Coach, confidante, tactician, event planner, kit man, substitute midfielder, interior decorator. Being the assistant coach for a USL team requires the mastery of a lot of skills. Like, a lot.
Dan Visser is really not one to boast or take credit. Which is good. Because in his role as the assistant coach of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, he’s just as likely to be scouting a top prospect or critiquing the movement in a seven-a-side drill in the run-up to match day as he is to lug furniture from a U-Haul into the player apartments or sit on hold with a kit supplier trying to get new training tops. There’s a never-ending list of details and arrangements to be made when you’re the number two guy at a USL Championship team.
A key component of being a successful assistant coach is the ability to fulfill the vision of someone else entirely – to be knowledgable enough to help steer the club in the right direction, but humble enough to let everybody else take the credit. And in all these respects, Dan Visser excels. He knows Bob Lilley; he knows his players; and he’s far more interested in wins and losses than getting acclaim. He is a man that coaches for the badge, if you will.
And aside from team owner Tuffy Shallenberger, he’s been wearing the club badge for longer than almost anyone else at the Riverhounds – five years and counting.
It’s hard to say if anyone has a so-called ‘normal’ path to an assistant coaching position in the USL – the league’s uncertainty and second-tier status automatically makes it so that all those employed there are oddballs to a degree. But Visser’s path to his job with the Riverhounds is still unique, nonetheless.
Visser was born and raised in the Philadelphia suburbs, but his first real exposure to soccer came when his family spent three years in France. From the age of five to seven, Visser found himself in Chambéry, a small city at the foot of the Alps, where of course the sport of choice was football. He kept up his involvement in soccer all the way through high school and then made his way into Division III college soccer at Messiah College, a small Christian school in Mechanicsburg, PA. In his four years there, Messiah won three Division III National Championships – but Visser makes a point to note “we lost in the semi-finals in my last season,” denoting the kind of drive that is the hallmark of all committed competitors – that sense that even exceptional success can always be improved upon. Visser describes the environment at Messiah as something really unique and special – an environment of teamwork and a culture of success that had been carefully built and cultivated by Messiah head coach Dave Brandt.
Visser tried out with former USL club Harrisburg City Islanders in 2008, hoping to prolong his pro career, but tore his ACL in pre-season. He gave it another go at City Islander tryouts in 2009, but with no luck. Visser laments, “Yeah. Soccer was kinda done for me at that point.” Dan had recently taken a desk job in finance at a Philadelphia investment firm, and it looked like the future was going to be pretty straightforward and lucrative for the mathematics and economics double-major – button-down shirts and Windsor knot ties; crunching numbers on spreadsheets; moving big piles of money from bonds to futures to mutual funds and back again for big corporate clients; golfing on the weekends. “I still think, in an alternate universe, I could have enjoyed doing some numbers-driven things” like high-finance. “But my job was just punching in numbers and trying not to make mistakes.” Dan doesn’t say it exactly this way, but he’s pretty clear what he means: he was dissatisfied with where he was at in life.
So Dan got the first license available to US soccer coaches, his USSF D-license, and started coaching for Total Soccer Academy, and Lionville U9 girls, and the JV team at his high school – anything to get his foot in the door of coaching. “I’d go to work, 40 hours a week, and feel completely drained. But then I’d feel totally reenergized by running around with the kids in the evenings. So, I decided to make a go it.” And by ‘go of it’, he means he chucked his safe, secure, well-compensated job in finance to be an assistant coach at Eastern University and shortly thereafter, head coach of Eastern Nazarene University.
During the few years at those tiny schools, Visser kept angling for a different job with his former coach at Messiah, Dave Brandt. In 2015, Brandt was serving as the head coach of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and had an opening on his staff and hired Dan to be an assistant. Working alongside Brandt was a dream come true for Visser. “He’s been a very big influence in my life. Trying to re-create in different ways what I experienced at Messiah elsewhere has been a big driving force for me in coaching. And so anytime he had an opening for an assistant, I would reach out to him. I would work (soccer) camps at the Naval Academy just to stay relevant to him.” It was Brandt that created the culture of success at Messiah – and Visser wanted to learn alongside his mentor and discover what was in the secret sauce that made for a great coach.
Brandt hired Visser in what would turn out to be his final year at Navy. In Pittsburgh that season, Hounds head coach Mark Steffens, started the 2016 season with a 1-4-3 record, off the heels of a solid-but-unspectacular first year in 2015 with a 11-9-8 (WLT) record and first round playoff loss to NYRB II. When Brandt was offered the gig in Pittsburgh, debuting in May of 2016, he brought Visser with him.
Brandt and Visser had some very clear ideas of how to build a culture and how to craft a team – but there were certainly some adjustments that needed to be made in jumping from college to the pros. “The process of how we built the team – that process had a much steeper learning curve than we anticipated. Dave was really good at that in a college environment, but it’s just very different in a pro environment.” Brandt’s Riverhounds finished 5-13-4 (WLT) in 2016; 27th out of 29 teams. In 2017, they improved modestly to 8-12-12.
He was all set to return for 2018 when the US Soccer Federation informed the Riverhounds that as a result of USL’s move to becoming the Division II league in the United States, all coaches would need to possess a USSF A-license. Brandt was forced to quit, and Hounds owner Tuffy Shallenberger brought the head coach of the recently-folded Rochester Rhinos, Bob Lilley, to Pittsburgh.
It’s a topic I skip gingerly over, since it can’t be a particularly fond memory for Visser. Brandt was the man who helped make him into a professional coach, and yet he was jettisoned not because of his coaching record, but because the bureaucratic ground underneath him had shifted. Visser had already made the leap from part-time youth coach to small-college coach; small-school coach to big-time D1 NCAA coach; and then the jump to coaching professionals. In just an eight year career, he’d packed the moving van enough times that he was as familiar with a tape gun as he was with a clipboard.
The Riverhounds kept Visser on as the link of continuity from the old Hounds team to the new one. The new coach, Bob Lilley, brought his assistant coach at Rochester, Mark Pulisic, with him. Visser had had two bumpy, losing seasons as an assistant coach. Lilley, with Pulisic at his side, had won the USL trophy in 2015 with Rochester, and in a managerial career spanning two decades and three leagues had never once posted a losing season. One can only imagine the first few weeks being ‘an adjustment’ on all sides.
Bob Lilley received Dan Visser in much the same way he takes on most new players. On a trial.
Lilley told me, “Dave (Brandt) had called me and said ‘he’s a good young coach.’ And I trusted Dave’s thoughts on it. So I said look, lets get you involved. You know the roster, you can help me get acclimated. It was almost like it was a trial for a couple months.”
But with Lilley already bringing Mark Pulisic aboard as well as Goalkeeping Coach Hunter Gilstrap, he had to check with team owner Tuffy Shallenberger to see if the budget could handle it. Lilley said, “Tuffy went the extra mile to put an extra guy on the coaching staff.”
Lilley saw Visser as someone who was smart, motived, and could grow into a larger role as a coach. “The first year, a lot of things went through Mark as the first assistant, but Dan was good at filling in the gaps and stepping up and seeing what needs to be done.” And when Pulisic decided at the end of 2018 to step away from coaching in order to spend more time in Germany, and then England, with his footballer son Christian, Visser was ready to step up his role with the team.
Being Bob Lilley’s assistant means a lot of things. For one, Dan was responsible for putting together the Riverhounds combine, which is typically held every December, bringing in NCAA players who have been scouted in the previous year and might have what it takes to turn pro at the USL Championship level. That includes identifying talented players that are below the MLS radar, and reaching out and recruiting them to give the Hounds a try. Identifying and recruiting are clearly talents that Visser has cultivated from his time as a college coach and assistant. One such player that Visser recruited was Anthony Velarde.
Visser said “I reached out to a coach in every conference and just asked them ‘hey, who’s good in your conference?’ I started a relationship with his coach at Fresno Pacific, Jaime Ramirez. And we ask him, hey would Anthony like to come out to a combine? He comes out, he plays really really well, and he’s a kind of player, a number 10, that we didn’t really have in 2018.”
Visser also goes through emails and phone calls from agents representing players from across the globe, trying to find a home for their players at the Hounds. And once they arrive in Pittsburgh, Visser handles and organizes all the interactions with the players and training details. He told me “Guys come to us and tell us that it’s really well organized; a really good experience.” Players want to play for Bob Lilley because he wins; players want to play for the Hounds because the organization is top-notch. Lilley takes on a lot of the work of sifting and sorting, but when players arrive for combines of trials, a lot of the logistics are, quietly, Visser’s responsibility. And he knows that if a guy has a good experience, and he’s a good player, that will go a long way in locking him down with the Hounds.
Once the team signs a player, there’s the matter of housing all the guys – the Riverhounds maintain a bunch of apartments clustered together for all their players. And, of course, they’re responsible for furnishing those apartments. And by ‘they’, I mean ‘Dan Visser.’ “I’m there getting keys, I’m there moving things, I’m even wondering ‘does this chair match that …?” Visser trails off and starts to laugh. Even he recognizes that serving as ‘tactician/organizer/kit man/landlord/interior decorator’ is pretty absurd. All in a day’s work for the Riverhounds assistant coach.
(To be fair, Visser adds “Bob was carrying furniture on Monday.”)
When the team is assembled for the year, Visser’s role is to serve as Lilley’s sounding board and eyes on the ground, both at training and in games. Dan and Bob have developed a strong complementary relationship over time that seems to work.
“We’ve built up enough trust over the last three years. I know what his expectations are and the way he would prefer to do things. We’re pretty much on the same page,” Visser says.
Hounds fullback Dani Rovira sees the integral role Visser plays too. Rovira said, “(Coach Visser’s) role is an important one because he sees the extra things that Bob doesn’t. He’s the one that comes and says ‘I think you could have done this and this.’ He tells us the little things that we don’t see or that players won’t tell each other.”
Coach Visser also serves as a critical – and discrete – link between Lilley and the locker room. He’s somewhere in-between confidante, therapist, and advisor – particularly for players who may want to bring a particular issue up to Lilley, but aren’t sure if that would be the right approach. Visser explains, “If there is a division between players and management, I’m management. But sometimes I can provide a bit of a different voice to the guys. I always make sure that I am completely onboard and consistent with Bob’s message. But sometimes I can say things a little differently. But sometimes I can give a little advice (to the players) about how to approach Bob. And I can say ‘Just go to Bob directly’ or ‘Don’t even bother, that’s gonna be a no.'”
There’s also Visser serving in the role as ‘Bob Lilley Succinctness Translator’. Anyone who’s been around Bob Lilley knows that he often has a lot to say. But sometimes in a wealth of words, the message can get muddled. That’s another role Visser can play: he’s the TL;DR version of Bob.
Or, the way Rovira puts it “Sometimes with him it’s a quicker conversation than talking with Bob.”
In terms of tactics, Visser and Lilley have a give-and-take relationship. Lilley is the grand visionary, but sometimes he wants to double-check the vision and the lineup with Visser and make sure it makes sense. Visser says, “In terms of tactics, it’s almost like I’m in a devils advocate role. (Bob) always feels like he wants to convince me that his plan is right.” On game day and in training, Visser is another set of eyes, checking to see things things that one human might miss when watching eleven players spread across the 1.76 acres of a soccer pitch.
Rovira puts it this way: “He’s very good at remembering moments. At halftime I would come in the locker room and I would ask him about a decision and he would remember it and say ‘Just be confident. Just do what you see.’ He tells you things in training and you change it, and then in the game you don’t realize it’s happening – it makes you feel more comfortable.”
Whether Visser is going to serve in an assistant role forever or eventually move on to become a USL coach is anyone’s guess. He’s smart and talented and experienced enough at this point that he certainly is a strong candidate for a USL head coaching job or NCAA gig, or perhaps even heading a youth academy, should he be interested. And with four years under one of the most successful USL coaches in history, you’d have to think that he gets more than a few emails to his Linkedin in-box. But he also has a wife and three small children, and he seems happy here in Pittsburgh.
Bob Lilley certainly believes in Visser’s abilities, saying, “He’s a self starter. He’s proactive. He communicates well, and you could see that from the beginning. He’s a sharp guy and he’s contributed since he’s been here, with the academy as well.”
“I think he’s got a bright future.”
Images of Dan Visser c/o Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC