Years after making their mark on the field, women are moving into the coaching, administrative and business roles of soccer. They run clubs, own facilities and coach national teams.
In fact, all of these jobs are on the same woman’s resume. Keri Sarver juggles several roles: club director and ECNL for SC Internationals; owner of the Pinnacle Sports indoor/outdoor complex (both in northeast Ohio) and, halfway around the world, assistant coach of the New Zealand women’s national team.
What unites them all, apart from a football?
“Mentors,” says Sarver.
She names several. One is Zdravko Popovicthe Internationals founder who trained Sarver as a youngster, encouraged her to become a coach while still in high school, and now works alongside him (she is part-owner of the club).
Another mentor, April Heinrichscoached Sarver through the Olympic development program, hired her as an assistant coach for the U.S. national junior teams, and then helped her become head coach of the U-19 women’s team.
A third is Jitka Klimkova. The head coach of the New Zealand women’s national team worked with Sarver in the United States national team program and at Internationals, and brought her into the “Football Ferns” team .
Sarver wandered far from home. But it has always kept its roots in the Akron area. As a player with the Internationals, she was exposed to the large group of Eastern European coaches and players in northeast Ohio. Some have formed their own clubs. Over the years they have grown and merged. Still, Internationals stayed on their own path. With 350 players, it is one of the smallest in the ECNL.
“We kept the family atmosphere,” says Sarver. “Players and coaches share passion, love and respect. We care for each other. We are all focused on long-term player development. Success and winning are just by-products of that.
Success is measured by older teams. The daughters of internationals have emerged from the pandemic with all six teams in the U-13 to U-19 age groups qualifying for the Champions League qualifiers. One reached the semi-finals, another the quarter-finals, a third the round of 16.
The internationals emphasize a ‘consistent approach, even when the football landscape changes’. But the club continues to evolve. During and after the pandemic, they added player mental health to the technical and tactical aspects of their program.
Keri Sarver (flanked by April Heinrichs and Jill Ellislisten)) served as U-19 women’s head coach and assistant coach of national youth teams, including the U-20 World Cup squad.
Sarver has also evolved as a player and coach. After earning a degree in computer science from the University of Maryland in 1999 (and, in 2002, a selection to the ACC 50th Anniversary Team), she played professionally for Washington Freedom, New York Power and Carolina Courage. She also earned a USSF “A” license and an NSCAA Director of Coaching Diploma. She was also an assistant coach at the University of Akron.
With all of this, owning Pinnacle Sports is one of its biggest challenges. She bought the company a year and a half ago. It provides a home for the Internationals – a game-changer for a football club – but that means Sarver takes care of the basketball, volleyball and kickball teams and leagues, as well as the indoor turf and outdoors, roofs, insurance, weather and countless other issues.
She follows her Internationals philosophy at the sports center: “Stick to the values that work.” Whether hiring staff or deciding that a proposed event doesn’t fit Pinnacle’s vision, Sarver tries to keep his company’s long-term interests in mind.
Running a football club and sports center consumes most of his time. But when Klimkova asked her to join the New Zealand coaching staff, she never hesitated.
Sarver had been Klimkova’s assistant when she took the USA U-19 women’s team to play Down Under, and was captivated by the spectacular scenery and welcoming people of New Zealand.
She has not returned since her appointment. Due to COVID, the team only played away games, in places like South Korea and Australia. “I work a lot on airplanes,” Sarver says. “And traveling is good, because you know why you are going. The opportunity to coach a group like this is very special.
Last February, Server traveled to Carson, California, where New Zealand and USA met in the SheBelieves Cup.
Coaching for another nation on American soil was “unique,” says Sarver. “I’m a very proud American. I have a lot of experience and connection to American football, so I wasn’t sure how I would feel. Reading the anthems was the most surreal moment.
She sang the national anthems of the United States and New Zealand with pride. After her first tour, she had learned both the English and Maori versions of the latter, “because of the respect I have for the players, staff and culture of New Zealand”.
Once the game started, however, “it was all business”. A crowd of over 16,000 saw the hosts win, 5-0.
As the director of women’s club coaches, the owner of a sports business, even the coach of a national team, Sarver is always in the minority. She sees more women in key positions at ECNL, but does not know of any other club owners. She thinks she is the only female owner of sports facilities in the Akron area. However, she says, “I grew up with three older brothers. I was a software engineer right out of college” – another male-dominated field.
“At the end of the day, whether you’re male or female doesn’t really matter,” she says. “If you do a good job and treat people with respect, that’s all that matters.”