The GOALS Council is a national strategic advisory council working together to better the game of soccer for the next generation. Its members encompass leaders in their respective youth soccer communities with decades of cumulative experience. The mission of the council is “to expand participation in soccer by connecting and inspiring current and future athletes, unlocking potential by seeking diversity in our sport, and partnering in our communities to foster a lifelong love of the game.”
The Stack Sports team sat down with Miriam Hickey, Executive Director of High Country Soccer Association and founding member of The GOALS Council, to discuss everything from youth soccer to the major leagues.
Q: How did you get started playing soccer?
MH: I started playing when I was very young in my neighborhood in Utrecht, in the heart of the Netherlands, about 500 meters from the local pro club stadium. So, soccer has been in my blood since I was a little girl. I only played with boys, except for only one other girl. Growing up, there was no soccer for girls. That is what my foundation of making the sport better for others, especially girls, is founded on. I want to make sure that girls have better opportunities to learn to play with better coaches, on better fields, and in better environments than what I had as a child.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment as a player?
MH: One of my favorite moments as a player was when I was invited to go to Italy to try out for a professional team. They offered me a contract, enough to live off, but not enough to make a living. That same summer, someone watched me coach and said “hey, you’re young, why aren’t you going to the US to play?” So in the same summer, I had a contract to go play professionally and a full scholarship offer to play NAIA at a school in New Mexico. I was too old to play Division One, so that summer shaped my life. I decided to go to the US to play because I figured I’d go play a couple years and then come back to Italy to play when the competition was better developed and they would pay women what they deserved. However, I met my husband and never went back to Europe to play professionally. So is it a favorite moment? Maybe not. But it definitely shaped my decisions moving forward.
Q: What about coaching? What is your favorite moment as a coach?
MH: As a coach, that’s a little harder because I have a lot of good memories of coaching in ODP (Olympic Development Program) for 15 years, going to Costa Rica and Europe a few times with the Region Two age groups. Rose Lavelle was part of the group, so I knew from when she was very young that she was something special. Those were good trips.
For me, it’s all about the connections with people.
Q: How have your experiences prepared you for your role now?
MH: I started coaching when I was about 17, so I’ve been through a lot in 40 years. There’s not one thing that prepares you for the role I’m in now. Now I’m the Executive Director for a small organization that we are trying to grow, both at the recreational level with players that are just starting, all the way to U17.
I went from working as a college coach at LSU (Louisiana State University) to going to the Dutch Federation for eight years, then going back to the club game in the US in Michigan for 12 years, then landing the job with US Soccer at the Development Academy. In my 40 years, I’ve worked with national teams, college-level players, and also TOP Soccer (three-year-olds).
Looking back at those 40 years, what prepared me for this role is that I care about every player that plays; boys, girls, the age and level don’t matter. I’m motivated to help players get better. In my role with U.S. Soccer, I also helped with the course for academy directors, who teach the coaches. So my passion is wider than just coaching players, it’s also coaching coaches so that we can make sure that every player has the best experience possible and they become lifelong participants, either as players, coaches, referees, or even board members.
I think I’m much more mellow than I was in my earlier years when it was always about the best players. I just want to make sure the 500 kids that are in our program every Saturday enjoy their experience and come and leave with a smile. If that’s not the case, then we need to look at what we’re doing wrong.
Q: What do you like most about the youth soccer community in the state of Colorado?
MH: Going into this position, I knew these players are also hockey players, big mountain skiers, and halfpipe skiers. They’re all at the top of their game in the other sports they do. In other states, it’s frowned upon if a child over the age of 8-13 does multiple sports. Here, I want them to do multiple sports. I’ve always believed as a physical education teacher that children need to learn multiple skill sets to be successful in life. A player shouldn’t be playing from six to 20 years old and then quit because their knees don’t work or they are burned out.
What I love about Colorado, especially Summit County, is that it’s a super small community and we are trying to get every child to be connected to something. Everyone here belongs to something, and sometimes multiple sports, because it’s not just about soccer; it’s way bigger. We are trying to create a community where everybody belongs.
Q: What actionable steps would you recommend the soccer community take to get more girls playing soccer?
MH: I never had a female coach my whole career, so I make a point of getting moms involved at the youngest level with the five and six-year-olds. But also at our premier level, the Summit Strikers program, we have female coaches on every girls’ team. Going forward, we hope that is sustainable because we want to grow. You’ve probably heard the saying before, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” Our girls need to see female coaches, female referees, and female board members. We are revamping our board right now and adding three to four females that have young children in the sport, just to get it out there that women can lead. Girls need to see females in these roles. Boys need to see females in these roles, as well.
We also do a lot of co-ed, all our rec teams are co-ed. From age four until middle school, all teams are co-ed. We don’t differentiate between the girls and the boys in the club. The girls get the same opportunities that the boys get. They get the same level of coaches, and the female coaches are also connected with the high school, which is what comes next for our boys and girls.
For girls to be successful they need to see that we care about them and provide programming for them. We train three times a week, but if you ask the players, Friday night (the co-ed night) is what they love the most; when they’re all together as a club.
Q: What are your goals for High Country Soccer Association for 2022-2023?
- We want to get more Hispanic boys and girls involved. Our community is about 20% Hispanic, but our club is only about 5%. I believe that our organization should reflect what is happening in the community, so we need more Hispanic coaches, hopefully female.
- Our adult league is also co-ed. We are hoping to get a female 7v7 league in the summers.
- We don’t have an indoor facility to train. Our expectation is not to compete with the Denver clubs, but to not lose players to other mountain communities. We are trying to be the best soccer community we can be in the Colorado mountains.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges that youth soccer in the US is facing?
MH: Cost is a big one. I believe soccer is overpriced, especially in the big cities where there’s a lot of competition and parents think that the more expensive the soccer club is, the better it must be.
Q: What is it about the GOALS Council that resonated with you and made you want to be a part of it?
MH: When I first got the invitation I thought, “oh, here’s another one where they talk a lot of game but there are no results in the end.” Then I saw that they were actually trying to get soccer minds together and really make it better for every child in the U.S. I had just started my new role and wondered if I had time to spend with the GOALS Council. But then I saw what they had planned and knew I had to make the time.
I’m passionate about making sure we do the right thing for every player, and however I can contribute, I’m willing to put my time towards that.
Q: What do you think a council like this can accomplish in the youth soccer space?
MH: I believe we can shine a light on some of the issues in the soccer world and make people think about the solutions. I do believe that everything you do in life makes you better, so even if we can only reach a few people, the lives of a lot of soccer players and coaches could be better.
Q: On a lighter note, do you have a favorite professional soccer team?
MH: I’m from the Netherlands, born in Utrecht, so I have to say FC Utrecht because you have to support the club in your hometown.
I also like Arsenal in England for women, Liverpool for men, and any team Michelle Cooper plays on!