CALL IT THE WRIGHT STUFF
In three tenures over 10 years, Paul Wright gave his blood, sweat and tears to the San Diego Sockers, helping them win seven indoor soccer championships.
He was so beloved and his impact so great that he was one of seven players who have had their number retired. His No. 3 jersey hangs from the rafters at Pechanga Arena San Diego, along with the likes of the legendary Steve Zungul, Julie Veee and Kaz Deyna, among others.
When Wright enters the venue on Dec. 17, he will be the enemy, and not a friend, as the head coach of the Empire Strykers.
"I don't think they can take that down no matter how mad they are," Wright said with a laugh earlier this week. "It's going to be great. A lot of family and friends are in San Diego. I'm sure they're all going to be at the game. I'm looking forward to just kind of re-invigorating the rivalry."
Those southern California clubs are about an hour and half drive from one another. They have been fierce rivals for years, with the Sockers getting the upper hand of the Styrkers, winning 16 indoor titles since the team was established in 1978. The Strykers, known as the Ontario Fury, before they rebranded last year, have yet to win a championship in their nine-year history.
But Wright wants to change that ASAP.
"It's been a little one-sided over the years," he said. "We're just looking forward to evening it up and making the real type of rivalry, where the fans are excited to come to the games. It's something that we can really hype up because there definitely some tension between the two clubs. But I think there's a lot of respect between the two teams. It'll definitely be a good battle."
On July 3, Wright took over the Strykers’ head coaching reins, replacing Jimmy Nordberg, who took a front office position as executive vice president of operations.
His charge is to find a way to get the Strykers more respect in the Major Arena Soccer League, move up in the standings, qualify for the playoffs and go from there.
You might call it the Wright stuff.
He welcomed the challenge of turning around the Strykers' fortunes. Last year the team finished in sixth place in the Western Division, just missing out on the postseason.
"It's been a bit of a whirlwind since I've signed and I've jumped right into it with both feet," Wright said. "I've been so busy on the field and getting the team look the way that I envisioned it to look."
As a San Diego resident, Wright has seen plenty of Strykers-Sockers confrontations. He remembered how close the Strykers, then the Fury, came to winning their first title during the truncated 2021 campaign, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The team finished second with a 7-3 mark during the regular season and lost to San Diego in the playoff final series. The team has reached the postseason three times.
"I've been around the group and observed from afar. One of the things that I wanted to do is to get more athletic," he said. "I thought the team was lacking a little bit of athleticism and speed. I also wanted to get younger. I thought there were a few guys who are getting kind of long in the tooth; still very good players."
Wright, who started preseason training on Wednesday, Nov. 1, added that he also wanted to change the team's culture.
"It was a little bit of a cultural issue that they've had in the past, chemistry and things like that," he said. "One of the things you have to do, if that's an issue, is change some of the players. That's what we've been doing, going through the roster, trying to find the players that we want to build the rest of this unit with what we're bringing in. I'm sure at least half the roster will be turned over."
The 54-year-old Wright is coaching a pro team for the second time, but he felt his lack of experience wasn't a detriment. Years ago, he guided a women’s team, the San Diego SeaLions, team in the Women’s Premier Soccer League. He also has been training athletes for two decades through his company, Speed to Burn.
"I've been training athletes in all sports and getting them to the highest level," he said. "I've inversely been doing it for the last 20 years. I'm looking forward to the challenge. I've been around the game long enough. I understand the game. I know the game well enough that I don't believe the transition will be too difficult for me."
Over the past quarter century Wright has learned more than just a drop in the bucket about the beautiful indoor game. He has some 20 years of professional indoor soccer experience, plus another four years with Sporting Kansas City (then known as the Kansas City Wiz and Wizards) at the dawn of Major League Soccer.
Wright has just about seen it all in indoor soccer, having competed in six leagues. That includes the original Major Indoor Soccer League and its second incarnation, the National Professional Soccer League, Continental Indoor Soccer League, Professional Arena Soccer League and of course, the MASL. His clubs have included the Cleveland Crunch, Milwaukee Wave, Los Angeles Salsa, Baltimore Blast, Baltimore Spirit, Wichita Wings, Sacramento Knights, Philadelphia KiXX, San Diego Fusion, and Anaheim Bolts before he retired from the Sockers during the 2012-23 PASL season.
He finished his outstanding career, connecting for 424 goals and adding 409 assists in 520 games. His best season was with the Spirit in the 1993-94 NPSL season, collecting 62 goals and 43 assists.
Yet, that wasn't his most memorable moment. That came as a 19-year-old with the Sockers in the 1989-90 MISL season, when San Diego held off a comeback by Baltimore on the road to win his first championship, 6-5.
"The pressure of the seventh game on the road with a crowd like that like they had in Baltimore sellout crowd and us digging down deep and overcoming a lot of things to win that championship in the final minutes,” Wright said. “That final game definitely stands out as a springboard for my career."
Wright had been blessed with some high-quality coaching mentors. The late Sockers legendary head coach Ron Newman played an important role.
"First and foremost, rest in peace, Ron," Wright said. "He was one of the first coaches to really believed in me. I think a lot of coaches saw my talent and saw what I could possibly be. But he was the first one that really believed that I could be something special. He kept pushing me every day, not to just to be settling for being fast and doing some explosive things here and there. He pushed me to be great. I was 18 years old, For me to be around these great players and to trust me around those great players, my confidence went through the roof."
Wright also credited San Diego Nomads head coach Derek Armstrong in being a huge influence in his career. Armstrong also directed the U.S. at the 1987 Under-20 World Cup in Chile.
"He was the one before I got to Ron that got me on the right track and taught me the game," he said. "I was able to stand out in high school."
During the 1992-93 NPSL season, Wright played under head coach Keith Tozer on the Milwaukee Wave. Tozer is the MASL commissioner.
"It was an interesting experience with Keith Tozer," he said. "I think we both look back on that experience, and we've both grown as men since then. That was really a time in both of our lives where we were very confident about what we were doing. I look back on some of those times that as us pushing each other. He definitely had a big influence on how I saw in the league at that point."
Realizing he could not play forever, Wright decided to start a company in 2003 called Speed to Burn, which helped athletes maximize their abilities. He has worked with MLS players, U.S. men's international Luca de la Torre, who plays for Celta Vigo (Spain), U.S. women's international Catarina Macario, who performs for Chelsea (England), American gridiron football players, college baseball and volleyball players.
Other athletes include Washington Commanders defensive end Casey Toohill and midfielder Chris Hegardt, who played with Charlotte FC (MLS),
"I've just been very blessed to be able to really hone In and really get the best out of a lot of these young athletes on their career path," he said. "We've had a lot of success, myself and my assistant."
"I hate to brag. There's probably a few more I'm forgetting."
"I'm really proud of those guys. They've put in a lot of work to get to where they are. They deserve everything they've gotten."
He even worked with the Baltimore Ravens (NFL), during his time in Baltimore some 20 years ago. A relative of goalie Scott Hileman was a strength and conditioning coach.
"I was really getting into fitness, and I was putting together strength and conditioning programs for my team," said Wright, who also was working at a local gym.
The conditioning coach went to the gym and witnessed a session.
"He was impressed," added Wright, who eventually was invited to work with the Ravens during their preseason.
That was a learning experience for Wright, as well.
"I definitely learned a lot, as far as understanding the body and how to get the most out of it, and the science part of it that they taught me during the preseason," he said. "That was very helpful in my of progression into Speed to Burn shortly after that."
If Paul Wright can be as half as successful with the Strykers as he has been with Speed to Burn, it could turn into one memorable season in Ontario, Calif.
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. He has written two books" Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers and a sequel, STILL AND ALIVE AND KICKING: The story of the 21st century Rochester Lancers. It has many features about indoor soccer and MASL players. Both books can be purchased at www.RochesterLancersBook.com.