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Joe Clarke retires after 27 years as men’s soccer head coach

| Managing Sports Editor

Coach Clarke leaves WashU as the winningest coach in the program’s history, with 275 wins. He led the Bears to four UAA titles, 11 NCAA playoff appearances, and won the UAA Coach of the Year honor twice. (Photo Courtesy of the Athletic Department)

The scoreline was 1-0 going into halftime against the University of Chicago Maroons in their final regular season of the 2021 season. For the first time in over two decades, the Washington University men’s soccer program was on the cusp of capturing its first outright University Athletic Association (UAA) Conference title. However, despite WashU holding a one-goal advantage, the Maroons had asserted their dominance throughout the match, confidently steering the flow of the game.

“We were up one goal, but we were getting destroyed,” said Matt Martin, WashU class of ‘22 and former All-American goalkeeper for the Bears. “At halftime, [head coach Joe Clarke ] pulled us together and said “This is just how the game is gonna be. It doesn’t matter if they have the ball. We’re gonna do what we have to do to keep the ball out of our net, and we’re gonna win the game.”

And win they did.

Twenty-seven years after coaching his first game, Joe Clarke announced his retirement as head coach of the Washington University men’s soccer team.

The St. Louis native, who played seven years of professional soccer against the likes of Pelé in the North American Soccer League (NASL), came to WashU after leading the Saint Louis University men’s soccer program for 14 years. He leaves WashU as the winningest coach in the program’s history, with 275 wins. Over his 27 years, Clarke led the Bears to four UAA titles, 11 NCAA playoff appearances, and won the UAA Coach of the Year honor twice.    

“I was a little surprised [when I learned about his retirement] because I knew that he still had several years where he could contribute really well to the program,” assistant coach and former player Sergio Rivas said. “I know the conversations I had with him this year. He did really great work. The team and all the guys loved him. So I was a little bit surprised. But I think I’m really happy for him and what he did for the program.”

Junior midfielder Eugene Heger was also surprised by the news, but he was thankful to Clarke. “He has been so helpful to all of us throughout our experience here and then just bringing us here. I think we’re just very thankful and excited to see what is next up in his career.”

Clarke, who is 70, said his retirement comes amid a lot of important things that he has been giving up in his life, but the “top of the clock” reason behind his decision is his family and grandchildren. “One of my grandkids is 10, and they are just going to keep getting older. My wife and I are healthy and the idea…of where schedules aren’t in the way and if we want to go to California to spend time with the grandkids we can [is important to me],” he said. 

Fresh off of the completion of the fall season, Clarke broke the news to his players during a team meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 28 but “was surprised” that he kept his cool in front of his team because he was “fearful that I was going to be really emotional”. But after some reflections on why he became a coach, he could look at the bigger picture of the program without him at the helm.  

“I was coaching my team, and I was like, ‘Okay, here’s a change that’s coming our way. How are we going to handle it? What are the next steps, guys? What are the strengths that you have as a group that are just going to continue to go forward that have nothing to do with me?’” he said.

Despite the overall futuristic outlook that he provided to his players at his farewell address, Clarke has become so ingrained in the WashU soccer program that it was difficult for some of the people he has had the honor of coaching to imagine that he would ever retire. 

Clarke’s announcement gave plenty of people — from administrators to players — the opportunity to reflect on his legacy at the school and his 27 years as head coach. One of the most common themes brought up was Clarke’s ability to connect with his athletes as more than just players and impact their lives on and off the pitch.

“Joe’s commitment and dedication to developing young people through the game of soccer has positively impacted numerous lives,” WashU Director of Athletics Anthony Azama wrote in a statement to Student Life. “His legacy is an example of the coach’s role in developing champions for life. We are fortunate to have had his leadership.”

During his stint as the Bears’ head coach, Clarke coached 123 All-UAA honorees and secured 54 United Soccer Coaches All-Region selections. Furthermore, he coached four players who earned College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) Academic All-American recognition and guided seven players to All-American honors. Martin and Rivas are the more recent players to win the All-American honors under Clarke’s tutelage, having been part of the Bears’ historic 2021 season.

“Throughout that entire season, he was very good at managing the entire team,” Martin said. “He pulled off a ton of masterclasses in almost every game directly on the head for the tactical approach we should have played.”

“[The 2021] season was such a fun season because the whole team was together, and we wanted to play for Joe,” said Rivas. “They made training so fun and made everyone buy in to do what they did to help the team win.” 

Everyone who speaks about Clarke describes him first and foremost as a very supportive and kind man. But they also spoke of him as someone with a deep obsession with soccer tactics. In each match, Clarke was a man with a plan, prioritizing knowledge and adaptation in how he approached the game. 

“He was just incredible at adapting to whatever the game needed,” junior midfielder Landon Green said. “I remember my freshman year, we played against Case Western Reserve University, and he had scouted them beforehand and realized that they were always trying to play out of the back. Joe put us in a formation where we could high press them and go off that aggressively in the game.”

Due to his adaptability, he was often not shy to play his strikers as defenders if he needed to, or even more commonly, his defenders as strikers. Rivas, who had a breakout senior season in 2021 when he led the Bears to their first title since 2012 and first outright UAA championship since 1999, began his WashU career as a defender but experienced great success when he was played higher up the pitch. 

To Clarke, however, there is nothing particularly special about his coaching philosophy. According to him, soccer tactics revolve around pragmatism and forcing players to be more cautious about protecting the ball from the opponent. In today’s game, it is common to see center backs becoming protectors of the ball, strategically learning how to make safe passes without the opposing side intercepting the ball. But to him, this is the wrong outlook. 

Clarke believes that players got into playing soccer because they “enjoyed the freedom to go where they wanted and to be able to go forward because they trusted [that their teammates] would cover for them.” So, Clarke set a goal: “I want to play based on that. I want it to be fun.”

Throughout his career, prioritizing fun for himself and those he coached was a key element of his philosophy. He was keen on emphasizing freedom of movement and play and encouraged mistakes.

“The old England coach Eriksson [once said] ‘your ceiling as a coach and as a player is based on how low your floor is,’” Clarke said. “What mistakes can you tolerate as a coach? That’s gonna determine how high they can rise as a player. Because if you’re afraid to let them pass it back or settle it the ball and you want them to just hit it along, then that’s what they’re going to do. They’re never going to develop.”

As he reflects on his time with the Bears, Clarke says he is filled with great pride over his many achievements and the people he had the honor of coaching and working alongside. But within that pride also lies a sense of belief that there are things that he could have done better, especially when it came to getting results. “In terms of results on the field, there are many other programs that are getting more success than the WashU men’s soccer program has done,” he said.

Competing in one of the hardest conferences in NCAA DIII men’s soccer, the Bears experienced a lot of success under Clarke, but much of his time was also spent experiencing the unpredictability and agony of the UAA conference. “The UAA is just a joy, and it is full of good coaches. It’s a league that you don’t know who is going to win in any given year,” he said. 

Despite feeling that he could have done a better job leading the men’s soccer program, Clarke still believes that his time at WashU was a success. “For me, coaching is about a lot of things, and it is every bit equal to the results that you get on the field and the results that the kids are getting in the classroom,”  he said. “We’ve always run the program in a way where they’re able to succeed. I learned early on that the players have to be doing well in the classroom if they have any chance of playing well on the field. They almost defined themselves by the ambitions that they have from where academics are going to take them, not where athletics is going to take them. “

“Two out of the last four years, the men’s soccer program has led all of NCAA DI, DII, and DIII men’s soccer with the highest GPA,” he concluded.

While Clarke is leaving WashU, he says “I doubt that I’m out of coaching totally. I can’t see that. I cannot see myself sitting around the house that just would never work and I don’t want to waste over 40 years of experience.”

According to Azama, a national search to find Clarke’s replacement will begin soon, with the “goal to have the next head coach in place before the spring soccer season begins.” 

Reflecting on his 27 years of service to WashU athletics, Clarke noted that there is a lot to be grateful for and proud of. But he noted that he would “be remiss if I wasn’t thanking the athletic directors, John Schale, Josh Whitman, and Anthony that allowed me to work with all the players and have me here as their soccer coach. I’m appreciative to have been the coach all the time, and that they let me represent the school.”

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