two club teams in Norfolk so I had a good vision that this is what I wanted to do. I went to Old Dominion University and changed my degree and concentration from finance to sports management with a business management minor. Through the sports management department, we had to do multiple internships, and being a college community, I was plugged into the local soccer club where a lot of my professors were members. By my senior year, they saw me in a professional setting already. 

Anyone stand out as a mentor to you?

MO: I have two people who were big influences on me. Ken Krieger was the director of Prince William Soccer. He was a guy I looked up to as the model coach and director. After college, he gave me my second full-time job. And then Dave Scruggs was a director at the local club that I worked at in Norfolk. He allowed me as a sophomore in college to take a leadership role in the club, and as a junior, I was a full-time employee with Norfolk United Soccer. I could say he propelled me into the coaching profession.

THE RUSH OF A LIFE CHANGING EXPERIENCE

Tell us about visiting Nigeria for the first time.

MO:  The first time I went was for three weeks when I was 19 or 20-years old. It was an experience I’ll never forget, seeing family I never met before, and the sense of community from the neighborhood where I was living. It was so inclusive and I gravitated to that. Soccer was everywhere. I would hop off the plane and there was soccer being played in the airport, outside the airport, and through my entire trip from the airport. I would just see fields and jersey vendors on the street. But as I had experience playing, and now coaching, I could see a lot was lacking. I wanted to help that situation, improve their conditions and experiences. That gave me the motivation to go back. 

You knew you wanted to help improve the game, but where did you start?

MO: While I was planning my return to Nigeria, I was able to create a partnership through Rush Soccer. They donated tons of soccer equipment and products, and I managed to get a full shipping container to get it over there. I was able to kick off a full-blown soccer club, Nigeria Rush. 

How did you get kids involved?

MO: On my daily run, I would just run through soccer fields, see kids and tell them to meet me at this field at five o’clock on Wednesday and Friday, and before I knew it, kids were taking taxis and finding ways to get to the field. I was running a true soccer practice with real soccer equipment. Kids would come the first day, and then bring three more the next day, and it continued to grow. At that point, I was able to work with an elementary school to use their facilities full-time and provide them with goal nets. The kids would help me organize the field, shovel, and move dirt to make flat surfaces. A lot of in-the-weeds work and it was always refreshing because I’m doing it myself but I’d always have kids there wanting to help.

When I was there the first time, we were at about 70 kids, U6 and older. We had a U8, U10, U13, and U16 team, and then we had other adults playing at a senior level. 

Did you pick up any volunteer help?

MO: No, I did it all myself. 

Were there any neighborhoods near you that had something similar that you could play against?

MO: I met a guy named Atari, who had a senior team and a youth team. He helped me organize games and get friendly matches. After a while, he started working with the Nigeria Rush group and became a monumental piece in maintaining it when I had to come back to the United States. Skip ahead probably two years. I was now living in Miami, had more equipment shipped, and went back to Nigeria. I got off the plane, drove straight into the city of Ibadan where I was introduced to Sunday Akinwumi, a younger coach who was ready to get after it. He currently runs the Academy, manages the programs, and keeps me up to speed daily. He’s been an integral piece of our development over the last three years. 

How do you stay connected while living in Miami?

MO: I see everything. I know when every game happens. I know when the kids have to arrive at the bus for pick up and the schedule that they’re operating on. There was a point where I had to silence the group chat because the time difference had my phone going crazy at 3:00 in the morning, but I’m fully on top of it as I go through the day.

What is your official title now with Nigeria Rush?

MO: I’m the president and acting executive director. I still work to get donations and find sponsors. I am not boots on the ground, I am 3,000 miles above and if there are needs, I look at the best way to sort those things out. A funny piece is, I got an email yesterday from Matt Mittelstaedt, the regional manager from Rush National, and the technical director of Virginia Rush telling me that Nigeria Rush just became their sister club. So all of their donations and all of their assets as part of their REACH program are now part of the Nigeria Rush program. That’s going to be beneficial to continue a good flow of equipment and gear to that community.

You said 3,000 miles above, but you’re also 3,000 miles away. What are some unique challenges that presents?

MO: I’m a glass-half-full guy. I don’t see many challenges. I see difficult situations and sometimes requests that I can’t always accommodate. The word I always use is patience. Let’s continue to work to the best of our abilities with the resources we have, be patient and things will work out. I put the right people into place, because I know I can’t be hands-on with everything, but I can supervise, mentor, and assist. I try to be available at all times, but time does stretch us and pull us in different ways. The benefit is having the right people in place who can manage, make decisions, know the environment, and can come to me for guidance.

Did you give yourself a timetable to make Nigeria Rush work?

MO: Yes, the largest timetable possible because the Nigeria project is a lifer. I’m in it for life. I want to be able to have a reason to go see my family, always have an impact in that community, and learn, adapt and gain from the experiences. I’ve been blessed to see so many different wakes of what soccer has done, and it’s different everywhere. It’s different in Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. in comparison to Miami. It’s different in Southern California, it’s different in New England. I’ve been everywhere, and I can tell you some states are behind a couple of years, and now I can tell you some continents and countries are behind a couple of years.

But forward-thinking, if I continue to put these operations on, I think they’ll all close the gap and catch up to the kind of organization and level of competition I know it can be. I had expectations of being able to go back once a year. I’ve proven that can’t happen based on scheduling or COVID, but the idea is still, how can I have an impact on a community and create opportunities for players that they may not have otherwise? That is either giving them quality competition in Nigeria or getting them access to opportunities in the United States or Europe, Asia, and different continents.

Have you shepherded any kids in that direction?

MO:  I have not moved any kids yet. I’ve had the conversation with the coach and director, but we have not gotten to that point. We are moving kids around Nigeria and getting them popped into different academies or semi-professional teams there. We’ve had one player progress to the U17 national team, and he was the Golden Boot winner of the Afghan U-17 championship, so that was a very high moment for our organization. 

MAKING MORE MOVES

When did you make the move to Miami?

MO:  I came back from Nigeria and recognized the weather conditions in Virginia no longer fit me. I have a buddy in Miami who, on a one-day layover there, told me I should make the move. All I needed was a walk from his apartment to the beach. I moved at the end of that summer and got a coaching job at Kendall Academy. A couple of sessions into Kendall, I got an offer to run a facility and a soccer program. Through that, I got involved with Miami Fusion, an NPSL club that competed against Miami United, also an NPSL club. Again, I wanted to see how I could help improve the youth game in that geography, and so went down the path of developing my own youth club. 

And that became the International Elite Program (IEP)?

MO:  In 2016, my idea was, how can I pair what I’m doing in my head and on the ground together? I brought in the right people who I could put in a role and have them make decisions and run the club, while I oversee different aspects of it. I’m becoming a soccer business person, I am no longer just a soccer coach. And there was a real recognition of that because there is a split there.

I started IEP as a soccer club that turned into a program of a soccer league. This was a piece that I recognized the community also needed, a league where directors could all be in one location. A league that I’m familiar with in Virginia was the model. I’m bringing a model that I’ve experienced down to South Florida and hoping that once again, we can change and improve the culture. So that now becomes a league, the soccer club is playing within this league, and we have other really good clubs involved in the league as well. Now the league is operating, the club is operating, and Mayowa is looking for a new challenge. And this takes me to Los Angeles for five months. 

Did you choose Los Angeles like you did Miami, or did Los Angeles choose you?

MO: I wanted to continue to get exposure in different environments, and I know I need warm climates, so Los Angeles seemed doable. I applied for a job and was hired as a girls’ academy coach. I get there and I realize Los Angeles is chilly in the evening. I recognize those coasts are different in more ways than the weather. I am a Miami guy, maybe not so much a Southern California guy. I take on a coaching job back in Miami at Johnson and Wales University. I was able to really pop into that world, get a good understanding and create a network there. At this point, my little sister is a sophomore in high school and I’m having daily conversations with her about her soccer experience. 

Why do I feel like another Mayowa move is coming?

MO: I went home to Virginia for the holidays just as the college season ended, and I get a big request from my sister, “Can you stay home and help me with this process?” Nothing’s more important than family, and so I call my head coach at the academy, apologize and say I’m going to stay in Virginia and help my sister through a process at Fredericksburg FC. I show up to her practices and the executive director and the technical director start asking questions after they see me for two weeks in a row. At this time, the United States is going through a big hold on visas, and a lot of soccer clubs were using elite UK international coaches coming in on temporary visas. Fredericksburg FC had a technical director and three full-time staff members who were all on visas and none of them were renewed. The executive director calls me two days before Christmas, and says, “I’m in a very big pinch. I lost my full-time staff. I have one guy in England, I have a guy in Costa Rica, and another guy in Mexico who can’t get back. Are you willing to join the staff?” 

Now, out of nowhere, I turn into the technical director of the club. It’s one of those times where you make a decision that you think your heart needs to and things pan out. But I always knew in the back of my head that it was short-term because she’s going to progress, and I was always coming back to my life in Miami. 

Wherever you go, you seem to just figure things out. 

MO: I’ve been fortunate to build good relationships with a lot of people in this industry, and it seems there’s always somebody who knows somebody who knows me. I was in Fredericksburg for two years, and was ready to get back to Miami when the next opportunity shows itself with the Club Champions League (CCL) as the communication and administration director. 

Is that how you know fellow GOALS interviewee, Steve Danbusky?

MO: Steve was the acting president of CCL, and I was a board member. When I joined to manage the day-to-day options with the executive director, we worked together daily. I first met Steve my freshman year of college, I think he was the technical director of Beach FC back then, and now he’s the executive director. I’ll always remember his trick shot from the goal box to the half-field trash can outside the boot. He drains that shot. I don’t know how he does it. Steve’s been a soccer professional his entire career, and I’m fortunate that people like him and people like Ken Krieger have been able to create these pathways. Those are the people that we need in the game. 

IEP is still fully functional, and through the new job with the CCL, the league that we were able to create in Miami now becomes a Conference of Club Champions League, CCL Florida. I then go through a club merger with the NPSL organization, Miami United. That brings us to where Miami United is now with our youth club. I am the acting executive director for Miami United FC Youth Academy which doesn’t have any technical or coaching responsibilities. I handle the business operations and allow my coaches and technical staff to be 100% full professionals on the field.

BUILDING A PROFESSIONAL YOUTH PROGRAM 

How do you feel about not coaching these days?

MO: It’s different. I don’t know if it was my first choice to focus on the business side of soccer but it allowed me to mentor younger coaches, and turn them into directors so now they see a different aspect of the game. They manage rosters, player pools, and organize training. Being able to grow directors in the game, and to make sure they are continuing to have an impact is a big part of what I wanted to do. 

It’s clear you believe in hiring good people and getting out of their way.  What do you look for when hiring a coach or other staff member? 

MO: Someone who understands the industry we are in. Someone who is dedicated, hard-working, understands long hours, understands investing in other people, and understands working with a lot of different types of people. My current boss, Brian Cook, told me you hire people who have the drive and that entrepreneurial mindset. People who can put a lot on their shoulders because they want to accomplish a lot. Independent thinkers who can get the job done. I’ve played that fine line of hiring people that I have a really good relationship and experience with, and put them in roles where I can trust them, and then also bring in new people who we can educate, mentor, and bring out the best in. Young coaches who are hungry, motivated, and want to learn, but also someone that the other directors have a lot of comfort with mentoring as well. It now becomes a trickle-down mentoring program where I’m leading one young director and he’s leading the new young coach and everybody’s continually growing. You build that type of culture and then our philosophies will be long-lasting. That’s been the hiring process here for Miami United.

What are some of those club philosophies?

MO: We want to develop strong players and have no holdbacks, so we offer this to every single player who wants it. Whether you can afford it or not, we’ll find a way to make it work. We approach every demographic, every community. We are extremely inclusive in what we do and we are massively transparent in sharing our operational goals and our philosophy for each player. We use the game of soccer to influence healthy lifestyles, strong mental health, and while we hope that we can develop the best soccer player, our overall goal is to continue to create model citizens for our community.

How many people do you have on staff, and how many kids in the program?

MO: At Miami United, we have a staff of five. Three full-time directors and two part-time coaches. We currently do not have volunteers. That’s something we will get to, but as I’ve wanted to grow this house, we want it to be a 100% professional staff. We currently have 150 players in the program.

What are you mentoring young coaches on the most?

MO: Based on my experience, becoming a leader in this industry really has to do with being open-minded and able to take in and understand other perspectives. So, a big piece I tell anybody is to learn as much as you can from others, but at the same time, develop your own coaching philosophy, player models, ideas, and build upon what your true beliefs are. Because at the end of the day, as a coach and as a director, as a league or club owner, your club, your coaching sessions, your teams, are going to play the way you develop that model. Every club may have a different perspective based on demographics, number of players, or level of players, but you as a leader should have a true pathway of what you want to accomplish, but never be closed-minded that you can’t adjust or adapt when needed.

And create a network, a support system. Collaborating with other directors and professionals has propelled me to where I am today, just because a lot of experiences that I have not lived, I have experienced through others. Take that information fully in and understand this is a growth opportunity. 

ULTIMATE TRANSPARENCY WITH PARENTS

What are your thoughts on player development?

MO: Player development starts from us as coaches and leaders, and staying true to what we want to develop. I’m a big believer in growing our player pool the way we want to. Creating a fun environment at the start of their youth career, which makes a player fall in love with the soccer ball. At the youngest ages, I’ve pushed that into our club philosophy. We want players dribbling the ball a lot. We want players to be comfortable taking on defenders one-v-one, being creative on the soccer ball. And as they grow, then we start to layer in those specific team or small group relations to the game.

We want excellent, proficient players and build them into a complete team. The first paramount aspect is creating the brilliant individual soccer player. As you get older there are different aspects of the game. You always hear clubs say they don’t want to emphasize winning at the younger age groups. I think that’s a big piece and being able to do that comes with a lot of education to parents. 

How do you educate parents and players on your player development approach, and instill that patience is often required? 

MO: It’s a lot of transparency. We use the PlayMetrics system, so we can put our training sessions up and allow parents to see them. They can see our coaching points and what our focus is going to be in the session. We’re able to give monthly reviews and assessments through the feedback and evaluation platform, and then we take in evals to make sure we are giving our members the programming and the product that they want. We want people to truly buy into our club and feel comfortable seeing what we’re doing. We put on open coaching education, and we invite parents to come and sit right on the sideline to understand how we’re educating our coaches to educate their children. Being that transparent and open gives members an understanding that this is school and players have to learn one thing before we can expect them to just know the top end.

After a recent coaching education, parents came to the staff and said, “We understand what you’re doing now, and we see it in the game. As teachers, you guys are finding success to encourage the youngest players to dribble and take players on to create that confidence and love in the game. And we now understand that is why you are telling them to do that in the game when maybe we’re on the sideline screaming something different.” That’s the buy-in that they had to understand. It’s truly having your player development model developed and accessible for people to see to have a better understanding of year one to year five. 

Do you think you would have been so open with parents and education years ago? 

MO: I would not have. I think at times there is a closed book mentality on the technical side from parents. So you have to go against the grain sometimes and say we will be as transparent as possible and hope they fully enjoy the process. And it is a process. If you understand that as a parent, as a member, you will find a lot of comfort in the soccer school, the soccer club you are joining. Just as the school you choose for your child to attend, we are building our curriculum and our player development model based on the appropriate psychology of what an athlete is in the system and their growth platforms. 

How have parent expectations changed in your experience, and how different is it in the States compared to Nigeria?

MO: The expectations and demands have massively changed over the last 10 years. Sometimes you can say the expectations are not realistic, and I think a lot of people understand that it’s a difficult piece of what players want and expect, what parents want and expect, and then what the coach wants and expects. In Nigeria, we don’t see parents. Kids figure out their own way to get to the fields and go home. It’s a whole different experience where I’m watching that culture and parents are figuring out ways to work and manage their life, and kids are finding transportation to school, to activities, and some are working at very young ages. You get into different communities in Miami, for example, and there are a lot more pro-aspirations than collegiate aspirations. That’s even different from what I’ve seen in Virginia where the collegiate pathway is what more players aspire to.

REFLECTING ON THE PAST, FOCUSED ON THE FUTURE 

There’s more technology in youth sports these days. What are some game changers?

MO:  There is tracking and GPS that goes on players to show work rate, mileage covered, and a lot of unique things that I never envisioned. We are at a youth level and have access to different video recordings and live streaming, so that became a massive platform. Even applications that keep updates and real-time scores for games. There have been a lot more technological advancements in the game that keep people fully involved without being there. It’s more accessible to the busy person. You’re able to assess data, evaluate data, watch film and assess the players’ performance. You can use all of this technology to identify points of success and points to work on, but also being able to bring it back to the players in real-time is unique in itself.

Is there too much technology? 

MO:  I think there’s too much data for them [players] to always want data-driven results versus wanting hard work to be paramount. The data might tell them they performed well, but then I would ask, what about these other outside things that you have to do that this data is not showing you? I need you checking over your shoulders. I need you to be explosive here, maybe not there. So, yes, I see that aspect taken a bit away. I’d love to let players understand the raw competition and some of the environments we were put into, which challenged us but made us stronger at the end of it. I want to go back 20 years where you would show up, work your butt off, play, or understand why you’re not playing. I remember back in my day if coach didn’t play me, I knew exactly what happened, and I came to training the next day, worked harder, and I made sure he had a reason to play me. Maybe that was my upbringing. My mom or dad would never speak to a coach unless they were giving a reason why Mayowa can’t make it to a game or practice. We depended on ourselves as players at a young age. 

What do you think Miami United FC Youth does really well?

MO:  I think we are doing what’s good for the game and looking to change a regional culture. We are looking at professionalizing by making soccer all-inclusive. So when you sign up, you know exactly what you’re getting. It’s streamlined, families can plan, this isn’t off-the-cuff schedule changes, which we still see very often. We have been extremely transparent, so members buy into what we’re pushing, and we do have a full soccer motive. We are all professionals in this realm, and our biggest ideology is we are building soccer players. We are building a community. We are building the model citizen. My staff has only lived in the soccer world. So when we all get together we speak soccer, even when we should not be speaking soccer, because that is our life experiences. We want to be able to build that with our players, with our community. I think we are a group that has looked to collaborate with more clubs because we understand the power of numbers and the power of that impact. I think that sets us apart.

Do you see an uptick in mergers and partnerships with youth soccer clubs in the Miami area?

MO:  We see a lot of mini clubs continuing to pop up. That is, in my eyes, going the opposite direction because now we’re thinning player pools, we’re not utilizing resources together, and we’re all fighting for a piece of the turf. I think that is what’s separating us, because we are willing and able to work with groups, to manage mergers. In the last six months, we’ve put together two mergers with youth clubs and we plan on announcing a few more. That benefits the players, pulls the resources of the coaching staff, and it enhances our approach.

Putting that model out there makes it known that we are in a very small mileage area and can all work together. For example, Kendall Soccer Park is a six-field turf facility, 15-20 different clubs train there, and every club is pushing and doing something different. And what each club is selling is, “We do this different or better than our neighbor. Why don’t you jump over here?” The only thing that’s getting affected is overall player development because a player went from learning something here to learning something new there, and now he or she hasn’t had any real consistency.

So you think more mergers make good business sense? 

MO:   I think that’s the reality. We should be utilizing the resources. We all have field fees so why don’t we share this one field and not spend as much and be able to reinvest some of that money into coaching education, or buying appropriate equipment? How do we use everything that we’re all fighting for to effectively put out a better program?

What excites you most about the future of Miami United FC Youth?

MO: The most exciting piece is the recognition we’ve gained from working together and offering coaching education opportunities to all of the clubs in the community. Clubs say they want more of it, and we’re looking to become pioneers in bringing the groups together. And then just the energy from our membership. We’ve grown a lot but we have not marketed ourselves. We’ve had a lot of word of mouth bring attraction to our group and it’s because families are truly supporting what we are pushing out. Once you have that type of support, you see the sky as the limit and you want to continue to do the right things and progress.

What, if anything, keeps you up at night?

MO: Managing the differences between Nigeria, Miami, Mid-Atlantic, New England, Georgia. Managing that is what keeps me up at night. I see challenges as opportunities, and I tell my staff that all the time. We have zero challenges. We have opportunities to fix the situation and to adjust our game plan. If it’s difficult, how do we get past that? Are we not promoting and marketing what everybody else is? Are we going to lose members because you’re getting told at the U9 age group, “We just won four tournaments and this is where you need to play to be at the best team.” Understanding why we don’t all want to work together under this US Soccer umbrella is what keeps me up. 

What do you wish a younger Mayowa knew?

MO: Don’t be offended when others have different opinions or perspectives, and fully understand that is the world we live in. Stay on “our” path. What we’re doing is thought out, it’s planned. There’s some science behind it, there’s some data behind it and just do the job. I think we’re in a world that’s ever-changing, but there are a lot of industries that are number driven and straight to the point. There’s no change in what a mortgage process is, there’s no change in what a bank process is, they’re just streamlining daily. I think we are different. But if you still have the target at the end of the road, then you just stay true to what your philosophy is.

Thanks for a great conversation, Mayowa. To close, I’m going to throw out a list of things and I want you to give a one-word reaction. Ready?

US Soccer

MO: Hopeful

Development Academy

MO: Appropriate

Player Development

MO: Essential

Esports

MO: Enjoyment

TikTok

MO: Disaster

Parent emails at 11:00 p.m.

MO: Expected