With #PghSoccer Stories series, Pittsburgh Soccer Report aims to share stories of the people and all things relating to soccer in our region.
What better way to kick off this feature then to share the journey of a coach who’s been an instrumental part of both Pittsburgh’s and the United States soccer landscape for more than 40 years.
John Kowalski was recently honored with the Walt Chyzowych Lifetime Achievement Award at the United Soccer Coaches Convention in January and here’s a deeper look at a coaching legend who’s made his mark on so many levels.
To describe John Kowalski’s soccer coaching career’s as illustrious might be an understatement.
One of the most successful and accomplished coaches in U.S. Soccer history and a true pioneer who has helped grow the game in the Pittsburgh region and nationally, Kowalski was presented with the Walt Chyzowych Lifetime Achievement Award at a special ceremony on January 20 in Philadelphia during the United Soccer Coaches Convention.
This award is given by the United Soccer Coaches Association of America — and each year it honors a coach with “a lifetime of dedication to preserving the spirit of the game of soccer, advancing its level of play and promoting its growth among youth and adults nationwide.”
For Kowalski, receiving this honor was a culmination of a lifetime of dedication to the game.
“To tell you the truth, I was taken back a little bit at first when I heard they wanted to honor me,” Kowalski said. “There’s some remarkable people of that list of those who’ve received the award. A lot of other people went in before me that were real special to the game in the U.S. It was a great honor to be in the company of many achievers. It was a great honor.”
And, true to form, even after 40 years on the scene, Kowalski remains omnipresent in the Pittsburgh soccer community, recently coming to Highmark Stadium for the Riverhounds’ event that unveiled the Hounds new crest along with other announcements.
At one point in the evening, after the official festivities were completed, Kowalski was found in the crowd mingling among a host of Pittsburgh soccer royalty including a couple of fellas he coached at one time: Paul Child and Dave Mackenzie along with the Hounds new coach Bob Lilley.
It seemed only fitting that the first coach in Riverhounds history, Kowalski was with the newest, Lilley, on a night when the club was celebrating its past and present.
Kowalski has seen it all — and has his share of stories to tell about his soccer journey that has taken him from Poland to Pittsburgh.
FROM POLAND TO PITTSBURGH
Kowalski is always quick to point out that he is very proud of his Polish heritage, as he grew up in Eastern Europe under the cloud of an Iron Curtain — where he fell in love with the world’s game and lived the first 14 years of his life during the communist rule in the 1950s and 1960s. He came to the United States with his family from Poland in 1965, and used soccer as his platform to live out his version of the American dream.
Kowalski was named to the all-city team while attending Francis Lewis High School in New York City, and played for the German Hungarians in the German-American League at New York’s Metropolitan Oval. He went on to the University of New Haven where he played four years under Coach Joe Machnik, a relationship that would continue long into his coaching career.
Upon graduation, he became Machnik’s assistant at New Haven and helped the Chargers to five NCAA tournament appearances, including the 1976 and 1977 NCAA finals. From 1973-1978 he was a player-coach for the New Britain Falcons of the Connecticut State League, winning the state championship or state cup every year.
Early in his career Kowalski moved into professional soccer as a player/assistant coach with the Cincinnati Kids (1978-1979).
Then he moved to the place he would call home for the rest of his life — Pittsburgh — as Kowalski became an assistant with the Pittsburgh Spirit from 1979-80.
In 1980-81, at the age of 28, he was named head coach of the MISL’s Hartford Hellions.
But that stint in Connecticut was short-lived. By the Fall of 1981, Kowalski returned to become head coach of the Pittsburgh Spirit (at the time owned by Edward DeBartolo, who also owned the Pittsburgh Penguins).
“Once I moved to Pittsburgh, I only went away twice — to Hartford (in MISL in 1980), then when I went to coach Tampa Bay Mutiny in MLS (in 1997). But we kept our place here, and I still came back,” Kowalski said.
And when asked why has he remained in Pittsburgh for all these years, he smiles and provides a simple explanation.
“Really, Pittsburgh is a terrific town to live in.”
Kowalski remained with the Spirit five years through the 1985 season, establishing a 106-82 win-loss record — during a time when the Spirit brought an unprecedented, albeit short-lived wave of soccer popularity in Pittsburgh.
It’s safe to say, Kowalski has found his home in Pittsburgh.
REMEMBERING STAN THE MAN
It was Kowalski who was primarily responsible for recruiting fellow Pole, Stan Terlecki, to come play for the Spirit. Terlecki would became one of the most dynamic scorers in MISL history and a Pittsburgh sports icon of the 1980s.
Recently, Terlecki, who remained close friends with Kowalski through the years, passed away at the age of 62 in Poland in late December.
“Stan was a phenomenal player in Poland at that time,” Kowalski recalled. “He was a little bit of a rebel. He believed in freedom — and was very involved in the solidarity movement. He was very religious person — and he knew the Pope (John Paul II). He even made arrangements with the DeBartolo family to meet with the Pope. Stan was a terrific player, and little bit of a problem with Stan still lived in era when he was a great player, and never really made the transition, and was dealing with some issues after that.”
A SOCCER FIXTURE IN THE BURGH
After the Spirit disbanded, Kowalski would be involved in the game on a number of different levels, as his indoor accomplishments would just be the tip of the iceberg, and be the springboard for coaching opportunities both Nationally and locally.
Here in Pittsburgh, Kowalski became a fixture at Robert Morris.
First, he took the men’s program to new heights during an impressive run from 1989-96, helping the Colonials become the first squad other than men’s basketball to qualify for the NCAA Tournament in 1993 and 1994.
He would be twice named men’s NEC Coach of the Year. During his tenure, Robert Morris ranked as high as No. 16 nationally in 1995, won four NEC regular-season championships (1992, 1994, 1995, 1996), and two NEC tournament titles in 1993 and 1994.
Today, Kowalski continues to coach in various posts in our region, as he’s been the coach of the women’s team at Robert Morris since 2002.
Though he has spent a lot of time coaching on the men’s side, Kowalski has enjoyed being a part of the rise of the women’s game, especially in the Pittsburgh area.
“It’s going in right direction, and level of play has improved immensely as a result of terrific coaching and some facilities that have come up provided places to practice and to play,” Kowalski said.
At Robert Morris, he’s seen more and more of his recruiting base of the top local players being snatched away by schools all-around the country, which he attributes to high level of female players coming from Western PA.
When asked about the biggest challenge coaching at RMU, where his team’s have struggled a bit more in recent years, he provided one simple explanation.
“Recruiting,” Kowalski replied. “People still say Robert Morris who? Our facilities are still going through some upgrades. We were a little bit not up to date with facilities — and everyone thinks of Robert Morris as a business school, but now more women are getting more into majors like accounting and engineering and that’s helping with recruiting better players.”
Kowalski with the Fort Pitt Regiment in 2017 (photo – NPSL/Fort Pitt Regiment)
Kowalski also coaches the Fort Pitt FC Regiment of the NPSL, a club that was founded by PA West Soccer Association as a developmental team for many young college and recent college players who have aspirations to continue to play at highest levels possible.
“When we started discussing the idea of joining the NPSL John Kowalski was the only coach we considered,” Fort Pitt Regiment Operations Manager Tim McCoy said recently in an NPSL article. “He brings instant credibility because of his accomplishments and knowledge and we knew he would have an interest in helping each player on the team.”
Kowalski hasn’t lost the passion for coaching — by a long stretch.
“I am enjoying where I am now — not only coaching Robert Morris women, but helping with the development of young players with the Regiment,” Kowalski told me last summer.
“The PA West (Soccer Association) wanted to sponsor a team as there were a lack of opportunities for players after the age of 19 in our region. With the Regiment, players are provided a chance to play in meaningful games against some very good competition.”
INSTRUMENTAL PART OF U.S. SOCCER’S GROWTH
While Kowalski was coaching the men’s program at Robert Morris, he also started to have an impact and take on numerous roles within the United States Soccer Federation during the beginnings of unprecedented growth of the sport in this country.
Carrying a pedigree of success in coaching the indoor game after an impressive run with the Spirit, U.S. Soccer tabbed Kowalski’s leadership of U.S. National futsal teams in the 1989 and 1992.
His accomplishments at FIFA’s first ever Futsal World Championships remain unmatched, as they would be the highest of any U.S. Men’s National teams have ever finished in a FIFA competition.
In 1989, Kowalski took the U.S. team to the FIFA Five-a-Side event in the Netherlands, utilizing a mix of young, up-and-coming U.S. players along with a handful of veterans.
Three years later, Kowalski led the USA to its highest-ever FIFA finish, a second place in the 1992 world championships, losing 4-1 to Brazil in the final.
Still, these were times when U.S. Soccer Federation was operating with a very limited resources, and after a trip to Brazil, Kowalski explained how lean things really were.
“At that time, we had one set of uniforms. We went to away game in Brazil. Two players traded jerseys, and I came back and the Federation gave me a lot of stink that I had no control over the players,” Kowalski said. “And the next team that needs to go, which was a women’s team, we were exchanging one set of uniforms for the men, the women, the youth. Players were getting paid five, ten dollars per diem. As coaches we were getting paid $110 per day that we were working.”
After two top-three finishes in back-to-back indoor world championships, Kowalski was named an international FIFA futsal instructor, part of a select group of coaches at the time who were regarded as the highest-level coaches of the indoor game.
Kowalski’s 1989 team was the first-ever U.S. team to win a FIFA medal. And the 1992 team, which competed in Hong Kong, is the only U.S. Men’s team ever to compete in the final game of a world championship event.
He is also the only U.S. coach to lead U.S. teams to CONCACAF championships in both indoor (1996) and outdoor soccer, assisting U.S. National Team Coach Bora Milutinovic when the USA won the 1991 Gold Cup.
“It was very special to be a part of that first Gold Cup winning team, and to be an assistant with Bora,” Kowalski said. “Especially because that was the first one.”
Much like the current state of U.S. Soccer, with Dave Sarachan currently holding the interim post of U.S. Men’s National Team, prior to Milutinovic taking over as head coach, Kowalski was the interim coach of the USMNT in 1990-91, leading the USA to victories over Olimpia of Paraguay (1990 champions of South America and world club champions), Canada and a draw with Mexico.
In 1993-94, Kowalski was head coach of the U.S. U-20 MNT, which included many players who would later star for the USA or go into the professional game, including Clint Mathis, John O’Brien and Jovan Kirovski as well as Chris Klein and Jay Heaps.
Fast forward to the present, and Kowalski is on board with where things are heading for U.S. soccer.
“We’re making tremendous progress in soccer despite what some people may not give a lot of credit,” Kowalski explained. “The growth is tremendous. To take a look at where the Federation was, where the Federation is, how many millions of additional kids and people are playing and it’s really in the mainstream now.”
While Kowalski was a trailblazer coaching in a different era, he has a great appreciation for the U.S. Soccer Federation’s immense growth
“Now, uniforms are no problem and coaches and players are getting livable salaries — and in some cases into millions of dollars,” Kowalski said. “It’s nice to know I have had a hand in the building stages, and changes that took place from the 1970s, 80s and 90s, were incredible. The facilities, the soccer fields, thousands more kids are playing, more referees, it’s on television — it’s become a mainstream sport. And we still have ways to go.”
EARLY DAYS OF MLS, RIVERHOUNDS
In the early days of Major League Soccer, Kowalski took the helm of the Tampa Bay Mutiny in 1997-98 and guided one of the original 10 Major League Soccer franchises to the playoffs, with a second place finish in the East.
That team included the dynamic Columbian midfielder, Carlos Valderrama, who was a key playmaker for Tampa Bay.
In the offseason, in a bit of a controversial move, MLS allocated Valderrama to Miami Fusion. Without its star player, the Mutiny struggled in 1998 and Kowalski was sacked after 15 games, as the Mutiny began with a 3-12 record.
Sure enough, timing worked out that there was an outdoor pro men’s soccer team finally coming to Pittsburgh, and it became a clear cut choice for Kowalski to be the first manager of the newly created Pittsburgh Riverhounds in 1999.
In just two years, while playing at Bethel Park High School, Kowalski led the Hounds to the playoffs.
“That’s among my most cherished accomplishments,” Kowalski said. “We put together a very good team, we were playing before crowds of 4,500, sometimes more than 5,000 fans at Bethel Park. It was a great experience.”
Kowalski has received numerous other honors along the way.
In addition to receiving this latest honor by the U.S. Soccer Coaches, Kowalski’s also been inducted to the Western Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, the University of New Haven Sports Hall of Fame, the Robert Morris University Sports Hall of Fame, the Connecticut State Soccer Hall of Fame and New England Soccer Hall of Fame.
There’s no doubt, even with his many accomplishments in Kowalski’s soccer journey and impact that he’s had in coaching hundreds of players at all levels, he won’t be slowing down anytime soon as there are more players to coach.
“This is what I love to do, and I will keep doing it. I cherish it all.”