Yesterday I got to meet Charlie Naimo, who is currently the coach of the W-League league champions The Pali Blues and is also the manager to the WPS Los Angeles team (whose name will be unveiled this weekend at Sunday's Galaxy game).
Walking into the Pali Blues office in Santa Monica, my eyes went first to the Formiga jersey on the wall (framed by shirts from Kelly Smith and Marinette Pichon). If you read my blog, you know that I am a huge fan of the Brazilian international. Turns out that during his years coaching the New Jersey Wildcats to the top of the W-League tables, Naimo successfully recruited Formiga to play for his team - using a guy he met at local gas station who spoke Portuguese to facilitate their first discussions over the phone. (Naimo is standing second from the right in this picture of the 2005 championship side.)
This ignited my imagination - the Wildcats are based in Mercer County, NJ. [Note: I originally wrote this assuming they were based in New Brunswick, NJ - home to Rutgers, alma mater for me and my sisters -see comment below.] Naimo was at Rutgers from 92-94, and it was there that he met Denise Reddy, who worked with him on the coaching staff for NJ Sky Blue. She also played and coached with the Wildcats - and is now Assistant Coach for the Chicago Red Stars. Rutgers, as fans of the women's game know, proudly claims Carli Lloyd among its recent graduates. And we also know Alexi Lalas, too, as Rutgers guy (though he left one course shy of graduation - which is a very, very Rutgers thing to do). As we talked, I began to glimpse something of a New Jersey network...
We used to think of UNC Chapel Hill as the nexus of the women's soccer world, but as others have noted, times have changed and the women's soccer circuit has become more complex - New Brunswick (the setting for Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize winning The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) is clearly one of several sites from which movers and shakers emerge.
Thinking about what playing for this Wildcats team must have been like, I found myself wondering [mistakenly] where Formiga lived in the urban/suburban wilds of "New Brumfus." Did she ever eat at Szechuan Gourmet (the Chinese restaurant for which I worked as a hostess in the 1980s)? Did she ever hit the dance floor at The Melody? (Is that place, pictured here, still there?) What did (and do) the Wildcats do when they aren't playing soccer? What do their day jobs look like? What did French international, WUSA star, and Wildcats player Marinette Pichon think of New Jersey?
[Of course, I wrote the above willfully projecting the Wildcats in New Brunswick, which is about a 30-40 minute drive east of Mercer County - not all that far from Walt Whitman's stomping grounds, and closer to my family's home. I had strangely projecting the team along the line of my own commuting route between home and school!]
I digress. My point is that I was thrilled to learn that Formiga (who will probably be playing for the Bay Area WPS team) is practically a Jersey girl.
And Naimo, a North Brunswick native, is a Jersey guy. He definitely has a very NJ combo: matter-of-fact-friendliness balanced with a "don't fuck with me" vibe. (Think: Tony Soprano, or, even better, "Bruce" or Patti Smith.) You can see that balance making for a very competitive coach - soliciting a level of commitment from players with that approachability, but using that DFwM face to push players to match his level of commitment to the team.
And, well, his record speaks for itself. Every team for which he has worked is a well organized, well-funded group that ruthlessly slaughters its competition. I am not sure if I am reading this right, but it looks like in the past four or five years, his teams have had a combined 67-3 record.
Naimo was totally unapologetic about that dominance. He has little sympathy for other organizations that don't fund their teams adequately, and don't support them with professional training. What are you supposed to do? Play less aggressively? Of course not.
He is not much of a bullshitter, either. I especially enjoyed what he had to say about the challenges of soccer culture here in the U.S. But I'm saving that part of our conversation for another post.