Trailblazer looks to kick-start Republic FC’s new development program

Republic FC president Warren Smith, right, persuaded Rod Underwood, center, to head the team’s youth academy. “My focus in life is to impact culture and change lives,” Underwood said.
Republic FC president Warren Smith, right, persuaded Rod Underwood, center, to head the team’s youth academy. “My focus in life is to impact culture and change lives,” Underwood said. Sacramento Bee file

Republic FC’s Rod Underwood is used to being a soccer trailblazer.

Growing up in Atlanta, he often was the only African American player on the pitch.

Even when racial taunts were directed toward him by hard-hearted rivals, Underwood was undeterred.

“People could call me names, but none of that mattered to me,” Underwood said. “There was this game that I loved, and wherever it took me, I was going at any cost. I’ve always wanted to do something different. I had zero interest in doing what everyone else was doing.”

Underwood, 48, was the first African American to play men’s soccer at Furman University, a small private college near Greenville, S.C. He has been among the few African Americans to work as a head professional soccer coach.

Last year, Underwood was the head assistant on Republic FC’s USL championship team, working side-by-side with coach Preki while serving on loan from the Portland Timbers.

Now he is in the midst of a new challenge as the leader of Republic FC’s fledgling youth soccer academy.

So when Underwood says the new program will reach beyond the area youth soccer clubs into all corners from the community, he has credibility.

“My focus in life is to impact culture and change lives,” Underwood said. “I really see this as an opportunity to inspire youngsters who are underserved in the game of soccer. It could be Latino. It could be black. It could be Asian.”

Republic FC will hold its first tryouts next Tuesday through Thursday for some 300 academy candidates. Those selected will play on Republic FC’s inaugural boys U-18, U-16 and U-14 teams later this year. It’s the beginning of a player development system that not only will feed the parent club but prepare players for college soccer and, possibly, even the U.S. national team.

“We want to be seen as the pipeline to the national team,” Underwood said. “And as we get more players to the first team, it will drive players from around the world to want to come to our academy. We want this to be a model.”

Underwood and academy manager Jeremy Field are overseeing a talented, experienced coaching staff that will focus on character development, high-level training and high-quality games against other United States Soccer Development Academy teams throughout the region and beyond.

Most importantly in Underwood’s eyes is that the players will participate in a fully funded academy program. So training, travel and other ancillary costs will be covered by the Major League Soccer expansion hopefuls.

That was a big reason Underwood, with some persuading by Republic FC president Warren Smith, decided to switch from coaching pros to developing amateur soccer players into potential pros.

“I’ve seen where parents have had to scramble to find the money to put gas in the car or food on the table so their child could be involved in elite soccer,” Underwood said. “We’re trying to take all that out of it so parents won’t have to make those tough choices.”

Growing up, Underwood earned some of his youth club fees by “moving dirt” for a coach who had a landscaping business. He can’t imagine where he’d be if he hadn’t received an athletic scholarship to Furman.

“At that time, it cost $10,000 to $15,000 to go there,” said Underwood, a forward who scored 33 goals during his four-year college career. “There was no way my parents could afford that. Going to Furman changed the path of my life totally. I went in as an indifferent student but learned the importance of education. Most of my friends went to local colleges, and a lot of them are still living in Georgia. I wanted to see the world and what was out there.”

Underwood graduated from Furman at a time when the North American Soccer League had already gone under and MLS had yet to be founded. So he scratched out a living for six years as a pro playing on minor-league teams in Albuquerque and New Orleans. He saw coaching as a better option to stay in the sport but also a better fit for how the highly religious Underwood wanted to live his life.

“I really wanted to focus my life to be a tribute to God,” Underwood said. “I really didn’t feel I could do that as a player because I’m so competitive that I would do and say some things that God just wouldn’t want me to do.”

He led the Albuquerque Geckos to the United States International Soccer League’s D-3 Pro League championship in 1997 and worked twice as an assistant for the Portland Timbers, sandwiched between a head-coaching gig with the USL first-division Cleveland City Stars in 2009 before they folded.

He understands how a high-level youth development program works, having coached in the Timbers’ academy program, and he knows Preki’s unique style of play well. He also thinks his collaborative style will alleviate any concerns among long-established area soccer clubs.

“That was one of the reasons Warren pushed me to come in,” Underwood said. “I was a neutral party with no ties to any Sacramento clubs. I think the clubs here have made unbelievable strides. I’m here to help them understand that we’re not here to take their place. We’re here to work together.”

Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.

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