As the Women’s World Cup in France captivates audiences globally, the international variety of women’s soccer is central to Jonathan Garbar’s job in Rindge.
Heading into his third year, the head coach of the Franklin Pierce University women’s soccer team has recruits arriving in the fall from Sweden, Costa Rica and Spain.
One incoming Spanish player competed previously for Garbar at Monroe College in New York City, where he was the director of recruitment in South America for the institution.
Other players on the team also transferred from Monroe after Garbar took over at Franklin Pierce.
The NCAA Division II program in Rindge had seven players from Spain, Brazil and Mexico on its 2018 roster sharing their skills and culture with American teammates.
“On the soccer side of things, it does make things a bit more eclectic on the field, but also, culturally, I’m a strong believer in providing an experience for all student athletes in which they’re able to learn about new cultures, to meet people they typically wouldn’t meet, and to simply just have a more open and a more progressive experience than one typically would at college,” Garbar said Wednesday.
Tapping into an international network of contacts, Garbar said he always meets with players and their families before they commit to studying in the U.S.
Last season, the team won the Northeast-10 conference title for the first time since 2006 and won an NCAA regional playoff game for the first time since 2009, tallying an impressive 16-2-2 record.
Garbar, who grew up in New Jersey and Colombia and speaks Spanish and Portuguese, takes a similar view on the World Cup, which he encourages his players to tune in to for tactical analysis.
“One thing that I feel really proud of with our team is our players are really starting to watch more than just individual players, and they’re starting to really watch and analyze teams,” Garbar explained. “I think once you get to this level, it’s good, obviously, to continue to follow your heroes, but in terms of play and styles and what teams do well and where they struggle, our players are starting to do that.”
The men’s team at Franklin Pierce also boasts several international players, and Garbar credits former women’s soccer coach Mark Krikorian for being a pioneer in recruiting outside of the U.S. when he won two national championships with the Ravens in the 1990s.
In addition to his duties at the helm of the women’s program in Rindge, Garbar is co-president and director of coach and player development for the New Era Girls Soccer Academy. The academy holds camps and clinics during school breaks in Rindge and New York City, and even brings an all-star team annually to Spain, where they play against international competition and learn from coaches at Athletico Madrid.
While not every college soccer program recruits international players, the sport features more than others, with only 3.5 percent of all NCAA student athletes coming from abroad, according to the NCAA’s demographic report from 2014.
In an analysis of that report from MarketWatch, a Dow Jones-owned financial information website, tennis and ice hockey gave the greatest share of scholarships to international players. Men’s soccer had 12.5 percent of its players come from abroad compared to 4.9 percent for women in that year.
Since Title IX came into effect in 1972, women’s soccer has enjoyed a more robust development in the United States compared to other countries, where a similar gender parity in competition has not developed as quickly, according to sports management scholars cited in a 2015 NBC News report.
One cultural difference Garbar has observed between his American and international players is that the latter are more likely to pull up a stream of a professional or international match on their computer.
TV contracts may have moved the needle a bit, according to Garbar — particularly with the British Premier League on NBC and NBCSports.
Still, he said, “in general, the American kids, they love to play, but they’re not yet — as a culture, we’re not in love with the sport yet.”
But as enjoyable as watching soccer can be, Garbar insisted that the increasing speed, skill and tactical diversity of the modern game provide a rich learning experience upon every kickoff.
He prefers his Ravens squad to line up in a 4-3-3 formation, with a conventional set of four defenders, three central midfielders, and a pair of wingers flanking a striker in attack.
Traditionally, American soccer coaches have never deviated far from standard 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 formations, but Garbar noted that with the Spanish, Brazilian and Mexican players bringing unique qualities to the pitch, he favors the more fluid 4-3-3 to better integrate diverse styles of play.
The formation also balances the relative strengths and weaknesses the players arrive on campus with, Garbar explained.
American players are used to being drilled into keeping strong defensive lines and defending as a unit, but may lack creativity going forward, he noted, while the Brazilians on the team tend to be more comfortable with flair and adding individuality to the attack, but have less experience with defending as a group.
When it comes to the Spanish players, Garbar said the 4-3-3 formation suits them well, having come up forming triangles with short passes and valuing possession.
Despite American soccer not being known for having one of the world’s most riveting playing styles, Garbar said an evolution in the U.S. Women’s National Team and its approach has made for an intriguing start to this year’s tournament.
In their first game of the World Cup Tuesday, the national team set a record for the biggest blowout in the history of the tournament, 13-0 against Thailand.
While teams from the 1990s to early 2010s featured legendary players like Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach — who stumped for Hillary Clinton in Keene shortly after her 2015 retirement — Garbar said this year’s team has taken the mantle to a new level.
“(The Americans) are obviously more athletic than most of the other teams, but in the past, I feel like they played a bit more direct ... a bit more old school,” Garbar said. “... But now, I think what you’re seeing from the U.S. team is they’re certainly starting to move the ball a bit more, they’re starting to play more complex, they’re forming triangles, they’re playing with a bit more tempo. They’re not only depending on their athleticism.”
With all of his reasons for watching the World Cup, Garbar said he has one hard and fast rule: He won’t go out to a bar to watch the games.
“I hate watching it outside of my house,” Garbar said. “I love watching it at home because I feel like you just get so distracted, and it’s hard to be able to immerse yourself in the game (at a bar). I’m watching it at home every single time.”