When Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie reported for their first senior US Men's National Team call-up this month, they saw a familiar face (and likely heard a very, very familiar voice).
BJ Callaghan has joined Gregg Berhalter's coaching staff, and the Union organization will miss the long-time assistant coach, even as it watches his ascent to US Soccer with pride.
"All of us at the Philadelphia Union would like to wish B.J. Callaghan the best of luck as he makes the leap to the United States Men’s National Team," Tanner said when he heard the news. "It is a tremendous honor to represent your country as a coach and B.J. is certainly deserving of this opportunity. We’d like to thank B.J. for his service to the Union and we know he will do an excellent job for the USMNT.”
For Callaghan, this move was about continuing to grow as a coach and finding ways to use what he has learned in Philly to advance the American game.
"I think in a bigger picture sense, I'm someone that searches, looks for challenges, and there's no bigger challenge in this country right now than to make US Soccer relevant again to the masses," Callaghan said recently.
Working to, as Callaghan calls it, "restart the engines," of US Soccer is a huge responsibility, and it would be easy to feel unprepared to shoulder such a burden. Reflecting back on a run with the Union that has taken him to cup finals; through grueling seasons that have ended with and without a postseason; and, recently, seen the professional emergence of players Callaghan once coached in Union juniors, the Ursinus graduate comes to the conclusion that, in the end, nobody can be fully prepared for what is asked of a soccer coach.
But -- and this is a key lesson Callaghan took away from his Pro License course, the highest North American coaching accreditation -- it is possible to better envision the future that you, as a coach, want to create. And that allows for improved preparation. "The year that I spent on the Pro License was a year you can spend honestly looking at yourself. And I'd say that's still in process," Callaghan said. "But now I'm even more comfortable with how I train the game and have a clearer idea of what things should look like at the endpoint, which allows you to work backwards from that."
The Pro License, the extensive work on set pieces, the experiences on a Major League Soccer bench, the chance to develop players from Union Juniors and see them sign professional contracts -- all of that wouldn't be possible without Callaghan's time with the Union. Although he has always worked in the Philadelphia region, since 2012 that work has been as part of the Union organization, and a key member of the first team setup since June of 2014.
During those years, the club has gone through many changes, but from the academy up to the first team technical staff the way players and coaches have been treated has remained remarkably consistent. "You know how the club takes risks on young players, that's what the philosophy is? They also take risks on young coaches," Callaghan explained. "For me, it starts to when you draw the connection back to Iain Munro, he would take risks on guys. If he thought you had potential as a coach, he took a risk on you. Like Brendan Burke, who worked his way up to a first team assistant, or Jim [Curtin] who came back as a professional coach, or me that came from college -- we all came from different paths -- the environment created for us allowed you to develop as a coach.
"And it allowed you to understand that the club had belief in you as a core value," he continued. "Richie Graham, Iain Munro, Tommy Wilson -- you went to work everyday understanding that people believed in you. And that was only magnified when Jim called me up to the first team."
It is no coincidence that journey from young coach to a member of the first team and, now, to part of the US Men's National Team setup mirrors the one the Union is trying to build for its academy players. McKenzie and Trusty are now training in California with the USMNT ahead of a pair of friendlies after developing from young, ambitious academy players into national team-level defenders.
"So then you say, 'This pathway really works!'" Callaghan said. "And I talk about my pathway, but it's the player pathway too. You look at all of those academy kids sitting down there, and it's not that they don't believe that the pathway is there, but until someone does it, and you see commitment to it? Now there's full belief."
That belief that Munro and others had in Callaghan isn't simply something that gave him the confidence to move forward in his own career, though. Understanding that those around you trust and believe in you as a coach allows, in turn, a coach to trust and believe in their players. And the manifestation of that trust and belief is an increased tolerance for risk. "When you feel belief from your people," Callaghan argues, "Then you start to believe in the players, and you're more secure to take risks on the players. And that's when you see a great team locker room."
For fans that rarely get a glimpse inside professional sports locker rooms, let's be clear: It's not always pretty. There can be egos, disagreements, cliques, and a distinct absence of personal space. Philadelphia Union's locker room -- and I can only speak from a half-season of personal experience, but it's a sentiment echoed by many in the organization -- is a positive one. The veteran players support the young ones (at times in their own, unique ways, but still), and the respect amongst players and coaches allows the team to remain focused on bigger goals after both tough losses and emotional wins. Callaghan believes that strong culture has a source: Jim Curtin.
"The environment that he can control, he does an unbelievable job of controlling it," Callaghan said. "The players understand that he genuinely cares about them, and that gives them confidence to go out on the field and perform.
"The same thing goes for myself and the staff -- we know that he genuinely cares about us. And that care gives us confidence to go and perform our jobs, and be free doing it. So if there is a time to disagree, it's easy to disagree with him. It's not like we fight, but it's easy to disagree because we understand that, because we built these strong relationships, it's not going to be personal. 'Jim, this is what I believe and, no matter what, make a decision and we're all going to execute it.'"
An ironic consequence of Curtin's strengths as a coach, then, is that they can make what many on the inside find extraordinary look rather ordinary to the external observer."There's a lot of people in the organization that took a risk on me, and for that I'm appreciative, with Jim being one of the main people," Callaghan emphasized. "At the core of the club there are good people that really support and work and believe in each other. When you feel belief from your people, then you start to believe in the players, and you're more secure to take risks on the players. And that's when you see a great team locker room."
Even on the outside, though, if you know what to look for Callaghan believes you can see the club's development under Curtin."I live in the Union world and then I've been going to this license course, and I get there for my final and literally everyone is like: What a season you guys had! We love what you guys did, we loved watching you. And this is across the board - USL guys, the Galaxy staff because Oka would make them watch games -- because of the time difference, they have a late kickoff and they're sitting in the office going, 'What do you want to watch?' 'Put the Union on, they're fun.'"
That kind of affirmation implies the Union are moving in the right direction, and the recognition from Gregg Berhalter and US Soccer that comes with selecting Callaghan as an assistant coach is further proof that the larger soccer world is impressed by what Philly is doing with a mixture of veteran leadership and youthful ambition.
Now, as Callaghan moves on to try and help US Soccer return to the World Cup, the Union will move on to the 2019 MLS regular season, where they will look to turn a steady course of development into the postseason success everybody at the club works for and craves.