After grinding through minor league soccer for nearly a decade, Kyle Venter is settling down to be Arizona’s new assistant coach.
The question he so often gets: Was it difficult for him to give up his playing career?
“So many people have asked me that, and I think when you’ve played as long as I have, I think it’s always going to be tough to stop,” the 29-year old said. “I love playing, I love soccer, I love being part of a team atmosphere and I think you’ll always miss it. But I’m stepping into a new role here. I’m still part of a team atmosphere, still the same competitor, all that kind of stuff. But I was ready to just step into a new role and I was really at peace with that decision.”
Venter went pro in 2014 and suited up for a different organization almost every season. His long-winding career included stints with the Los Angeles Galaxy, Tulsa Roughnecks, Ottawa Fury, FC Tucson and, most recently, the Richmond Kickers of the United Soccer League.
Arizona head coach Tony Amato jokes that he hired Venter because he had lost a step as a player and wanted to save him from the embarrassment of being an aging player in a young man’s game. The reality is coaching has been on Venter’s mind for the last few years. The idea of mentoring student-athletes on and off the field is appealing to him.
And to be able to do it an Arizona program that has become one of the best in the country was a rare opportunity that he just couldn’t pass up.
“It was an easy decision to me because I’m a competitor and if you’re not trying to win, I don’t know why you’re doing things,” Venter said. “And so that being the goal, I’m going to do everything in my power to help and work together with the staff to help us get there.”
Venter got a taste of the college coaching life in 2019 when he was Arizona’s volunteer assistant. He was starring for FC Tucson at the time and reached out to Amato to see if he could help the Wildcats in any way.
Amato was hesitant at first. Before he welcomes anyone into the program, he has to make sure he or she is the right fit. Venter eventually earned Amato’s approval through his work with the FC Tucson summer team and, later, at UA’s own soccer camp.
Amato noticed Venter had an innate way of connecting with young players.
“It was clear when he worked our camp that he was dedicated to this, he was smart, he was a legitimate professional in the sense of there were no concerns about his character or the qualities he would bring into the table,” Amato said. “And then with all volunteers we’ve ever had, you kind of just sprinkle it in in the beginning and see how it goes, how they do. And he hit the ground running and I’m a big fan of people who exceed expectations or go above and beyond.”
Other than recruit, volunteer assistants can do more or less what full-time coaches can. They just don’t have the time do it because of other obligations. In Venter’s case, he was busy captaining FC Tucson during its first professional season, a role he did not take lightly.
Even still, he was wholly invested in Arizona soccer, always lending a helping hand at games and practices. At one point, Venter was living with Arizona women’s tennis coach Ryan Stotland, who told Amato that Venter was breaking down more film than he could imagine.
“We had witnessed some of that, and then just through our conversations it was really important to Sandy (Davison) and I to have someone who was going to support the program’s mission and vision, support the philosophy,” Amato said. “And through the conversations that we had with Kyle, he shared that really early on that he was on board with what the vision was, and we just felt like that would make it an easy transition into this role.”
Venter and Amato first discussed the role this summer after longtime assistant Paul Nagy resigned. Venter eventually went through the formal interview process, but had several informal conversations with Amato along the way.
Amato had to ensure that Venter knew exactly what the job entailed. It’s not just giving pointers to players, designing tactics or studying film. It’s recruiting. It’s meeting with players about non-soccer issues. It’s making sure everything behind the scenes is running smoothly, from team meals to transportation. Things that players typically have no clue about, Amato said.
“He had seen it as a volunteer, but just making sure he understood that this is going to be hard, it’s going to be a grind,” Amato said. “There was no, ‘I’m selling this to Kyle as a recruiting process.’ If anything I was painting how hard this was gonna be and seeing if he winced at all. And he was very comfortable and understanding how hard that was gonna be and he’s hit the ground running since he’s been here.”
The recruiting aspect is new, yes, but Amato is confident Venter has the chops to be successful.
“Some people you talk to and you’re like, ‘yeah, I don’t know, they’re probably going to rub some people the wrong way or they’re not able to communicate in clear ways to people or they may not be that likable,”’ Amato said. “All those things were not my concerns with him and I knew he’d be able to go in and communicate and is likable and would build those relationships.”
Arizona players can attest to that. Senior forward Jill Aguilera was amped to hear that Venter was joining the program in a full-time capacity. She didn’t have any input in the assistant coaching search but said he would have been her top candidate.
“He’s helpful everywhere on the field,” Aguilera explained. “He’ll help with set pieces, defense, midfield, offense, anything. In 2019, he recognized what we are good at, what we could work on. And now that he’s here full-time, I think he’s really getting down into the nitty gritty of that kind of stuff. For me, when I take free kicks, he’s telling me, ‘oh, this would be the best here’ or he’ll help with top-of-the-box shooting, getting tight turns, being able to optimize how many shots I have and creating a higher percentage of them going in. It’s not just a random shooting drill. It has a purpose.”
Aguilera and fellow forward Jada Talley were recently acquired by NWSL teams, so they find Venter and his pro experience very relatable. It helps that he is not far removed from being a student-athlete and knows what it takes to be successful at this level. A three-time All-American, Venter graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2013 after leading the Lobos to the Final Four.
“He’s just really supportive,” Talley said. “Today I did something (at practice), did my move and I messed up my shot and I literally was saying all these bad words. And then he was like, ‘next one, next one, next one.’ He’s always the first one to be like, ‘stop, get out of your head.’ You ask him any question, he knows an answer no matter what position you are.”
Venter was a defender in college and the pros, but said he developed an all-around understanding of the game when he started watching film at UNM. He later had the chance to learn from bright minds like U.S. soccer star Landon Donovan and former U.S. men’s national team coach Bruce Arena when he was with the Galaxy, who selected Venter 24th overall in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft.
Venter didn’t just keep that knowledge to himself, either. Richmond head coach Darren Sawatzky, who also coached Venter at FC Tucson, noted that Venter’s leadership skills were a big reason the club signed him last January, saying that his experience would be “paramount in helping with the growth of young players.”
“Obviously when you play at a high enough level, you’ve got to be athletic enough and technical enough and all that kind of stuff,” Venter said. “But I think a lot of the coaches that have had me would tell you that a lot of the intangibles that I brought outweighed anything I could do physically or technically. That stuff was obviously just a given and then everything else made it that much better to have me in the locker room and a part of the team.”
While Venter did not officially join Arizona’s coaching staff until December, he actually accepted the position in October, right around when Richmond was wrapping up its season.
He laced up his cleats for his last few games, then packed up his car and made the haul across the country to begin his new career in Tucson.
It was a whirlwind, he said, but he never doubted his decision to leave his playing days in the rearview mirror.
“You take a three- or four-day trip across the country, there’s a lot of things that go through your head, and I’m so excited to be here,” Venter said. “The thought of not playing or anything, that is not even on the forefront of my mind right now.”