August 27, 2018

Leonard Griffin, a former US youth national team member, Major League Soccer player, and 2002 NCAA Division 1 national champion at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), is the first assistant at the University of Portland. With an array of experience as a player and having spent 2014-2015 learning from one of the best head coaches in the NCAA, Jorge Salcedo, Griffin was brought on by UP’s head coach Nick-Carlin Voight in 2016 to help build the program. Similar to his role at UCLA under Salcedo, Griffin is responsible for various aspects of the soccer program including recruiting, the development of players, practice and game-day preparation, camp development, scouting, video breakdown, team academics and day-to-day field training. We had the pleasure to sit-down with Griffin to learn more about his experiences and successes as a player and how it has translated to his role at UP. You were a US Men’s national team player at the U-17 – U-20 levels. With the senior team missing the last World Cup, what do you think are some changes the program will need to make to prepare for 2022 and hosting in 2026?

It was and still is extremely sad and disappointing to not see the U.S. in this past summer’s World Cup. This question is a much larger topic than I have space or time to answer but I think the U.S. has taken great strides in player development. However, I think we are still in search of our identity. The best the U.S. has done in a World Cup was in 2002 when they made it to the quarter-finals. What made that group so successful and why haven’t we been able to match that run when many feel we have so much more talent today? Player development always must continue to improve. At the grassroots level we must continue to make the game enjoyable so that kids want to keep playing soccer as they get older. The infrastructure of U.S. soccer needs to continue with the hiring of a new coach so that a clear plan/pathway to 2022 can be laid out. Then there are the topics of pay to play, where does college soccer fit in, and many other sub topics that can be analyzed as well.  

blacksoccercoaches.orgYou were also an All-American prior to being recruited to UCLA, what advice would you give youth players who aspire to play at the collegiate level?

First, I would say that your academics have to be a priority. I had to study just as hard as I trained in order to be able to play at UCLA. Next, I would say to enjoy the process. A lot of players spend far too much time focusing on their long term goal, whether that be playing college or professionally. For me, I never really thought much about college or being a professional until very late into my high school years. I just enjoyed touching a ball any time I could. Two or three nights of training a week was never enough for me. If I couldn’t get my brothers and sister to come play outside with me, I’d call my friends to play. If that didn’t work, I’d find a park and a pick up game, and when all else failed I could still find joy with just me and the ball.

blacksoccercoaches.orgYou were an integral part in helping UCLA win the national championship in 2002, can you tell us a little bit more about your experience on the team from 2000-2003, and how it felt to be a national champion?

Winning the 2002 National Championship was one of the biggest (if not the biggest) accomplishments in my career. That was the best team, in the true meaning of the word, that I’d ever played on. In 2000, I came to UCLA who just came off a final four year and lost the likes of Carlos Bocanegra, Nick Rimando, Pete Vagenes and Sasha Victorine. There were 11 of us in that freshman class who were all just so proud to be a part of something that we knew was much bigger than ourselves as individuals. After our first two years we underachieved at UCLA and went threw a coaching change. Going into our junior year our team was much more seasoned. We knew how to deal with adversity and we rallied around each other in 2002 to create a life long memory. We weren’t the most talented team but on and off the field we did all the little things right and we competed extremely hard every day. It felt great being a champion and in part it’s chasing that feeling that keeps me motivated as a coach today. UCLA Head Coach Jorge Salcedo has been a staple at the university for a very long time and you were his assistant for a few years following a stint an assistant role at St. Mary’s University and the University of California, what did you learn from your time at UCLA and how has it transitioned to coaching at Portland?

I’ve known Jorge for a long time. He was my assistant coach at UCLA and helped us win the 2002 national championship. He’s always been such a student of the game and his passion for the game comes out in his coaching. His style of play, tactical awareness and man management skills are probably my two biggest takeaways from studying under Jorge at UCLA. In transitioning to Portland with former UCLA Associate Head Coach Nick Carlin-Voigt, we had a clear idea of how we wanted the game to be played. We’ve introduced a similar attractive, ball possession attacking style of play that proved successful at UCLA. UCLA has always prided itself in recruiting top level talent and this is something that we feel we can continue to do at the University of Portland as well. The University of Portland has a rich soccer history producing some of US Soccer’s most successful players. Soccer is the biggest sport not just on our campus but in the entire city and our home field (Merlo Stadium) is one of the best fields and atmospheres in all of college soccer. This upcoming season will be your 3rd year as an assistant at the University of Portland, can you tell us a bit more about the program and how you and head coach Carlin-Voight plan to continue to develop it?

I think we have to continue to recruit top level talent that fit our culture, style of play and institutions values. As coaches we always have to guard against complacency, so we have to constantly re-evaluate ourselves and try to improve as coaches every day so that we can continue to do the same for our players.

blacksoccercoaches.orgWhen recruiting, what do you look for in student-athletes who want to attend UP?

The first thing that we have to look at as college coaches is a potential student athletes grades/test scores. We have to be able to know if we can get them into our institutions. Character is also of high importance when recruiting. We have to have players that fit what we want our student-athletes to look and behave both on and off the field. Then of course there is the soccer side. We have to look for players that fit specific positional needs, are technical and can handle the physical component of college soccer.

blacksoccercoaches.orgWhat are your future plans as a coach?

My plan as a coach is to continue to help develop players both on and off the field so that they maximize their full potential. Soccer is a game that teaches many life skills. As a coach, especially at the college level, I get to be part of the “village” that shapes the lives of young people. This is what truly inspires, fulfills and motivates me to coach and improve everyday…And along the way the plan is to win a lot too, that’s always fun! haha.

Click here to follow the University of Portland this season as they play their 3rd game of the season at the Nike Invitational against UC Santa Barbara on August 31st.

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