Ryan Leib: Director of Briarwood Soccer
July 25, 2012By John Battle of Sports and Family Magazine
Director of Coaching, Briarwood Soccer
Simplicity of Life, Directness of Purpose and Christ-Reliance
Ryan Leib was born to play a game that did not exist in mainstream America. It did though, have embryotic life in small towns such as Farmington, Maine. Only no one outside of these Farmington’s knew of it.
Born September 15, 1972, Farmington is where Ryan Leib grew up, on the campus of the University of Maine, Farmington, where his dad, Robert Leib, was the soccer and baseball coach. These sports became his life at the age of five when he not only played the games, but he and his older brother, Dean, tagged along with the university’s teams, traveling from one college town to another, performing the faithful duties of water boy, towel boy, ball boy, and whatever job needed to be done. Now as an adult, Ryan Leib is still performing “whatever job that needs to be done.” But now, the secret is out, and millions of kids every year play the European sport of Football.
When his younger sister, Marta (Clarkson) came along, the family could be found playing some type of sport together. “Wherever there was a ball, there was a game to be played,” Ryan explains.
Today, Ryan is the Director of Coaching for Briarwood Soccer, headquartered at Briarwood Presbyterian Church (PCA) and its affiliated school, Briarwood Christian High School, located in northern Shelby County. Ryan is also head coach for the girls’ soccer team.
His parents, both originally from Pennsylvania, grew up in athletics. His mother, Cynthia, according to Ryan, was a very good athlete in her own right. Both were physical education majors in college and then coached and taught in varying sports programs. Ryan was born in Delaware, outside of Pennsylvania.
To bolster the sport of soccer, Coach Robert Leib started a little league soccer club in Farrmington for two purposes: to advance the knowledge and skills of soccer among the youth, and to have a place for his own children to play the game in a competitive arena. Coach Leib was the director of the club, his college players were the coaches.
Ryan says of his father, “Though he never coached me, he allowed me at an early age to learn how to be coached. And he never took my side when I had a problem. I appreciate that even today.”
Sheltered within the borders of a small town, Ryan’s role models were local high school and college players. The international soccer stars of the time had not made their name known inside the Maine borders. “The guys who played for my father were very impactful,” he says. “And I always remember how they coached us and that is probably why I do what I do now.”
As Ryan’s skills and accomplishments in high school soccer grew, so did his desire to play at the collegiate level. Though there was one monumental obstacle in his way. Due to the reclusive nature of Farmington, his name was not readily known to the still new sport of soccer, not even in his home state of Maine.
In high school he was the star athlete for both soccer and basketball. “Maine was somewhere you didn’t realize how good you are,” he says. Even the coach at the University of Maine did not call though Ryan was an all-state player. He was frustrated he wasn’t getting any attention at the collegiate level.
So, he developed a plan.
Ryan volunteered to attend a fifth year high school boarding school in Connecticut; the Kent School. Not for academics, but solely to play soccer and to bring collegiate attention to himself.
For over 100 years, the Kent School has followed the school motto: Simplicity of Life, Directness of Purpose and Self-Reliance. Located in the Northwest corner of Connecticut in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains along the banks of the Housatonic River, Kent is rich in tradition and innovation. Founded by an Episcopal monk, it maintains an affiliation with the church while developing to address the changing world their graduates enter. It is where students prepare for the world’s top colleges and universities with an extensive liberal arts curriculum and competitive art, music, and athletic programs.
And Ryan Leib had one other motivation to attend Kent: one of his father’s friends was the soccer coach. With Connecticut having developed into a better soccer environment than Maine, in Ryan’s mind, there was no better place to build a name for himself than Connecticut.
And he excelled.
At Kent, he made All-New England, achieved many soccer honors with the All Star team and began to get the attention he needed from collegiate scouts. Even the University of Maine coach called.
But it was the University of New Hampshire, coached by Mike Noonan, which got his attention.
As influential as his dad was in his formative years, Ryan says, “My college coach, Mike Noonan, was also very influential.”
Mike Noonan is a retired American soccer player who played professionally in the American Indoor Soccer Association and is currently the head coach of the Clemson University men's soccer team.
Noonan attended Middlebury College, playing on the men's soccer team from 1979 to 1982. He was a 1981 and 1982 Division III NCAA First Team All American. Noonan played for the Louisville Thunder in the American Indoor Soccer Association. Then in 1986, he signed with the Fort Wayne Flames where he spent two seasons. In 1989, he was hired as head coach of the Wheaton College men's soccer team; his team had a 4-11-0 record his first season. But in his second season, he coached them to a 12-5-1 record. This led to a move to the University of New Hampshire where he coached from 1991 to 1994. In 1995, he became head coach of the Brown University's men's soccer team. Noonan compiled a 160-77-31 record with ten NCAA post-season tournament appearances in fifteen seasons with the Bears. On January 5, 2010, Clemson University announced they had hired Noonan as head coach of the men's soccer team.
Ryan says of Noonan, “He had a very good college career, and he was a very up and coming coach who was very passionate about the game. He was a good teacher. And I had a pro career just through his influence. He opened up a lot of doors for me. He is one of the bright soccer coaching minds in the country, and I was fortunate enough to spend four years with him.”
Ryan began working with kids while in college. He helped coach club teams and made appearances at different levels. But after college, pro soccer was too much a lure for him; it had been his ultimate goal that unless fulfilled, he felt he would have let himself down.
Graduating in 1995 with a degree in soccer and Kinesiology, he was armed with an all-consuming desire to prove his talent as a pro. But due to limited teams in the States, the first professional soccer teams did not emerge until 1996, he made plans to travel to England to show how the Yanks could compete in an English game. Having developed relationships overseas, he had arranged several tryouts, including one in Luton Town, England.
Luton Town Football Club is an English professional football club based since 1905 at Luton, Bedfordshire. The club currently competes in the fifth tier of English football, the Conference National, for the fourth consecutive season. Formed in 1885, it was the first club in southern England to turn professional, and it reached the top division of English football in 1955–56, and earned a major final for the first time when playing Nottingham Forest in the 1959 FA Cup Final. Luton Town's most recent successful period began in 1981–82, when the club won the Second Division and was promoted to the First Division. Winning the League Cup in 1987–88 with a 3–2 win over Arsenal, Luton remained an established First Division club, until relegation in 1991–92 signaled the end of major success. The club is affiliated to the Bedfordshire County Football Association.
Nearly two months in try-outs, Ryan realized he wasn’t going to make any money, “The reality settled in that I was going to have to go home, or starve,” he reminisces.
Though disappointed, he began to see God’s plan for his life. “For Him to get me where I needed to be, I had to go through that,” he relates. “It was a get-it-out-of-my-system check and I realized that this is not what God has in store for me.”
In the States, Major League Soccer (MLS) was in its infant stage and it was a speculative sport at best. He settled with a team in Virginia Beach for two years. It was an eye opening experience for him at the pro level where it is more cut throat and competitive for positions; there was less emphasis on team play and more on individual performance.
Ryan explains, “If you don’t do your job, there’s five people lined up to take your place. There are sixty pro teams at different levels, sporting twenty players, so 1200 players in all and there are 10 million soccer players vying for the positions.” His playing time at Virginia Beach was minimal his second season, and at mid-season they cut his contract.
Though his two years in Virginia didn’t go as planned, he learned to take the next step in learning the game and improving. “And God was working on me pretty hard for I was pursuing soccer more than I was pursuing Him,” he relates. He began to question whether he should stop playing and get a job and move on with his life.
In that pursuit of “what next”, he enrolled in Penn State’s Sports Medicine graduate program.
Then he received a call from the Charlotte Eagles.
Christian owned and led, its mission is to play soccer professionally, teach soccer to youth, and to preach the gospel of Christ. At its core it is a Christian Ministry team where soccer is the tool of choice to share the message of the Bible. Though Ryan knew no one in the area, “It was like God was saying, ‘Here is where you need to be.’”
Charlotte Eagles Head coach, Mark Steffens, has led the Eagles to the USL-2 Championship match seven times, and has won the championship in 2000 and 2005. And the Eagles have qualified for the playoffs an unprecedented 12 of 15 years under the direction of Steffens. He earned the USL-2 Coach of the Year honors in 2008 for the second time as the Eagles claimed the Regular Season Championship. He was first awarded the honor in 2004.
The United Soccer Leagues recognized Steffens for his amazing record and commitment to the community in 2007 as he was inducted into the USL Hall of Fame. Steffens’ soccer career experience is quite extensive. He played professionally for the New York Appollo and the New York United in the American Soccer League. His coaching history goes back more than 20 years, and features his professional experience as the Head Coach of the New York Express of the Major Indoor Soccer League from 1986-87. He was the assistant coach for the Express in 1985-86 and for the New York Arrows (MISL) in 1983-84. Prior to coming to the Eagles, Steffens was the Head Coach of Chaminade High School, a perennial powerhouse private soccer program on Long Island, NY. Steffens holds an "A" coaching license with the USSF and is a graduate of The King’s College in New York with a degree in Physical Education.
Leaving Penn State before finishing his Master’s, and traveling to a land of unknown origins, would begin a journey of blessings for Ryan Leib.
During his five year stint in Charlotte, the team won the National Championship for the third level division, his relationship with God was growing, and he met his future wife who would lead him to Briarwood Presbyterian church and a career doing what he was designed to do: Coach, teach, and witness.
Abigail Reeder was a native to Charlotte, and a college student. They met at his church, Christ Covenant. The pastor, Harry Reeder, was her father. Soon after their meeting, Dr. Reeder took the Pastor’s position at Briarwood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Birmingham, AL, replacing the semi-retired, Dr. Frank Barker.
Ryan and Abby were married May 6, 2000. During their visits to Birmingham, he was introduced to Briarwood’s own soccer ministry, as they were building towards hiring a Director.
After Charlotte, Ryan began to wonder how he was going to use his gifts and talents that God had equipped him with.
The great orchestration of God was at work.
Ryan Leib has been in Birmingham since 2002, after accepting the Briarwood position, and he and Abby now have three children, son Matthias, daughter Taylor, and daughter Mitchell.
His leadership skills he attributes to having great examples before him; his dad, who taught him soccer and parenting skills, and, Mark Steffens. “He was great in incorporating competitive play with ministry,” Ryan says.
And one other school of learning he speaks of: the experience of trying those things taught where sometimes theory and reality don’t always match up. “I learned a lot of things through failure,” he admits.
Ryan is the Director of Briarwood Soccer Club DOC. And is Head Coach of the Briarwood School Lady Lions. The youth soccer club ranges from ages five to eighteen.
The most important quality in any player, he says, is internal drive. He says there are three categories of players; first, the ones who have talent but not the drive so they don’t work very hard; second, the ones who don’t have the talent but work hard, though their talent will only take them so far; and the third are the ones who have talent and drive and work hard at the game. And he would rather have the kids from the latter two groups.
He constantly preaches to kids to “Maximize what you have; be as good as you can be at the talent level you have.”
And one other lesson he teaches.
“Have that proper view of God and yourself and know that what matters for eternity is your relationship with God,” he says. “Sports will come and go, and sports are a great teacher about life, but they are not life. Don’t have your identity in how you perform on the athletic field, but in your relationship with Christ.”
Golf is his pastime and he continues to master it, though he does have a hole-in-one shot while he was in Boston while watching the World Cup games. Few can boast of that.
You may contact Ryan at Briarwoodsoccer.com
Photo courtesy of Ryan Leib