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Originally published October 9, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 9, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Prep Soccer | New kicks for an old shoe

For more than six decades, Mike Ryan has made soccer his life. Now he's passing on his abundant soccer knowledge to the girls team at Nathan Hale High School.

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Wearing a wide smile, the first-year coach dribbles down the field during Nathan Hale High School's girls soccer scrimmage. The ball clings to Mike Ryan's cleats like wet grass clippings as he slips by a player and makes a crisp pass.

The girls marvel at his footwork and agility.

Hard to believe he's 72 years old.

"He's got the energy of a 5-year-old," said Raiders freshman Kelsey Radwick.

Ryan's passion for soccer helps him ignore his aching joints and stiff back for a couple of hours a day.

"It's not just a sport, it's a way of life," says Ryan, the lilt of his native Ireland in his voice. "It's a love of life."

For more than six decades, Ryan has made soccer his life. His love for the game spans two countries, an ocean, a continent, countless teams and thousands of players.

In Ryan, Seattle has its own soccer legend.

He was the first head coach of the U.S. women's national team. He helped build the University of Washington men's soccer program and coached the Huskies to four NCAA tournament appearances. He has been a certified professor of soccer for over 30 years.

Oh, and the old, bald guy still has the touch with the ball at his feet.

"I'll always have the touch," says Ryan with a laugh.

From Dublin to Seattle

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Rewind six decades. It's Christmas morning in Dublin, and little Mike Ryan hopes for the same gift he gets every year — a new soccer ball. Last year's is getting worn.

"The ball and me became friends very young," he recalls.

It's no wonder those balls wore out so quickly. Ryan took them with him everywhere, and played until it was too dark to see.

Games were to easy to find. Every kid around — the whole soccer-crazed country, for that matter — played. Every street could field three teams, Ryan remembers.

So many players. So few coaches.

But Ryan owned a bike and lived close to the field, so beginning at age 12 he began coaching some of the local teams. He already was one of the most talented kids in the neighborhood.

When he was a teenager, some of the top teams in Europe, including Manchester United and Liverpool F.C., offered Ryan a tryout. Instead, he opted to train with a smaller club, because Blackpool F.C. had a ballroom.

"I loved dancing," he says. "Blackpool had the best dance hall. You could dance every night, in the afternoon, whenever you wanted."

His graceful moves might have worked on the dance floor, but Ryan never landed a professional contract. His future lay in soccer, but as a coach across the Atlantic.

Ryan was 23 when he realized he had to leave Ireland. He and his friends couldn't find work in the depressed Irish economy, and Ryan joined a wave of emigrants to the U.S.

He landed in New York City, ended up in the Army, and after a tour in Germany, was stationed in Fort Lewis. Wherever he was, soccer tagged along, as he played or coached local teams.

"This is the passport to the world," Ryan says. "Everywhere you go, they play."

Within two years of moving to Seattle in 1962, Ryan married. He and Karen had four children.

Helping soccer grow

In the 1960s, it wasn't easy to be a soccer fan in Seattle.

Few sporting-goods stores stocked soccer equipment. No local college or professional teams existed. So Ryan went to work.

To promote youth soccer in Seattle, Ryan contacted suppliers in Vancouver, B.C., that could ship soccer balls and cleats to local stores. At times, he even drove across the border to fetch equipment.

At UW, Ryan lobbied assistant athletic director Joe Kearney for a varsity program. His persistence eventually got him hired as the Huskies' third men's soccer coach.

When Kearney mentioned he'd be getting $2,500 for the job, Ryan's mind raced. How would he be able to come up with so much money?

"Can I make payments on that?" Ryan asked.

"No," Kearney replied, "We're paying you $2,500."

Decades later, Ryan is seeing the product of his work. He sees kids by the thousands playing soccer across the Puget Sound region.

Whenever he drives by a youth match, one thought crosses his mind: "Now the game is on its way."

A family crisis

In the summer of 1977, Ryan and the Huskies were coming off another NCAA tournament appearance. Expectations were high.

That's when life gave Ryan a swift kick in the backside. Karen was diagnosed with cancer and was given six months to live. Soccer faded into the background as his wife fought the disease. She spent 93 days in the same hospital she had worked as a nurse, and Mike was there every day.

"I didn't have time for anything or anybody," he says.

Ryan quit coaching. His family became his sole focus.

Karen fell into a coma, and for six long weeks, Mike feared the worst. Then came a call from doctors saying his wife was awake and was asking for him and their kids.

Ryan found her wide awake with a smile on her face.

"It was a miracle," Ryan says. "She came to say goodbye."

Doctors gathered with tears in their eyes as Karen thanked them for taking care of her. She hugged her kids one last time and died later that evening.

"Love of the game"

These days, it's always about fun with Mike Ryan.

At Nathan Hale's practices, Ryan tries to make coaching points with over-the-top metaphors. He tells his girls to be like magicians. Or matadors. Or fishermen.

"He really challenges us, and forces us to raise our level of play," says senior defender Tessa D'Alessandro.

Ryan has coached at Garfield, Bush School and also guided the Nathan Hale boys team to the Metro League Sound Division title last spring.

"Anyone that's worked in soccer in this area knows him." says Seattle Prep girls soccer coach Andrew Hendricks. "He's really the dean of coaches in the area."

But it's about more than coaching to Ryan. It's about the game he has nurtured for so many years.

"I love teaching rather than coaching," he said. "With coaching you have a goal, like a championship.

"I just want people to love the game."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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