Mitch Murray, the International Man on a Mission
Retirement in Panama was treating Mitch Murray pretty well. His golf game was the best it had been for many years. The pressure of multiple seasons coaching collegiate soccer had long subsided. Life was laid back, relaxed and good.
Then he got the phone call from Paul Bravo, one of his former college players.
It was 2009 and the Rapids were looking for someone to oversee the technical side of the club's development academy and Bravo, now the club's technical director, needed his former coach to help out.
"I guess I had had enough rest," Murray recalls. "So I came out to Denver for a visit. I liked it, and by the end of July of that year I just stayed."
In February of 2010, Murray was on fulltime with the Rapids as the development academy technical director and since has assumed the additional title of scouting director.
Mitch Murray is a soccer lifer. From his childhood as a student attending a British school in Benghazi, Libya, where his Dad was in international business, to his playing days at San Francisco State, everything pointed to a future in coaching. And that's the way it turned out.
The holder of Class A, B and C soccer coaching licenses from the Deutscher Fussball-Bund, (Germany), Murray coached 16 years at the University of Santa Clara. Now he's working with the pros, but still doing what he likes best - finding that diamond in the rough, who has what it takes to play in Major League Soccer.
His job for the Rapids, along with directing the development academy, is scouting. And with the Rapids looking for players to improve on its 2014 Major League Soccer campaign, Murray has been busy this summer and his schedule isn't likely to let up during the upcoming off-season.
"When I was in college, I noticed that most coaches don't like recruiting, but I always enjoyed that challenge of finding players who could be successful," Murray says. "I liken it to being here with the Rapids. In college I always had to find the right players to fit us, and it's the same thing here. We may not be able to go out and buy a Robbie Keane or someone like that. So we have to go out and find players who are under the radar a little, but have a style and fit that will help us be successful. That comes a lot from Pablo now as coach, and from Paul, who has the vision, and with great support from Tim (Hinchey, club president), and, ultimately, Kroenke Sports & Entertainment."
It could be said that Murray's entire career has been a setup for his current assignment with the Rapids. Growing up in Sunnyvale, Calif., the son of John Murray and Rita Dominguez, the family moved to the USA when he was 11. After playing nothing but soccer and cricket in school at his father's foreign work post locations, young Mitch was the proverbial kid in the candy store of American sports.
"I played baseball, football and basketball," he recalls. "When I started high school, I played freshman and sophomore football, but I wasn't very good. Then in my junior year, the German language teacher started a soccer team, which rekindled my love for the sport.
"I went on to San Francisco State where I majored in physical education. I took a course called 'the theory and practice of basketball,' which was taught by the basketball coach. While taking that course, a light bulb went off. I could see there was a lot more than just going out there and playing. It was the first time I became aware of the tactics of a sport and how much similarity there was between basketball and soccer - in terms of footwork, defending and positioning. That's when I started to get serious about the game."
After college, Mitch went to Europe and tried to play soccer professionally in Switzerland with the Geneva-based club, Servette. "I wasn't strong enough to hook up with the first team. I trained and played a couple of games with the reserves, but at my best, I could probably just hang on (as a professional player)."
During the off-season he went to Germany and began what became three years of immersion in the Germans' well-known, methodological approach to coaching soccer. The "A" course was four weeks (early morning until late at night) of written course work and field training, followed by two weeks of exams. "It was very intense," he recalls. "And that 'A' license only allows you to coach at the top amateur level."
Testimony to Murray's determination to succeed was the fact that his German learning experience took place even though he could not speak the language. "I picked up certain words you needed on the field and in some of the lectures," he says. "They went out of their way to help me and the instructor would translate for me in the evenings in the 'C' and 'B.' The 'A' course was done in English."
Murray had some of the world's best instructors during that period, including Karl-Heinz Heddergott, Berti Vogts, Bert Trautmann and Holger Osieck.
In 1980, he returned from Germany to northern California and met George Avakian, soccer coach at Foothill Community College in Los Altos Hills, Calif., and when Avakian learned that Murray had his German coaching licenses, he offered him one of his two assistant coaching positions. The other was held by Steve Sampson (who 18 years later would coach the USA in the 1998 World Cup). And so began a long Murray-Sampson partnership.
In 1984, Murray accepted an assistant coaching position at San Diego State University under Chuck Clegg, a position he held for two years. But by the end of the 1985 collegiate season, he was thinking about leaving coaching.
"I was planning to get married and began to think about doing something else," he said. "I had been doing coaching camps, licenses, assisting at San Diego State, but had no secure income coming in. Just as I was about to give it up, Steve Sampson took the job at Santa Clara and in the spring of 1986 offered me a full-time assistant coaching position."
It was the first time Murray had been offered a job coaching soccer where he would receive a full-time salary with benefits - so, naturally, he said yes.
Thus began his 16-year tenure at Santa Clara (assistant coach from 1986-90 and head coach from 1991-2002). One of the first assignments he received from Sampson was to go out and check out a young player named Paul Bravo, a supposed hot prospect about to enter college.
"We had heard that he was about to enroll at Cal-State Hayward, but that he had been injured and for that reason was under the radar of most college scouts," said Murray. "I went out to see him train informally with some friends. He was the real deal."
But before he could enroll at Santa Clara, Bravo needed to get his course requirements in order, so Murray sent him over to his old mentor at Foothill, Avakian. During his two seasons at Foothill, Bravo formed an impressive strike partnership with another star-in-the-making, Jeff Baicher, and the two helped lead Foothill to two California community college state championships.
With the help of Jerry Smith, then a Santa Clara assistant (now the longtime coach of the Santa Clara women's team), Baicher was convinced to join Bravo in transferring to Santa Clara. They both made a significant impact on the Broncos' success. In 1989, they combined 25 goals and 28 assists to lead the Broncos to a 20-0-3 record, a No. 1 national ranking and a spot in the NCAA Division I final four.
In Santa Clara's semifinal game, played on a frozen field at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., Bravo scored twice as the Broncos erased an early 2-0 Indiana lead and went on to post a 4-2 victory. That put the Broncos into the final against Virginia. At that time there was no provision for settling the NCAA championship via penalty kicks. So when Santa Clara and Virginia played to a 1-1 draw, the two schools were declared co-national champions.
"It was mesmerizing the way Paul and Jeff played together," he recalls. "Both were forwards who had won the state community college championship together at Foothill. They picked right up when they came to Santa Clara. I remember one particular game when Paul had the ball on the edge of the penalty area and took the ball inside on the dribble. All of a sudden he stopped the ball dead by stepping on top of it and left it for Jeff, who took it around one opponent, pushed the ball through the legs of a second player and then put it in the back of the net. One of the best goals I've ever seen."
Murray took teams four times to the NCAA Division 1 Final Four (three times to the final game), but never won it outright. But in 1991, his first as head coach at Santa Clara, he hit the jackpot with a team that included twin brothers Cam and Matt Rast, both of whom went on to play at national team level. That '91 squad took Virginia (coached by current LA Galaxy manager Bruce Arena) to two overtimes before losing on penalty kicks.
Ironically, it was Cam Rast who replaced Murray in 2002 as head coach at Santa Clara, a position he holds today.
People from all walks of life who experience success usually can name someone who gave them a helping hand along the way.
"The person who impacted my career the most was Steve Sampson, because I was about to leave the game and I don't think anyone else could have dragged me back in. Then he recommended me for the top job (at Santa Clara) when he left. Later on he brought me into the national team program as head coach of the U.S. National Under-18 team."
Murray coached the U-18's from 1995-99, a period highlighted by participation in the 1998 World Youth Games in Moscow. Two of the players he coached during that time eventually became tied to the Rapids - current player Edson Buddle and past Rapids striker Conor Casey, both of whom played for the U.S. national side. One particular year, Murray had a pair of future U.S. national team players as his two goalkeepers - 2014 World Cup and Everton star Tim Howard and Real Salt Lake's Nick Rimando.
When Sampson was named to coach the USA squad in the 1998 World Cup, he asked Murray to be one of his advance scouts. Murray scouted Costa Rica a full two years before the World Cup began and later scouted games of the Netherlands, France and Italy.
Murray is a busy man this fall, holding down his dual roles (academy technical director and director of scouting). But a conversation reveals that he's clearly zeroing in on his scouting responsibilities as the Rapids prepare for 2015.
"We meet weekly and are putting a list of players together that we are interested in - both in the league and internationally. When we reach consensus, Paul takes it and runs with it and makes contacts with agents. We are in contact with a few players right now. November will be a very important month for us, scouting the college tournaments and the draft."
He mentions the Rapids' recent success in identifying top talent coming out of college - Deshorn Brown and Dillon Powers - all of whom made an immediate impact with the Rapids. However, he's quick to point out that most college players need time to adjust.
"You need to give college players some time ... it usually takes them three to five years to develop fully. You also need to have veteran players onboard who can help teach the young players. We need to find those veteran players to balance out our roster and help with that teaching process.
"I think we will be a significantly better team next year - who knows how far we can go? Our expectations next year are great, but chances are we may not be the most complete team, even next year. But we will get better the next year and the year after that. The goal is to play at a high level year-in and year-out, and to have good balance from experience to youth."
Murray is especially proud of Bravo, that young player he first scouted, who then became an MLS veteran and had a long career with the Rapids.
"I knew Paul would have a nice long career as a player, but personally I thought he'd go into coaching. He was a great coach at Rush Soccer Club, UCLA and the LA Galaxy, but his success eventually brought him the roles of technical director and vice president of soccer operations, both of which he does very well. He's able to handle a lot of stress and deal with it and I think he has a great temperament for the work. He always knows there is a solution. And I've never seen him panic."
It's all come full circle for Mitch Murray. He's now working for the player he once scouted as a young college freshman.
"I'm very happy that I unretired," he says. "I enjoy the job and the challenges. I'm looking forward to next season, but I will say the nice thing is - I still have my places in Panama and it's there if I need to get serious about my golf game again."
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