A journey from Germany to the United States, then to Greece and finally to China seems like a travel enthusiast’s dream. If you could imagine that adventure, with numerous stops in between, you may be able to understand the career of Greg Ryan.
Now the head coach of the Michigan women’s soccer team, Ryan has lived a coaching career that has been an adventure, but hardly a vacation.
Ryan was born in Frankfurt, Germany, but raised in Dallas. Ever since he could walk, you could count on him having a soccer ball at his feet.
“Soccer has been my life, it’s what I love,” Ryan said.
After an All-American career at Southern Methodist University, Ryan rose to the professional ranks in 1978 with the Minnesota Kicks of the North American Soccer League. Ryan played in the league for seven years, retiring in 1985 as a member of the Chicago Sting.
He took his first head coaching job with the University of Wisconsin women’s soccer team. By then, Ryan had gained an array of soccer knowledge from his professional days, but he soon learned that being on the sideline was much different than playing on the field.
“I had a lot to learn about coaching,” Ryan said. “It was my first time coaching women and that was very different for me. Honestly, I was maybe one of the worst women’s soccer coaches.”
Eventually, Ryan learned what he had to do to successfully lead a women’s soccer program, winning NCAA Coach of the Year in 1991, and he remained at Wisconsin until 1993.
“In coaching women, it is very important in the way that you relate to them,” he said.
Ryan then returned to his alma mater, where he led the SMU women’s team to a 37-21-5 record during his tenure. He then made one final stop, at Colorado College from 1999-2002, leading the women’s team to a 40-28-6 record, before taking a break from collegiate soccer.
That same year, in 2002, Ryan happily signed with the United States women’s national team as an assistant coach. Jumping from the collegiate ranks to the best soccer players in the country was quite an adjustment, he said.
“I was asked to become a scout and then the assistant coach,” Ryan said. “Being around the team, getting to know the players, and getting to know the level of play really helped me. Especially scouting in just about every continent, I believe that prepared me very well for the transition.”
He was there through it all. As an assistant coach, Ryan attended the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Under the USA’s first-ever female head coach, April Heinrichs, Ryan helped lead the team to a gold medal.
“It was so exciting to support April,” Ryan said. “This was her first championship. When we won, April jumped on top of me and gave me a big hug. I was so happy for her.”
Heinrichs resigned from the head coaching job in 2005, saying it was the right time to step away, and Ryan was hired as the national team’s head coach. Just two years later, he was at the 2007 World Cup in China.
“When you’re at a World Cup as a coach, you’re probably busier during that time than any other time during your career,” Ryan said. “You just need to be ready for your next opponent.”
He nearly led the team to a first-place finish in yet another world competition. But the team lost to Brazil, 4-0, in the semifinals. It was the only loss the U.S. suffered under Ryan’s tenure. Ryan was roundly criticized for benching goalkeeper Hope Solo in favor of veteran Briana Scurry before the semifinals.
Although a third-place finish may have been bittersweet, he walked away from the tournament as an even better coach.
“When you play against international teams, and even in college, you run into a variety of styles of play,” Ryan said. “It helps you grow tactically, knowing how to approach different teams.”
That December, Ryan’s contract wasn’t extended with the national team, setting his stellar 45-1-9 record over three years in stone.
After taking the head coaching position at Michigan nearly five years ago, it’s evident that Ryan wasn’t ready to take a break from coaching.
“I feel so fortunate to do something that I love,” Ryan said. “I get to work with young people. It helps keep me young (and) I’ve been very happy to be a coach during all these years. I plan on coaching until I’m six feet under.”
Ryan’s career is nearly unparalleled to many of his colleagues in the NCAA. It’s obvious that his experience as coach of the national team reflects his success at the collegiate level, but it takes a different mindset to coach at a university.
“You’re more a part of their lives. You’re responsible for more than just winning but more in terms of helping them, whether it’s injury, classes (or) relationship issues,” Ryan said. “It’s more personal at the collegiate level.”