“Big time!” Although it was 15 years ago, I can clearly remember these words Graeme Abel shared passionately as he encouraged and praised his players back when he had his first Division I coaching gig at the University of Nevada starting in 2005. Big time. Those words couldn’t describe Abel himself any better. After eight years in the college coaching ranks and time coaching the youth women’s national teams, Abel joined the Senior Women’s National Team staff in February 2015 as an assistant/goalkeeper coach – a position he held for five years, which saw the team win back-to-back World Cup titles. All the time, effort, and preparation he poured into his coaching on the national level led him back to the college game as he was named head coach at the University of Oregon in December 2019. Backline Soccer caught up with Abel after a practice late last week to learn about his transition from the USWNT to Oregon and how he's leading his team through this unprecedented time with COVID-19. “While I was with the National Team, I learned a lot from (former performance coach) Dawn Scott about the physical developments for the athletes and we’ve implemented a lot of those pieces here at Oregon,” he said. “We’ve put together the entire performance side - not just the traditional strength and conditioning side but that entire piece - with our athletes.”
Photo credit: Reilly Wadsworth
Having been away from the college game for five years, Abel is excited to be back. During his time with the USWNT, Abel worked alongside University of Virginia head coach Steve Swanson. Abel said he had many conversations with Swanson and he did a lot of reflecting on what it would look like if he were to go back to the college game. He reflected on things such as his previous college coaching stops at Nevada, Washington State and Oklahoma, and what changes he’d make now based on the new knowledge he gained. In the end, the Oregon job was too good to pass up. “When I came on my interview, the more people I talked to about the Oregon job, [the more] taking this job was a no-brainer and too good an opportunity to turn down,” Able said. “I had a brand-new contract with the USWNT team to stay through the next World Cup and, to be honest, this Oregon job took precedence over that contract.”
In order to guide his team’s success as he begins his tenure with the Ducks, Abel is planning to use the one thing that was his biggest learning curve when he joined the National Team: the level of preparation. While a member of Jill Ellis’ staff, Abel only had four months with the team before the 2015 World Cup in Canada - but it was being part of the staff over the next four years as the team prepared for the 2019 World Cup in France where he really saw the preparation and how every little piece came together to help the team win the World Cup title in 2019. Take, for example, one of the USWNT's biggest successes in France – Alyssa Naeher’s penalty kick stop against England. What fans saw was a huge stop and one that would help propel the USWNT into the World Cup Final en route to their fourth World Champion title.
However, what Abel saw was four years of preparation coming into play for that stop. “We had a database that is just incredible - looking at things like body language, player run-ups, their upper body, their lower body, and the direction where they go,” Abel said. “If you look back at the penalty and if you watch it in slow motion, watch Alyssa’s poise with everything and you can start to figure out why she made that save. It’s incredible.” In the five years since Abel has been in the college coaching ranks, he said the quality of the players has improved. And, knowing there is a legitimate professional league in the United States, many more of the players have ambitions to play professionally. While the Ducks soccer team has never made an NCAA Tournament appearance as part of the competitive PAC-12, Abel is pleased with what he’s been able to see from his team so far. He, in turn, is happy to be back in the college ranks. “We have an incredible brand and an incredible reputation at the University of Oregon, and our program is raising our standards quickly to a place they’ve never been before,” he said. “We have talented players here – I tell them that all the time – it’s just getting us to where we need to be and we will see the success come. It’s not a matter of if, it’s when. And I genuinely believe that.” While the PAC-12 announced there will be no sports for their conference in 2020, Abel and his team are currently in the middle of a five-week training block before school starts at the end of September. Abel said he and his team were disappointed by the news of no fall season, but he praised his administration for prioritizing the health and safety of the student-athletes, as well as keeping the athletics department updated every step of the way. “It was absolutely the right thing to do and we can’t risk the safety for our student-athletes,” he said. Given the circumstances around COVID-19, Abel and his staff are doing what they can to keep his players engaged. They're working with the mindset that while there may not be a season now, there will be at some point, and his team will be ready. From doing ice baths in the river by campus to keeping it light-hearted at practice by playing music, the Ducks are preparing for when the call is made for a season.
“While we are trying to make things more relaxed, we are still maintaining a certain quality because if we let our quality diminish and we let our quality dip, there is really no point in being here,” Abel said. “You still have to maintain the quality and integrity of what we do.”
When there is a season, Abel and his team will be ready. The biggest reason for that readiness will be the lesson he learned on the National Team staff: it's all about the level of preparation. “The teams that can prepare best, prioritize what they need to do, and do it efficiently will be the ones that long-term have success.”
And that’s big time.