ALL IN THE FAMILY
By Michael Lewis
Several days a week during the Major Arena Soccer League season, Alan Mayer and his son Kenny, will get into his Lexus 350 SE and take a half-hour trip from Lenexa, Kansas to the Soccer Dome in Kansas, Mo. for soccer practice.
They will talk about family, news, sports and of course, one of their favorite subjects, soccer - mostly the indoor game.
No, Alan isn't taking Kenny to a youth training session.
They are headed to Kansas City Comets training.
In one of the most unique coaching tandems and partnerships in any sport, the Mayers are a father-son goalkeeping coaching team. Alan is the No. 1 GK coach, Kenny his assistant.
The Mayers wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's absolutely awesome because not many dads who can say that they work with their kids," Alan said earlier this week. "When you're 70-years-old, and you can say, I still work with my kid, and I get to see him every single day and drive in a car to practice every day and drive back … You're spending five or six hours a day with your son.
“It's absolutely great because he has a lot of qualities that I don't have, that offset some of mine. He brings a lot to the table. It's been a great relationship. What better way to do it than through sports?”
Ditto for Kenny, who is 41.
"I love what I do and being able to do it with my dad is a dream come true," he said. "He's an inspiration and a hero of mine. He's my best friend and to be able to do what I do with him is incredible.
"He's taught me so much about the game and continues to teach me so much about the game. It's just so much fun and so incredible to go to practice every day. For a guy that knows the game as well as he does, and for me to be able to learn it from him is just the best thing ever. It's cool the way the guys treat him and respect him."
Kenny said that his father "is kind of like the godfather on the team."
"Anyone that has any problems or questions, they go to my dad for answers," he added. "That's for the players, the coaches, management. Everyone goes to my dad. He's the one that's respected at the highest level."
Kenny added that he has another role, as the assistant goalkeeper coach, which keeps everything light and relaxed and cool and easygoing with the team. "We both play our roles and we I think we do it well."
Alan understood what Kenny meant. He just loves being around younger people. It keeps him young.
"It's one of the things that keeps me going," he said. "It's one of the things that gets me up in the morning. It's been great. It's just not just goalkeeping, but it's the other players as well. To see these young men in their early 20s to developing. All of a sudden, they're married. Now they have kids and now they're older and it's just absolutely tremendous to be a part of that, the Comet family."
OK, before we got any further, let's get to know these men.
Alan's career goes all the way back to the North American Soccer League to 1974, a year before Pele signed with the New York Cosmos. As it turns out, he was selected by another Comets team, the Baltimore Comets, in the first round of the North American Soccer League draft. Alan then embarked on a rather unusual journey as the team moved to three cities in as many years, playing as the San Diego Jaws in 1976, the Las Vegas Quicksilvers in 1977 and the San Diego Sockers in 1978. Meanwhile, the 6-foot, 180-lb. keeper had established himself as one of the top young American netminders.
His performances caught the eye of U.S. national team coach Walter Chyzowych. Over a two-year period, Alan played in six internationals, recording a 3-1-2 mark. He became the first American goalkeeper in more than five decades to secure a clean sheet in his debut, in a scoreless draw with Haiti in Port-au-Prince on Nov. 12, 1976.
He got his first taste of indoor soccer with the Pittsburgh Spirit in the Major Indoor Soccer League 1978-79 inaugural season while playing outdoors with the California Surf. After 1980, it was all indoors with the New Jersey Rockets, Sockers, Las Vegas Americans the finally the Kansas City Comets from 1985-89. He was a three-time MISL all-star.
Alan enjoyed some of his most memorable moments, leading the team to the first of two consecutive MISL titles while earning the MVP award, breaking the great Steve Zungul’s four-year stranglehold on the honor.
By the time he hung up his indoor goalkeeper gloves, Mayer had logged 14,713 minutes in the net, recording a 139-106 mark.
Alan has received many honors over the years. He was inducted into the Islip High School Hall of Fame, James Madison University Hall of Fame, Suffolk County Sports Hall of Fame, Long Island Soccer Player Hall of Fame and the Indoor Soccer Hall of Fame in 2019. And, he had his number – 0 – retired by the Comets on Feb. 22, 2013. His banner hangs from the rafters of the Cable Dahmer Arena in Independence, Kansas.
Both men had different starts as keepers. Alan was thrust into the net after at Islip High School goalie had a rough game during his sophomore season. Kenny was born into it and the Comets soccer culture.
Back in the day, basketball was Alan's No. 1 sport, followed by tennis. He also was the New York State tennis doubles champion, he was so proficient in that sport.
"It was actually by mistake," he said of his goalkeeping introduction.
"The reason why I got involved in soccer was so I could get in shape for basketball," said Alan, a forward. "I could do a whole bunch of running around. If you saw it was either soccer or football at that time, and I'm thinking, 'Wow, football you always get the hell knocked out of you every single day practicing and in games.”
After Islip lost a game to Kings Park H.S., 5-1, and the keeper struggled mightily.
On the bus ride back to the school, the team captain came up to Mayer.
"The coach wants me to ask you a question," the captain said, Alan recalled. "Have you ever thought of being a goalkeeper? And I said No, not at all. He said Ken [the goalkeeper]. He had a bad game. They wanted to make a change in goal. The coach was very, very smart because as I learned later on in life, that there is a tremendous correlation between a soccer goalkeeper and a basketball player. He knew that I played basketball. He knew that was my favorite sport."
So, without a formal lesson, Alan found himself in net.
"No coaching or anything that was just like throw you in goal and here's the ball. Catch it," he said.
He caught on very quickly.
"The correlation between a basketball player and a soccer goalkeeper is unbelievable.," he said. "You always have a ball in your hands. You're always catching a ball, throwing it out. You're always making quick lateral movements, forward movements. You're always going in for rebounds. You're jumping up as high as you can, trying to catch a ball. It was a natural fit for me.
"I played it. I liked it. I loved it."
As it turned out, so did Kenny.
He had a head start on his father because he was born into the family business. Kenny's 15-year-old son, Jackson, also is a goalkeeper.
"Unfortunately," his grandfather quipped.
Of course, he was kidding, although he and Kenny understood what a keeper must go through.
"I remember growing up and being around it," Kenny said. "Being in the locker room with the Comets at a young age going into Kemper Arena, being just being in engulfed in it. My coaches pushed me towards being a goalkeeper. "
Alan never interfered with his son’s decision.
"It was never forced upon me. It was never drilled into me," Kenny said. "It was always if you if you have questions I'm always here. If you if you want my thoughts on the game, I'm always here, but it was always I had to go to him. That's how we are with my son. It's not forced on him."
Kenny became enamored with the position because of the huge responsibility on their shoulders and in their hands.
"Goalkeepers are the ones that have the most control of a game," he said. "I like the fact that you have the most impact on the game. If you if you can handle it, the best position ever. If you can't handle it, it's the worst position ever."
It's been fruitful for both men, although there have been some tough spots.
Alan earned the nickname, Kamikaze, because of his fearlessness.
"It boils down to a style of play," he said. "The Japanese pilots in World War II, they would do some work, they would do anything to get a victory. They would put their life on a line and fear nobody to get the job done. That fit that fit my personality. I wasn't afraid of anybody. I did a lot of things that you shouldn't do, like diving headfirst when a person is about ready to kick the ball. If there's a cross, you just go in and there's three or four people in there, you just try to go in there and get the ball and don't worry about what happens after that."
Something did worry Alan when he collided with a Connecticut Bicentennials 'player in Hartford, Conn. in a 5-4 Las Vegas loss on a rainy night on July 2, 1977.
"There was a 50-50 ball on the top of the box," Mayer said. "In comes this big strong Englishman, Geoff Hammond. I'm going out and he's coming. I put my hands out to get the ball. He puts his studs out it because it was raining a little bit. ... I don't think there's any malice or anything like that but it's just the way it is. The bottom of his cleats had four studs and he caught the top my head."
The next thing he knew Mayer was in the emergency room of a local hospital. He needed 75 stitches to close cuts inside and outside of his head.
"While they're working on me I look up in the ceiling and I said, 'My God, Alan, if you are going to continue to play soccer and be a goalkeeper, you should do something to protect yourself now," Alan said.
Alan decided to wear a foam rubber helmet for the rest of his career to protect himself.
"But once I wore it, boy, I took a lot of stick. I took a lot of harassment from not necessarily my teammates but my opponents," he said. "People made fun of me for wearing it."
He said his contract for the 1979 season was held up for five weeks because several people complained that it gave the goalkeeper an unfair advantage. It wasn't until original Sockers owner Bob Bell wrote a letter to the NASL office to check it out.
"It was just foam rubber," Alan said. "You could squeeze it with your two fingers push it together. If I was getting my head against [an opposing players'] knee, it would help their knee because their knees were going into foam rubber."
Before games, the referee would check out his helmet, which Alan wore decades before Czech Republic goalkeeper Peter Cech made it well known.
"I really honestly if I did not wear it for my last nine years or 10 years of my career, maybe you and I wouldn't even be having this conversation," he said. "That helped me still be able to communicate in a professional way. In a way, it was a blessing in disguise."
Kenny never had to wear a helmet, although he emulated his father in some ways. winning MVP honors in soccer and tennis at Thomas Aquinas High School. He continued playing at Lindenwood University in St. Louis, won a state title with Cinto Elemento and spent some time with the Kansas City Wizards.
He joined the Comets at the start of their 2014 MASL championship season, forming that unique goalkeeping coaching duo. Kenny also is an assistant coach with Sunflower State Football Club in the National Premier Soccer League in the summer.
The Mayers are not the only members of the Comets family who have been around the team for a while.
If you fit in, there's a good chance you might stay awhile.
They credited the Comets' supporters and managing partner Brian Budzinski, and co-owners Lane Smith and Jamie Poulson.
“It starts with the owners,” Alan said. “What is their philosophy? What are they want to accomplish?”
"Our fans are dedicated,” Kenny said. “It trickles down to our ownership. It follows through with our coaching staff. I'm the newest one, and I've been on the team for 10 years."
Both Mayers rattled off players who have been with the team for years, which helps with the continuity. Player-head coach Leo Gibson has been a Comet for 12 years, defenders John Sosa and Richard Schmermund and forward Ramone Palmer has been around for almost a decade.
And on and on and on it does.
"We have the same group of guys that are putting forth effort and their passion,” Kenny said.
"There's something about the culture in Kansas City area,” Alan said. “They [fans] want to win obviously, but they appreciate a blue-collar work ethic. We certainly do have had that for a number of years."
It's not yet the new year, and the Comets already have played one quarter of their season as they lead the Eastern Division with a 3-2-1 record. They don't have any games scheduled until they host the Monterrey Flash on Dec. 29.
"It's actually coming together very nicely because we had a few issues with visas with players, which is a blessing in a lot of ways," Alan said. "It's given several other players an opportunity to play. In professional sports, opportunity is absolutely everything. You may have a lot of talent, but if you don't have the opportunity to show it, you're not going to grow. This has given us a great opportunity to see what other players can do and perform."
Which is so gratifying to the Kansas City Comets goalkeeping coach dynamic duo.
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. Lewis can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, recently was published. It can be purchased at https://tinyurl.com/2p8rzhpy.