Arez Ardalani is Head Coach and Technical Director of Texas United, the only USL League Two (USL2) club playing in North Texas. Ardalani grew up playing soccer in the Rio Grande Valley and attended college at Texas A&M-Kingsville. After spending time in a different industry, Ardalani followed his dream and began a soccer coaching career when he assumed responsibility for the Women’s recreation program at A&M- Kingsville. He worked with various youth and college programs before joining Texas United, including the Premier Development League Houston Dutch Lions. Ardalani served as an assistant for the Dutch Lions first team and head coach of their U-18 Super-Y League team.
Texas Soccer Journal: How did you get started in soccer?
Arez Ardalani: My introduction to soccer was playing for the Arroyo youth soccer club. I grew up in Harlingen, Texas, so at the time, all the kids under the age of 10 would play in a recreation league. Eventually, when we got old enough, we transitioned into one competitive travel team.
TSJ: Who were your favorite players and teams growing up? Were there any soccer role models that you had while you were playing?
Ardalani: I didn’t have a favorite team, but I had several players I looked up to. I am half Mexican and half Iranian. So growing up, I never saw role models from those backgrounds in movies or pop culture. It was football from those countries that provided me with role models. I had a lot of Mexican influence. Jared Borghetti, Rafa Marquez, and Nery Castillo were examples of players I followed. From Iran, Ali Karimi, Ali Daei, and Javed Nekounam. Those guys were instrumental to my youth growing up, not only as a soccer player and a soccer coach but as a person. I believe every young boy or girl should have role models to look up to, and those guys were a huge part of my life.
TSJ: What caused you to pursue a career coaching soccer?
Ardalani: To understand that, we need to look into my youth soccer time. When I was younger, I specifically remember all the practices I attended always felt like my job or development for my future job. It never felt right to me when I left my playing career and just stopped playing soccer. So, I picked up coaching, and I must say that this has brought joy and happiness to my life. Precisely because the creativity a soccer coach needs involves ideas, and if you don’t have any ideas as a coach, you’re not going to have a good time. Fortunately, I like to reflect on the tactical perspective of the game. And it provides me with great joy to do so.
TSJ: You played high school soccer, but not college. In the summers, you did play with RGV teams in leagues typically designed for college players. How did this happen?
Ardalani: I started there in 2010 after I graduated from high school. My father’s good friend coached the local Premier Development League team, the RGV Bravos. When I graduated from high school, he invited me to a couple of practices. I got to experience that higher level of play at the Bravos, and it was a great experience. In 2011, we moved to a different league, the Southern Premier Soccer League. The SPSL was a new league and the team rebranded as the RGV Ocelots.
Interestingly, the Ocelots affiliated with FC New York, which would be USL Championship team back then. That was an excellent opportunity to be scouted by a professional team, but at the same time, play for your local community. I loved that aspect of competing for your hometown and representing the RGV.
Founded in 2017, Texas United is owned by Neltex Sports Group. USL League Two, primarily composed of college players, plays a May-August season. Arez Ardalani has been Head Coach since the 2018 season and assumed the Technical Director role at the end of that season. The Covid-19 pandemic forced USL League Two to cancel the 2020 season last Spring. Since that time, Texas United has focused on youth efforts. The club recently announced that it would be one of three Texas USL League Two clubs (along with Championship teams) to be founding members of the new USL Academy program’s South-Central Division.
Last week, Texas United had four players, who were part of previous USL2 squads, selected in the Major League Soccer College SuperDraft.
TSJ: Setting aside the cancellation of the 2020 USL League Two season, what has been the biggest challenge the pandemic has presented to you with Texas United?
Arez Ardalani: Being the head coach of Texas United, the biggest challenge that the pandemic brought was keeping the team we recruited for the 2020 season. I felt like we had a fantastic group for that season, and it’s looking good for 2021. It’s good to see that many of those players are still available to put on the Texas United jersey for the summer.
TSJ: Tell us a little about the integrated Texas United program. How do you describe your combined USL League Two and youth system? Besides the fact that you are the only USL2 team in North Texas, what do you believe sets you apart in a very crowded soccer landscape?
Ardalani: Two words describe our approach regarding local youth moving into Texas United’s USL2 team; identification and support. We want to ID players around the age of 15 to build a relationship with him and his family and act as a supporting tool for upcoming decisions. These include questions like: Where should I play college ball? Am I ready to move on to a higher level? Remember, because of our long offseason, we have spent a lot of time working with local youth players. I’m proud of the work we’ve been doing since the fall of 2019 with the identification process. And now, with our USL Academy team, we can provide another supporting tool for these players.
TSJ: In the future, do you see most of your USL2 roster coming from your Academy setup and other youth systems in the DFW region?
Ardalani: Without a doubt. I think that we’re always going to be a majority local player team. But one thing we’ve improved upon is identifying gaps and bringing players in from outside for the USL2 season. Adding experienced players from outside North Texas allows our local players to experience success, even when we may not have all the roster solutions available here.
TSJ: Have you gotten any input from USL about when they plan on starting up the USL Academy program this year?
Ardalani: I have had some input. For now, we have a couple of rough dates, but we should know by the end of January, exact dates when we will begin the USL Academy season.
TSJ: Now that you have been in the DFW area for a few years. How do you view the size and quality of the youth soccer market there?
Ardalani: The youth market here in Dallas is very competitive and very spread out. What I also think would interest people here is that not all the best players can be found in one club competing in one specific Youth League. We’ve learned that you can find a player in a Division Three Classic league better than a player in one like MLS Next or ECNL. That’s why I wouldn’t say there are any under the radar clubs, specifically, but definitely under the radar teams every year. At Texas United, we have put a considerable focus on identification because of this culture.
TSJ: How is Texas United helping to address US Soccer’s high cost in the traditional pay-to-play system? Are you able to help address this issue within your Academy?
Ardalani: We want to address this more in the future, but for now, we’re only a USL2 team. We have focused our affordability efforts on allowing young High School players to be on our first team at zero cost. We invest to develop those players into top-tier college recruits, ready for success in their freshman year. We believe they will then return to us more competitive than they were in the prior year. We’re still working on the blueprint of how our USL Academy team is going to be function. So, I don’t have a clear answer on how will address affordability. This issue is something we’re addressing.
TSJ: Do you believe soccer in the United States provides more opportunities today for underserved communities, for example, Latino youth, than when you began playing?
Ardalani: I would say that USL has played a significant role in curing the ills that plague the Latino soccer community. Look at markets like RGV, San Antonio, El Paso, and Albuquerque. Ever since those communities established USL teams. It has given those locals opportunities to be part of the highest soccer levels in this country, not just as fans but as players, coaches, and executives. Being from the Valley, I see no football organization that has given Latinos opportunities like USL. We have seen significant progress with Latinos where communities have options, and soon we’re going to see much more.
In March of 2020. Arez Ardalani had the opportunity to shadow Gregg Berhalter at a US Men’s National Team camp in Florida. He was able to spend time on the sidelines during training sessions, engaging with Berhalter at times, and also had the opportunity to present some of his ideas to Berhalter after a training session.
TSJ: How did you receive an invitation to participate in a 2019 US Men’s National Team camp to shadow Head Coach Gregg Berhalter?
Arez Ardalani: We had a mutual friend that put us in contact. After a difficult 2019 season (we were rebuilding with high school players). Gregg helped me a lot with the invitation to that national team camp, and I genuinely appreciate his mentorship. I would describe my time before the camp as very foggy mentally, then Gregg helped me find my vision on how the game should be seen. Words can’t describe the experience. It was a real honor.
TSJ: I am curious if you picked up any concepts or tools from this experience you have incorporated into your coaching?
Ardalani: I learned a lot. The biggest highlight to me, though, would be that this experience helped me reflect on my soccer ideas and how to teach these ideas to players.
TSJ: Can you please expand a little bit more? That is interesting.
Ardalani: Soccer is about ideas. As coaches, we tend to get caught up in those ideas and not teach them to the player. Ever since I spent time with Greg Berhalter, I now focus on the teaching mechanics of implementing these ideas to players so that there are no misunderstandings. This teaching eliminates all the frustrations of having players that don’t understand your concepts. One example of a difference in teaching methods is the rules I use for small-sided games we use in training. I’ve learned that we can use rules to influence the characteristics and the DNA of the player. It’s something as straightforward as, for example, if you lose the ball, you have three passes to win the ball back. This simple change helps focus players on transition moments in games. By merely changing the rules, you can change the team’s culture and help them play your game model.
TSJ: If you could wave a magic wand, what would you have US Soccer change or adopt to help you as Texas United coach?
Ardalani: I would like to see US Soccer provide a preseason platform for Under-23 amateur players who have a pro pathway. It could be as simple as developing a USSF sanctioned spring season for USL2 and other amateur leagues to compete before their respective seasons. In February and March, create an eight or nine-game league with local USL2, NPSL, UPSL, and regional league teams that will play a summer season. This preseason competition would expand the competition calendar to add a spring season to a league’s respective summer season. I’m envisioning that if a player is not playing at the college level yet, they will still have leagues in the Spring and Summer.
This concept could be like the spring friendlies Texas United has played against USL Championship teams. Before USL2 shut down the 2020 season, we played exhibitions against USL Championship teams in the Spring of 2019 and one in 2020. It would be great if USL2 teams could play NPSL and, maybe, some USL Championship teams in an organized preseason. Amateur players would have a better opportunity to be looked at by professional clubs and national team staff.
TSJ: Since you have played and coached in both North and South Texas, I’d be curious to get your perspective on the differences between North and South Texas soccer?
Ardalani: I believe both are extremely competitive markets with the resources to find success. It has been a real honor to develop good relationships with coaches, players, and executives from both markets. The most significant difference between the two I have noticed is the rivalries among the youth coaches and clubs are fiercer in Dallas. I’ve seen rivalries that have 25 years of history. That is something extraordinary to see-that coaches still have a passion for being the best after so much time. That is the biggest difference I’ve seen between the two markets.
TSJ: Do you believe that partially reflects the earlier introduction and staying power of professional soccer in North Texas?
Ardalani: That definitely makes sense. When I think of Dallas soccer, I think of history. Reflecting on my time in Houston, I don’t see the history that Dallas has. That said, I believe there is a lot of great work being done in Houston, and they compete with Dallas. Dallas has that history and heritage, though, and you can see it with the coaches. You can see it even with the families who have provided multiple generations of players from the Dallas area. Many players from the first professional team [Tornados] are still there in Dallas, and I don’t remember that dynamic in Houston. So the history is definitely much heavier in Dallas.
TSJ: Is there a story from your playing and coaching career in Texas you would like to share?
Ardalani: There was a funny experience back in 2018. We won an away match against a good team, Corpus Christi FC, after a 6-hour bus ride to get down there. I studied at A&M Kingsville nearby, so it was a memorable victory for me. We were celebrating on the bus ride back, going home immediately after that night game. Our bus driver had never driven that far south, so he eventually had to pull over and sleep somewhere on I35 between San Antonio and Austin, which sort of ruined our festive night. Of course, he was the bus driver, and we didn’t want him driving sleepy, so we all just slept near the highway on the bus. And, you know, while it was very uncomfortable, it taught me wins can cure everything. Even though we were sleeping in awkward positions, we came home with three points, and it was a great night.
TSJ: Is there anything else that we have missed in this conversation?
I take pride in coaching in these projects. When you look at Houston Dutch Lions, our prior sister USL team, FC Cleburne, and Texas United, all of these are projects for local communities, and they come with challenges. They are the best experiences I’ve had as a person and as a professional, however. I hope to continue coaching and working on projects representing local communities and providing local players a platform to achieve their dreams.
All Images Courtesy of Arez Ardalani