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November 25, 2012 at 11:31 PM

Mike Ryan, perhaps the “principal pioneer” of Seattle soccer, died last week at age 77

mike ryan mug.jpgWe ran an obituary for Mike Ryan, a local soccer legend, in Sunday’s newspaper, but I wanted to offer an extended version on the blog. I actually got to know the coach quite well these past few years. The first extended feature I ever wrote for the paper was on Ryan back in 2007, which details much of his impact in the soccer community.

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Mike Ryan, a lifelong soccer coach, often referred to what he did in another way.

“I love teaching rather than coaching,” he said in a 2007 interview. “With coaching you have a goal, like a championship. I just want people to love the game.”

Ryan’s unbridled passion for soccer, which began at a young age in his native Ireland and spanned more than seven decades, is what is most remembered about him. The local legend, who helped turn the Seattle region into arguably the soccer hub of America, died in his home Tuesday at age 77 after a long battle with Aplastic anemia, a rare autoimmune disorder that affected his bone marrow.

“He was one of the original founders, amongst many people, who really helped build up the popularity of soccer around here — no question about it,” said Alan Hinton, former Sounders coach in the North American Soccer League. “He always had a smile on his face and a kind word about everybody.”

Longtime Seattle Pacific coach Cliff McCrath called Ryan perhaps the “principal pioneer for the soccer in the area.”

“If Washington state is the Autobahn of soccer, without Mike Ryan it would still be a dusty, country road,” McCrath added.

Ryan, born Feb. 14, 1935 in Dublin, was the youngest of six children and first began coaching when he was 12. He was a fine player, sure, but “teaching” was an instant fit that stuck with him upon emigrating a decade later to America, where he served in the U.S. Army (he was stationed in Fort Hood, Texas; Germany; Vietnam; and, finally, Fort Lewis).

In the 1960s, Ryan helped build the men’s varsity soccer program at the University of Washington, where he led the Huskies to 101 wins and four NCAA tournament appearances from 1966 to 1976. Before taking the job, Ryan mistakenly thought his salary was an amount he had to pay — something he was willing to do, but only if he could make payments.

Ryan became the first coach of the U.S. women’s national team in 1985.

“Mike Ryan was there at the very beginning of what has become the most successful women’s international soccer program in the world and his contribution will never be forgotten,” said U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati in a statement.

“He dedicated his life to soccer and working with young people and I’m sure he was very proud to see them grow into great people and players, just as he was proud to see the Women’s National Team grow from its infancy to win World Cups and Olympic gold medals.”

Locally, Ryan ran camps, coached youth and women’s teams, and led high-school programs at Garfield, Bush, and, most recently, Nathan Hale, where he coached with his son, Kevin, in the spring. For his contributions to the soccer community, Ryan received an honorary Golden Scarf from Sounders FC on July 25, 2009.

“He was very honored and very emotional,” Hinton said, “and I was thrilled for him because it was well deserved.”

Some of Ryan’s favorite soccer memories, however, didn’t come with organized teams or leagues. He loved telling stories about the days at Woodland Park, which he likened to the “Garden of Eden” or the “Mecca” for Seattle soccer in those days.

Competitive pick-up games were often split up by nationality or ethnicity, but those labels quickly went away after the final whistle. Ryan made lifelong friends within the diverse soccer community. So much so that for his 75th birthday party in 2010, he made a point of inviting anyone and everyone who played back in the park in those days.

“Don’t bring gifts, just your memories,” he said leading up to the event, boasting a thick Irish accent that never left him.

Ryan’s passions spanned further than the beautiful game, where he was a certified professor of soccer. As a cyclist, he toured around Ireland and elsewhere of northern Europe, and was once recruited by professional clubs

One of his other great loves was dancing.

As a young player, Ryan turned down tryouts with top English clubs Manchester United and Liverpool in order to train with Blackpool, which had a large ballroom. Even two years ago for his birthday party, he was often spotted on the dance floor.

Said Ryan before the celebration: “I’m going to go out kicking, as I came.”

Ryan is survived by his sister Kathy of Dublin; four children, Catherine, Maureen, Kevin, Siobhan; and his partner of 13 years, Karen Waddell. He was preceded in death by his wife of 19 years, Karen, parents Patrick and Kitty, and sisters Martha, Nellie, Essie and Mary.

Per Ryan’s request there will be no funeral. Details of an open house/memorial are yet to be determined.

Here’s a statement from Ryan’s family: Mike asked that any remembrance be in the form of giving blood to any blood center, to the Red Cross, or getting out on a field and sharing your love of soccer with your friends and family.”

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