by Michael Lewis


*photos courtesy of Sunshine Lemanek/St. Louis Ambush

You need to have a certain mindset to be an assistant coach, someone who doesn't necessarily demand the spotlight and who enjoys working behind the scenes.

The St. Louis Ambush has not one, but two individuals, who fill the bill.

Jamie Swanner and Donnie Alberty are assistant coaches with the Major Arena Soccer League team, working under head coach Jeff Locker.

"I like being behind the scenes," Swanner said. "Jeff, I want him to be the guy in front. We're going to be successful because of the group and he enjoys that part. I'd rather be behind the scenes making sure that we get everything right, whether we're making the adjustment on the fly in the game or whether we add something new to one of our free kicks. My job is to assist him on how I can make his job easier. I never want to be in the limelight."

Ditto for Alberty, who also is quite content being an assistant at the pro level.

"When I switched over to the assistant coach, it felt natural to me because the level was high as far as being a professional team," he said. "That part helped me tremendously and understanding how a head coach thinks but not really wanting to be the head coach."

Now, that doesn't mean either man hasn't run the show elsewhere. Swanner was an Ambush head coach a generation ago and Alberty is the head coach at Fontbonne University in St. Louis as well as the head coach the the Ambush 2.  Both have filled in for Locker on occasion.

No one has appreciated their contributions more than Locker. 

"I look at the assistant coach as an extension of what the coach is trying to do,” he said. “Jamie's been invaluable to the organization. He does a great job of keeping everything organized. He is the day-to-day taskmaster of making sure you know what I'm trying to create the team. He makes it come to life in the practice sessions. He does a good job of developing and making sure that stuff is done the right way.

"Since joining our staff, Donnie Alberty has shown his talents as a coach and a scout. He's been invaluable at finding and evaluating talent and working tirelessly, both as an assistant coach for the Ambush and head coach for our M2 squad. He came to us with an impressive resume and has added to it by the contributions he continues to make to our organization."


Smooth operators

The duo's responsibilities vary, although they have meshed together. 

"Jamie and I get along great," Alberty said. "I was graduating college in '95, and Jamie was with the Ambush, winning a title. I knew who he was. He's in camps and things in the community for a long time. We've come across each other. When I took over here, he was excited about it." 

Swanner had been an assistant under former Ambush head coaches Tony Glavin and Hewerton Moreira, and Locker.

"For the most part, he runs the training sessions,” Alberty said. “We talk about what we want to do together, but he's the voice in the training. Jeff will speak up if he needs to. Jamie's got a million little drills. I help him with that.

"It's a good dynamic. Jamie's a really good guy. He doesn't really have an ego. He almost gets embarrassed when I point out that his number is up in the rafters."

Swanner noted that their differences have made for a smooth working relationship.

"It's great we feed off each other really well," he said. "We both have different viewpoints. I'm a little more old school. He's new school. It's a great combination. We throw ideas back and forth, which makes it kind of unique. We trade our responsibilities at times. I'll take the first team. He'll take the second and vice versa."

The Ambush coaching staff meets to organize that morning's training session.

"Some assistants maybe don't go as far but I like to be hands on everything about how we play, what we're trying to learn, what we're trying to do," Swanner said. "I think that we've done very well here."

Added Alberty: “I think coaches in general are just busy bodies. Idle hands are the devil's playing things for us. We don't like to be sitting around. If we are sitting around, we're trying to figure out how we're going to help our team be better."


More than tactics

For both men, it goes beyond winning and losing and X's and O's.

Alberty, who has a degree in psychology, enjoys the personal end of the job.

"The travel's fun. Being in a match is fun, and I enjoy training and everything," he said. "But the thing I enjoy the most is just developing relationships with players, being a small part of their journey, watching them move on. My wife loves it. We get invited to two or three weddings a year. We get baby announcements all the time. It's why you do it. You do it just make a small difference in people's lives.

"Players don't really care what you know, they just want to know that you care. That's extremely important. I've been around a lot of coaches and some brilliant ones that weren't as effective as they could be because they felt they needed to be the most important person in the room. You need to let players know that ‘Hey, your success is important to me. It's not important because it defines my success or failures.’ I want guys to experience success. I want them to go on and be good people."

Swanner had similar sentiments.

"When the players walk up to you after the game, win, lose or draw in some time and say: 'You know what? We had the perfect plan. So, we appreciate everything that you do.' That respect is more important down the road," he said.


Meet Jamie Swanner

Swanner, 62, was a shortstop and first baseman while growing up in St. Louis. He also was a 6-3 center midfielder at age 13. A friend asked him about switching positions to tend goal.

"I knew how to dive, if you want to call it that," he said. "He started training me and that was, quote, unquote, the beginning. It wasn't really training. He was just trying to teach me how to stand in there and just catch balls I always had pretty good hands. I'm like, ‘Oh, that's a pretty cool sport. I like it this way. Nice position.' " 

He went on to enjoy a legendary 16-year career in indoor soccer, which included first-team All-American honors and the ISSA goalkeeper at Clemson University. He also earned a cap with the U.S. men's national team and was on the Olympic roster for the 1984 Summer Games.

The Americans did not get out of the group stage, but recorded their first Olympic win in 60 years, a 3-0 victory over Costa Rica before a crowd of 78,000 at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif.

"It was crazy," Swanner said. "I'm like, 'Wow! This many people are interested in your sport?’ It was just a unique experience."

Swanner was selected by the New York Cosmos in the second round of the 1984 North American Soccer League draft (they grabbed future U.S. international Tab Ramos in the first round) but was out of luck when the league went under. He tried out for the Baltimore Blast, which had taken him in the opening round of the Major Indoor Soccer League draft. But Swanner figured he would be the No. 3 goalkeeper behind all-star Scott Manning, so, he looked elsewhere.

"It was ironic. Coming out of college, I was the top goalkeeper," he said. "The league folded. What do you do? You don't have an outdoor league to play. I want to play. I don't want to sit on the bench. Baltimore was a great opportunity. Great organization. I'm a new kid coming in who doesn't know the indoor game like the veterans do."

During a tryout with the Cleveland Force (MISL), Canton Invaders head coach Trevor Dawkins suggested the young goalie to try his luck with his team.

 Dawkins told Swanner: "I think it would be a great spot. I know we're a league just below them for now. But I think we're up and coming."

Swanner said: "I'm a young kid coming out of college, and I wanted to play."

He became an Invaders mainstay, helping the team to four American Indoor Soccer Association championships, and winning a fifth for the Ambush. He earned goalkeeper of the year honors six times and was named AISA MVP twice. He also played for the Buffalo Blizzard and Kansas City Attack.

In 1997, Swanner entered the coaching ranks as an assistant at Duchesne High School and Lewis and Clark Community College. He guided the first incarnation of the Ambush during the 1999-2000 campaign and was owner and head coach of the St. Louis Illusion (PASL-Pro) in 2008.

Swanner, who also coached at the youth level, admitted that he never had aspirations of being a pro head coach.

"It was just a different avenue. A lot more hats," he said, "especially back then because then you didn't have true assistant coaches. You had part-time assistants."

Just how many hats did Swanner wear? 

"Oh heavens, from your budget to leading the team, you did just about everything,” he said. “You had to do all the videos. You had to do all the all the player contracts. You worked on summer camps. You worked on players’ appearances. You had six, seven hats that you had to wear every single day and make sure that you were you organized. The good part about myself is that I'm a very detailed, an organized person, probably, to my fault, to an extreme."

Swanner, who was inducted into the St. Louis Soccer Hall of Fame in 2017, became the Ambush's assistant and goalkeeper coach in December 2015.


Meet Donnie Alberty

Alberty, 51, also a St. Louis native, caught the soccer bug as a second grader when his family moved to Houston for a year.

"I saw these Hispanic guys outside my apartment playing this game I had never seen before," he said. "I wanted to know more about it. We started watching Soccer Made in Germany."

The legendary Toby Charles was the game announcer of the only televised outdoor soccer in the United States some four decades ago.

His family moved back to St. Louis, and he joined a team at age nine. He played in high school, at East Central College, a community college, in Union, Mo. (on the outskirts of St. Louis), for two years and then to Missouri Baptist University (MBU).

Alberty's introduction to coaching had a rather unusual start at MBU. He was deciding between taking a scholarship there and another school. Former St. Louis Steamers forward Tim Walters, who was the head coach, presented Alberty an intriguing offer. 

Alberty remembered Walters telling him: "I'll tell you what I'll do for you. Looking at your credits, it looks like it's going take you a little longer than two years to graduate. I'll pay for that third year with this assistant coaching position we have, and it'll give you credits." 

Alberty admitted that he "didn't really know anything about it or didn't know how to sort of lead people. I picked the rest of that up along the way."

Obviously, something clicked. Alberty is in his 28th year as a soccer coach. He has directed the Fontbonne men since 2017. 

"I've always been a student of the game," he said. "I'm fascinated with the X's and O's, why certain things happen. 

"It wasn't like it is now. You sign up for a course and you start getting all these badges. I have a license, but it's kind of like driving. They gave me a license and I really learned how to ‘drive’ when I started coaching."

Alberty will guide the M2 squad this season.

"We had young players that weren't really playing a lot at the M1 level, but they were decent in training," he said. "We felt they deserved a chance. But we're not really looking to win an M2 championship. Our goal is to win an M1 championship. We're using the M2 for some of our younger players to make a case for why they deserve to be on the M1 team. It just made sense that we would have someone from our coaching staff be the head coach."


Memorable moments

It's not always the wins, championships or individual honors that have stood out for Swanner and Alberty. It's the little things, which can tell you much about both men.

For Alberty, it was an opportunity to contribute to a pro soccer team. 

Two years after graduating college, he came close to joining the Steamers when they returned in their second incarnation.

"I was going to make the team, but I broke my foot a day before the first game," Alberty said. "I almost made it."

A generation later, he entered the great indoors as an Ambush assistant coach for the 2020 MASL season. 

"Probably the most exciting moment as a coach I've ever had was that first game and just everything about it," Alberty said. "I remember the walk into the into the arena, the first time I went into the coach's room, the fact that they put our names up on the door outside of the coach's room. It was an exciting moment as a coach.”

For Swanner, it was signing his first pro contract with the Invaders in 1985, which started his indoor career.

"I knew I was playing well, but you never know," he said. "There's 10-12 goalkeepers in town. Am I going to be one of those? Well, my job was simple. I'm going to go to the front of the line. That was probably one of the most important moments. The championships are wonderful, but it's not the championships for me. It's the team aspect."

Swanner finished his career with 13 shutouts, but while he received credit for the clean sheet, he knew that every teammate contributed.

"That's a team game," he said. "Yes, I can play great, and I can do everything. But not without the guys in front of me who are doing shift after shift."

As a coach, there is a different factor. 

"At the end of the day when the players walk up to you after the game, win, lose or draw and say: 'You know what? We had the perfect plan. So, we appreciate everything that you do.' And that respect I think is more important down the road," Swanner said.


It's about family, too

Their children have gotten into the act as well.

Eleven-year-old Abby Alberty loves the indoor game.

"My daughter is the biggest MASL fan," her father said. "She can tell you just about everything you want to know of every player on every team."

Abby attends Ambush matches. Donnie gets a big thrill watching her in the tunnel while the players are high-fiving her and vice versa. 

"I was a Steamer fan back in the 80s when I was a little kid," Alberty said. "I still remember all those moments. I can imagine what my 11-year-old daughter thinks how cool it is that she gets these moments to be so into it. It's a really neat thing to experience." 

Goalkeepers have a history of having longer careers and Swanner fits the mold. In fact, he enjoyed a special moment with his sons on his 40th birthday on Jan. 13, 2001, when he backstopped the Kansas City Attack's 21-11 win over the Toronto Thunderhawks in a NPSL match (goals were counted as multiple points then).

The victory was important, but so was the fact his sons, then 1 1/2 and five years old, attended the game. Swanner was living in St. Louis and commuting to KC.

"It was tough," he said. "But for me to have the family there with both kids see me play my second to last game, it was just something." 

Prior to kickoff, Swanner brought his sons Kyle and Tyler into the locker room.

"It was fun. I was showing the kids all the uniforms," he said. "They got to meet the players. After the game, just seeing the kids come down and give me a big hug and not probably realizing what happened, that was probably the exciting part for me." 

For years, Swanner has hosted a section at Ambush games that was first called Keeper's Corner, which is now called the Swanner Corner (which he hosts along with Kyle, an Ambush midfielder-defender). He usually invites 20-24 underprivileged handicapped children, senior citizens, and mentally challenged seniors to every game. Swanner said that his goal is to "show them things that they've never had the opportunity to see."

There have been plenty of memorable moments, but one scenario has stood out. A boy who had brain cancer had a wish to attend a professional indoor soccer game. Swanner jumped at the opportunity.

"The family was so grateful. It was just a great experience across the board," he said.

"I always want to give something back whether it's on or off the field. I've been pretty fortunate with that."

As it turns out, both coaches have been pretty fortunate to enjoy careers in a sport that they love.



Michael Lewis, the editor of, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. Lewis can be reached via email at 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