Reading the Game
Office of Research staffer brings Olympics, World Cup experience to women’s soccer pitch
BY ANDREW VOWLES
Randy Ragan’s birthday present came a day early this year. On June 6, one day before the U of G staffer’s big day, he visited BMO Field in Toronto. There on the home pitch of Toronto FC and the men’s national soccer team, he and the other members of Canada’s 1986 World Cup team were inducted into the Soccer Hall of Fame and Museum.
A proud moment, Ragan says — perhaps equalling the one in 2002 when he was inducted as a player. Still, the unassuming midfielder-turned-lawyer is keeping things in perspective. These days, there’s his job as a contracts manager in the Office of Research to think about — and a still-new challenge on home turf here in Guelph.
This fall marks his second season as head coach of the varsity women’s soccer team. With a roster of promising rookies this year, he is hoping the squad will better last year’s performance to reach the playoffs. Besides the new prospects he’s recruited, Ragan hopes to bring a fresh approach, including clearer coaching expectations, to the field.
“I think I’m learning,” he says. “I’ve got to realize players are coming from all different playing backgrounds.” Shades of that 1986 World Cup competition, perhaps.
Recalling Canada’s entry in that year’s tournament in Mexico, Hall of Fame historian Colin Jose says: “It was the only Canadian team that ever qualified for the World Cup.” The squad, including Ragan as a 26-year-old talented midfielder, lost to France in a close-fought game whose only goal came 11 minutes before the end of regulation time. Argentina eventually captured the cup in a 3-2 win over the former West Germany.
Canada had qualified for the first time that year. Only a year earlier, the North American Soccer League (NASL) had folded. That meant a number of players, including Ragan, formerly with the Toronto Blizzard, had had no club to play with for about two years. Others had been released by their home club only days ahead or had been limited to indoor training — no substitute for the real thing, says Jose.
“No other team in the history of the World Cup had been in that situation. They got ready for the most important competition of the year without teams to play for.”
Jose says holding off France until its late-period goal was a real achievement — one due at least partly to Ragan, who was considered one of Canada’s top midfielders. The Guelph native had played varsity soccer at Simon Fraser University and been named to the 1976 national youth team before being drafted by the Toronto Blizzard. From 1980 to 1984, he played in 117 league games with the team, including the North American Soccer Bowl final in 1983 and 1984.
He also played 40 times for Canada, including four games at the 1984 Olympics and three at the 1986 World Cup.
His midfield position was a pivotal one, says Jose, who watched Ragan often at Blizzard games.
“He controlled a lot of the games he played in. He played for the Toronto Blizzard at a time when it was one of the best teams in North America. With soccer, the midfield is often the key to the game. Randy’s distribution and reading of the game were key to the team’s success. He would have gone a lot further in the game if he weren’t such a nice person, if he had more of a mean streak.”
There’s no mean streak — not even a shadow — evident one morning this summer as Ragan recalls his playing days and looks ahead to Guelph’s fall season.
He was named head coach of the women’s team before the start of the 2008/09 season, becoming the third person in four years to hold the position. The team ended his first season with an overall record of 1-12-1 and missed out on post-season play.
Ragan has spent much of the past year doing recruitment and indoor training. Despite lucrative scholarship opportunities that lure many Canadian players to the United States, he says he’s managed to snare a few promising players, including Oakville’s Samantha Bright, Amanda Solyam from Erin Mills and Lauren Hampton from Calgary.
This year’s team played several pre-season games in August and its first home game Sept. 10. Playoffs start early next month, with national finals in November. Ragan is determined that the Gryphons will make the playoffs this year.
“We will be competitive,” he says. “We’re better than our record shows.”
He hopes ultimately to see one or more Gryphons qualify for Canada’s team in the World University Games, held every two years.
Working with Ragan are three assistant coaches, including Prof. Al Weersink of the Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics. The two also play together on an old-timers’ league in Cambridge. “I still get a lot of enjoyment from playing,” says Ragan.
Now a Level 3 coach, he started as assistant coach with the Gryphon men’s varsity team in 2007, two years after joining the University. By then he’d spent three years coaching a Guelph boys’ team in the regional soccer league. He coached the Guelph Royals under-16 team that reached the Tier 2 final of the Ontario Cup in 2003 and won the under-17 Tier 2 Ontario Cup in 2004.
As soon as he started working at U of G, Ragan began watching for a coaching opening on campus. “For better or worse, I just can’t stay away from it. Coaching and preparing a team for competitive games are very challenging.”
He grew up playing soccer in Langley, B.C. Pastime turned into passion around age 10, when he joined a league. “We played before school, at lunchtime, after school — it was what we did.” As a member of the under-16 provincial team, “I was fit, I could run a lot, I could get by technically, and I could read the game well.”
Reading the game — including having a good sense of positioning and other players’ movements — is just as critical as kicking the ball. Ragan says many people are surprised to learn just how little ball possession time any single player has during a typical game. Even for good ball players, “if you total the amount of time the ball is at their feet, it’s about three minutes out of a 90-minute game.”
He was in his mid-20s when the NASL folded in 1985. “At that time, if you were approaching 30, the culture was that you had to think about hanging up your boots.” It was time for him to think about life after soccer.
After completing a bachelor of education, Ragan enrolled at Osgoode Hall Law School in 1986. He was called to the bar in 1991. He worked for a private law firm and for Legal Aid Ontario before joining the Office of Research in 2005.
It’s his job to dot all the legal “i’s” on research contracts involving faculty across the University. “Before the money can flow, you need a contract in place,” he says. “A legal background helps.”
Ragan and his wife, Janet, a Guelph graduate in applied human nutrition, moved to Guelph in 1984. They have four children, including Ben, 22, a fourth-year freshwater and marine biology student at U of G and a varsity soccer player.