by JAKE NUTTING
A life in soccer was not what Stuart Dobson had in mind when he moved to America to attend college in the early 90s. Nearly 30 years later, though, Dobson is still spending his weekdays at training sessions, preparing for weekend matches, now as the assistant coach of the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Growing up just outside Hull, the plan was definitely to be a part of the game. Dobson played all throughout his childhood, attending training sessions at Hull City’s training center. Eventually he joined Reading United’s reserve side for a short stint that fizzled out.
Enter ex-NASL players Clive Charles and Bill Irwin. In retirement, Charles had taken on the head coaching role at the University of Portland with Irwin as his goalkeepers coach. To bolster their roster the longtime Cardiff City teammates realized they could recruit talented English players with the promise of a scholarship.
Dobson was one of those players. Despite America’s poor reputation for soccer at that time, it was an appealing offer after he’d become burnt out by the game in England.
“I felt my time in England was done at 19 or 20,” Dobson says. “I’d been on several trials and didn’t get on with a team. I’d played non-league football for a few years. So that was it. I decided to pack a bag and come out here and go the college route. It wasn’t like I was going the college route to get back into the game. It was more like ‘I’m doing something completely different. I’m gonna use soccer as a way to pay for me to get a degree.’ The plan after that was just find a job and go from there. I didn’t realize it was gonna end up being a 13-year playing career and now a coaching career that’s been going for a decade.”
It didn’t take long for Dobson’s love for soccer to come back once he was in Portland, as the Pilots won the West Coast Conference’s regular season in his first year at the school in 1992. But even with his passion reignited, the young keeper still didn’t see much of a future in the sport. The professional landscape in America was pretty bleak in the years between the end of the NASL and the start of MLS.
MLS was founded in 1993 but wouldn’t kick off its first season until 1996. In the meantime, Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss and others were looking to fill their arenas with more events and decided that indoor soccer was a way to do it. This is how the Continental Indoor Soccer League was born. One of the league’s founding clubs was the Portland Pride, a perfect landing spot for a young guy like Dobson looking to see if he could find a way to keep playing after graduation.
The notion of playing indoor soccer professional was totally foreign to a kid from England, where it’s played much more casually as something to pass the time with friends. Still, Dobson took to it quickly.
“I absolutely loved it. It was fun being the goalkeeper because you’re constantly involved and the ball’s always in play in these hockey arenas basically. I loved it,” he says. “The Pride’s season was short. It was just through the summer months, basically when the stadiums weren’t being used. When basketball season started up again then that’s when the soccer stopped.”
From Portalnd Dobson moved on to the Chicago Power of the National Professional Soccer League where he was able to play more games in a longer season. He remained in Chicago for most of the 1995-1996 season until being traded to the Tampa Bay Terror.
The Tampa Bay Terror was a passion project of Kenny Cooper Sr., longtime Dallas Tornado keeper and father of MLS striker Kenny Cooper. After coaching the Baltimore Blast and Baltimore Spirit in indoor leagues for 14 years, Cooper looked to the Sunshine City for a new venture. With some investment from back in Baltimore he launched the Terror and served as the team’s head coach before handing the reins to Rowdies legend Perry Van der Beck in the second season
“We weren’t around very long but I’ll tell you what we had a good time,” Dobson recalls.
“The staff was really great. Kenny Sr. was a really passionate coach. He was a coach, a GM, he was everything. I got to meet Perry, which was great, and I still talk to him to this day because he’s a Rowdies legend. We had a lot of young players but we had Peter Ward. I got to play with him, which was great because on top of being a character himself he was a top player in England and represented England. We had good times. Not always the best of times on the pitch, but we scraped into the playoffs that second year and unfortunately we weren’t around the year after.”
The Terror played all their home matches just a few steps from where the modern Rowdies play these days. Where the Dali Museum stands now used to be the Bayfront Center, an intimate arena where the old Rowdies also played many seasons of indoor soccer.
On his return to St. Petersburg to become the Rowdies goalkeepers coach in 2015 Dobson return to the Terror’s old stomping grounds to see how things had changed.
“It was weird not to see the Bayfront Center but it looked a lot nicer with the Dali Museum and the Mahaffey Theater. It was beautiful,” he says. “Coming in from the airport I came around in my rental car to see the area. Just driving around I realized this is not the same place. This is so different. What a renaissance that’s happened in the town.
“If you look back at pictures of downtown there probably wasn’t much to it. Downtown St. Pete was not the place to be. If we wanted to go out for a meal or a few drinks, we would never go into St. Pete. We would always drive up into Tampa because St. Pete wasn’t the place to be. There wasn’t anything here.”
There are probably many reasons why the Terror didn’t last. They certainly didn’t do themselves any favors with both the name and the logo. A shark protruding out of the water balancing a soccer ball on its nose isn’t the craziest logo in the history of American soccer, but it’s in the conversation. Dobson can’t hold back laughter when the team’s logo is mentioned. He was able to locate some old programs from those days and he’s just as confused as everyone else about the choices.
“I think I still have some sweats with the logo,” Dobson jokes. “It probably wasn’t the most well thought out choice, but it was quite funny. It’s almost like a comic book shark coming out of the water. Not the greatest choice I think but that’s what it was, the Tampa Bay Terror. And I don’t even think St. Pete is even known for sharks, really. Is it? I don’t know who came up with that. I know when I was down here there was talk of changing the name because for sponsorships you can’t have a team named the Terror.”
When the Terror closed up shop Dobson’s career became a string of spells at various indoor clubs. The Montreal Impact, the Buffalo Blizzard, Harrisburg Heat, the Mississippi Beach Kings (yep, that’s real), the Utah Freezz and eventually the Philadelphia KiXX, where he stayed the longest and ultimately finished his career.
On trips back home he’d get playful ribbing from friends about indoor soccer not really counting as professional soccer. It didn’t really faze him, though. He was thoroughly loving the whole experience.
“I was getting paid a wage I could survive on. Just to go away and travel and see all these cities I’d never seen before was great fun. It was very different physical demands on players because the outfield players you were basically on for one or two minutes and then you’re off. The guys did go out and have a good time after games. They’d go out together knowing full well they didn’t have to run 10 or 12k in two or three days like they do in the outdoor game. We had such a good time, even though you wouldn’t be travelling in luxury. Most of the stadiums at that time were actually pretty nice and some of the teams were pretty well supported, especially when you go to teams like the Milwaukee Wave. They’d have over 10,000 to watch their games. St. Louis was like 8 or 10,000. So I’d tell my friends back home yeah it’s just indoor soccer but it’s not just our friends watching. It’s a big deal in these cities.”
Dobson’s playing career came to end when he retired after the 2006 season. Just like when he made the stateside move for college, he wasn’t envisioning staying involved in the game. Instead he got a job at a new sports talk radio station selling advertising time.
He lasted two months before jumping back into soccer.
“I loved the hosts of the radio station because they were all ex-athletes, football players and baseball players. They were great and I loved doing the PR stuff with them and others from different areas of the sports world that I wasn’t too familiar with. But I didn’t actually like the day-to-day operations of the job. I didn’t like the routine of trying to sell advertising time to people that have never heard of your radio station. That was a grind.”
Former KiXX teammate Omid Namazi (now an assistant under Tab Ramos at Houston Dynamo) was the one to rescue Dobson from his office job. Namazi had been named as the head coach of the New Jersey Ironmen, an indoor team set to play at the new Prudential Center and he wanted Dobson as his goalkeepers coach. Dobson’s starting keeper for his first professional coaching gig? USMNT and MLS stalwart Tony Meola.
“Tony was great. I had to make sure I was on point with him,” Dobson says. “I did take a lot of things from him. He helped me out with his opinion on exercises and coaching. I never really had the ambition for coaching when I was playing. I thought I’ll play and then I’ll go into business and make my fortune that way. Instead I decided to get a lot of enjoyment out of coaching and not much financial reward. But I’ll tell you, as a goalkeepers coach you’re not high up on the totem pole in terms of financial reward but in terms of enjoyment you’re way at the top. It’s great. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
After one season with the Ironmen Dobson moved on to UC Santa Barbara and then the University of Akron. When the opportunity to jump into coaching professional outdoor soccer came up with the Rowdies Dobson leapt at the chance.
“There was a bit of a learning curve but I thought it was a relatively comfortable step for me,” he says of his transition to coaching. “I never played let’s say at a top level, but I knew what I liked as a player and I knew what was beneficial to me as a player. Some players just get through training and go home and don’t think about it. I was one of those players that did think about training sessions. I knew when I was poor, or if I’d learned something that day. So when I turned to coaching I just thought of what I’d enjoy as a player, something I would’ve gotten something out of. It was kinda easy for me. Who doesn’t enjoy shooting a couple hundred soccer balls at a goal every day? I’d have loved to be a forward. I think secretly every goalkeeper would like to be a center forward and score goals.”