It’s interviewwwwww tttiiimmmmeeeeee. This week we bring to you one of the most popular and involved managers in the BDSL.. Faress Saleh from Yemen Elite!! Let’s jump right into it. I hope you have some time because this is a record setting interview and worth every single word!
BDSL: How did you come to take control of the Yemen organization?
FS: I have played for the Yemen organization since I was kid and loved the program. Abdul Noman who is the director of the Lackawanna Yemen Soccer Club has ran the entire age group from youth to men since he started the organization back in 1975. As the years went on and the members increased with the majority members being youth, he slowly removed himself from the men’s program and allowed us to run it. His focus has always been the youth because he felt they were the ones in need of recreational activity and away from the streets. We are grateful for his endless work as it was the only place for us to play and have fun after school.
As I got older and out of shape, playing keeper for all those years took a toll on my body, I loved the sport and when I had time I would watch the younger men play year after year but come up short when it came to playoffs or championship. I also started to notice the youth in our community no longer interested in soccer after they finished high school and this is what worried me. Also with the men’s team not having consistent leadership, always changing from year to year, I felt I had to get involved and shake things up a bit. The first thing I noticed was most years our men’s team would consist of players who were mostly friends, some have the money to pay but not so much the skills to play, and those who have skills to play but did not have the money to pay. The second issue I found was coaching, most times a coach was chosen because some of the players organizing the team would decide and knowing they will get full playing time, to me that was unfair. Other years, we would have a player/coach, to me that is a conflict of interest. Soccer for the men’s team started to lose its interest especially when the 2011 Yemen II team lost in the 1st Division Championship game against Amherst Sharpshooters. So one day after the season during Ramadan, I was thinking of ways to get our community interested in soccer again, also I did not want to lose the youth in our community. I wanted them to look up to the men’s team as the next stage and hopefully continue striving to play skilled soccer and maintain high academics in school. What I envisioned is that as these youth get older, they can be showcased to area college coaches and hopefully get into higher education with a scholarship in soccer. We are not there yet, but down the road that is my vision.
So what I decided to do was first get my coaching certification which I completed in the year of 2011, secondly I wanted to take the money issue out of the equation so I decided that each player pay nothing and I would find some sponsor. This was the hardest thing, because I would go out to find sponsors and maybe I am not the best salesmen out there, but I was able to get one to pay for the jerseys that first year. The rest would come out of my pocket. I also wanted to change the feel and culture of the team. I wanted to give it a professional feel so I decided to get team memorabilia like t-shirts, sports bag, hats, wrist bands and even a website www.yemensoccerclub.com (which I admin). I even purchased a new team Logo that you currently see around our team. I lost money of course throughout all of this but I felt the ends will justify the means.
BDSL: There has been talk around the league about the Cage getting a face lift. Any truth to this rumor and do you have a time table for it’s completion?
FS: Absolutely true. As you we love our home field “The Cage” as much as you do. It is in constant use within our community almost on a daily basis. The proximity to our community contributes to that. Everyone from young to old are there and either taking in the weather and watching the game or playing pick up on it when there isn’t a game. Over the years erosion and flooding makes it unplayable early in the season and by the end of the season the field is bare with little grass.
After the end of our season back in 2012, our community hosted the Yemen Cup were mostly Yemen teams from Canada, Michigan, and New York play. We invited Assemblyman Sean Ryan and Senator Tim Kennedy to our event and they noticed our field was in bad shape, the field was so bad at times dust from the dry dirt would blow into the faces of fans and players, it was embarrassing. They knew the importance of the field to our community and knew they had to help. So the County of Erie and the City of Lackawanna are collaborating to get this done for us. As with any project, it takes time, approvals, land surveying, contracts…etc.. The one issue before work can start was with a small piece of land along the east side of the field near the railroads which is owned by CSX. They have worked out the issues and should resume the project. We don’t have any exact date but it should be soon and possibly after our season ends.
BDSL: I think I speak for the entire league when I say a new surface at the Cage would be welcomed by all. It remains one of the lone true home fields. How big of an effect does that have on your home games and the team mentality? By that, I mean do you think your players give that extra bit because they are playing in their ‘home’ as opposed to say, Azzuri or Celtic who play at Nichols with 8 other BDSL teams?
FS: I believe the only home loss we suffered since taking the reins was against the Amherst Sharpshooters 3-0 back in the July 8th 2012, and in that game we were missing key players and it was an embarrassing loss to a great Sharpshooter team. I think I speak for a lot of the players who have played at the Cage and it truly an atmosphere of excitement whenever there is a game going on. The Cage is like a living, breathing entity and at times the atmosphere would feel electric. The fans have a lot to do with the excitement and the closeness of the fans to the field of play make for a very intimidating environment for opposing teams. Whenever I bring in new players to the team and they get the first taste of the Cage, they can’t stop talking about when our next home game will be. The fans would chant your name if you stand out during the game, it really feels like you are playing at a higher level of competition. So definitely, the Cage brings out the best in each and everyone of our players.
BDSL: Sticking with the rumors from a few questions back, is it true you have only kept 9 players from last years Championship winning team? If so, who did you pick up? How do you think team chemistry will be with over 50% of the team being new?
FS: My first season in 2012, I decided to hold tryouts back in early February. I had it open to all, not just Yemenis. I wanted it to be competitive. I had a great turn out of 40 players, most of them from the community. After it was said and done, I was able to get it down to 21 players. I did have issues with close friends who did not make the cut, but they understood my goals. There was another Yemen team formed by the rest of the players but it was not setup the same way as I did for Elite.
Championship Division: This was a learning season for me, because even with the money issue (no player fees) I still dealt with players who complained about playing time, mostly from players who always played for Yemen teams and are used to playing full games. It became managing egos instead of games. I became frustrated at times and knew I would have to weed out those who did not understand the role of a coach and the definition team player. We were able to get through the season and lost in the semifinal game. This to me was a success, I was able to get a all these players to work together and win games. That semifinal game against Celtic United should have been ours to win. Celtic United was a strong team, but going into that game, mentally our players were not there. I was too busy focusing on the players on the bench, each one wanting to play and subbing them in.
In the 2013 season, with what I’ve learned in the previous year, I knew I had to be more firm and smarter in choosing the right players. So I kept the core of 2012 which was about 9 players and search the area for other players. I had players refer other players and I did some scouting on the side. This time I would judge them on many things. First is their skill, second is on their soccer IQ, third was their mentality. I think I had about 21 again on the roster, I did retain some players who had heart but skill wise was average. I knew if I get these players together, I can build the chemistry. There are techniques for building chemistry which I have learned over the years and it definitely shows on the field. The roster I had was large, but a couple of players moved out of town as the season started and I had a couple of early season injuries (down to 18). It was one of our best seasons and a very successful season bringing home our first ever BDSL CUP.
For 2014: So to answer your question about this season. Yes, the rumors are true. I lost a couple of players like James Ugorji who moved back to DC for his graduates degree in Sports Medicine and Ronald Cox who joined the military. Most of the other guys you will see on FC Yemen, This will make FC Yemen a stronger contender in the the first division. I only have 9 from last year (Semir Kadric, Guilford Sai, Ahmad Adil, Ali Adil, Ramsey Abdulmalik, Majed Mohamed, Mohamed Harhara, Otmane Boussag, and of course Mateo Escobar), I feel they are my core guys. I have done this before starting with new players and I am ready for it. The new guys that are coming in are very smart guys and will pick up my system quick.
BDSL: What has been the biggest challenge that you have encountered since taking of the Yemen organization?
FS: I have only taken over the men’s program for now and Abdulsalam Noman has continued with the youth program. I feel he has bigger challenges than I do. But I would say the biggest challenge for me would be is finding players, it takes me all of the off season to scout for them, I know every year I will lose players and I have to find way to replace them with equal or better players. Then getting the commitment from the new players and dedication to the team and also participating in the practices. There are times I get a player committed only to leave to another team and I must scramble to find a replacement so close to the season opener. This season is no different. Every year I seem to have a 50% turnover rate.
BDSL: Now that there are only 4 spots in the playoffs and you look at the teams in Premier there’s the usual suspects; Celtic, BSC Raiders, Clarence, Lazio, Lakeside, and newcomer Celtic United. Where does Yemen fit in that group of teams? Obviously playoffs are always the goal, but is a finish in the middle of the table acceptable this transition season?
FS: Top 4? I thought it would be top 6 since the Premier Division moved to 12 teams.
You forgot to mention Amherst Sharpshooters in your list of great teams. It will be tough. All the teams you listed are great perennial teams who seems to always run the Premier division year in and year out. With the Premier division only doing top 4 we have our work cut out for us. I will be working extra hard with the guys and should have a competitive team that should rival most of the Premier division teams. The only thing that would hurt us is injuries, there are a few who are nursing off season injuries who I hope should be ready for the season. There is one factor that will work in our favor and that is the Cage. Most premier teams play at Nichols which is turf, and I believe only Clarence, BUSS and ourselves are grass teams. We feel we are better on our home turf and should win those games. Clarence (Premier) last year lost in a Tehel Cup match versus Yemen United (1st Division) at the Cage, Clarence had many opportunities, but fumbled at times because of the field. The last 5 games are home for us and hopefully it will push us to the top.
I would like to earn a playoff spot and surprise the league this year, but I will see as the season progresses.
BDSL: We voted your Championship celebration as the moment of the year last year. What’s going through your head the moments before the final whistle blew and the moments after?
FS: This question gave me chills. It was very satisfying, not only for me but for all the fans, community and everyone who ever played for the Yemen Organization. It was our first BDSL Cup win. I was super nervous especially before the game started. We were missing 4 important players who were key to our season, they were delayed because they got pulled over for speeding. We started the came slowly and maintained position against a very good Sharpshooter team. Finally, the 4 players showed up about 15 mins in and the game was still scoreless. We worked hard to get to this point, we worked on game strategy against this team. I was pretty confident once we got the first goal by James Ugorji, who is probably the fastest player in the BDSL at that time, we would win this game. Amherst is not known to be a high scoring team, and I knew if we get at least 2 we would either beat them or tie them and take it to PKs. Once we got the second goal in the first half, I was content and played defensive ball control the remainder of the game with a couple of offensive chances.
It was surreal that last 5 minutes of the game as I knew we would be hoisting that Cup and what I would say. Once the whistle blew, the fans rushed the field and hoisted any Yemen player they saw, it was amazing. I am glad I still have it on film and get goose bumps watching it. It was awesome to get the support from a few teams around the league like Queenston who we beat to get to the championship and the ROOS who we’ve always had a good relationship with.
BDSL: Hypothetical situation, You can no longer run Yemen. For whatever reason. You have to choose a new team to take over. What team do you take over? Why? And what’s the first thing you do when you assume control?
FS: I would probably take over FC Buffalo Reserves. I see a lot of talented individuals on that team, some with extremely high soccer IQ. I was very surprised they did not fare well in the Championship Division. They lacked leadership and chemistry. Some of them just needed a kick in the ass and I bet we would see one of the best team in the league. The first thing I would do is implant a vocal leader on the team. Then I would assess the players and put them in the position they would excel at. Some players feel they should be playing offense and some feel they should be playing defense when in fact that player may be better in the opposite position. Lastly, I would make sure they show up to practice and work on chemistry. If you have chemistry on a team, it can take you far even though the skill level is not there. But this team has the skill and can be deadly if trained. No knock on whoever is running them now. I hope I don’t get my tires slashed for this. HAHAHA.
But again, just hypothetical, I love my team and my players and they play for me.
BDSL: Are we going to see a new suit this year?
FS: There are a couple of new suits, but I think this year I will focus on the hat.
BDSL: As always, any final thoughts you’d like to leave with the league?
FS: I would like to say, since taking over one of the men’s team for Yemen, our club feels welcomed to be part of this league. All of you have been supportive and excited about what we are doing. We just hope that we can keep the excitement and interest going for years to come.
BDSL: Thank you to Faress and the entire Yemen organization.