Photo courtesy Steven Christy / OKC Energy FC
During his playing days, Gareth Evans brought a combination of guile and steel to the field in the center of midfield, featuring prominently for both Wilmington Hammerheads FC and OKC Energy FC on his way to more than 100 appearances in the league’s modern era.
After stepping away from the playing arena in 2016, though, Evans is still strongly connected to the game in Oklahoma City, where he is now plying his trade on the sidelines for Oklahoma FC, Energy FC’s youth academy, and helping the top young players in the region hone their skills with the insights Evans brings from his playing career, and development as a coach.
We caught up with the former All-League selection recently to find out how he’s adapted to life on the sidelines, and to take a look back at what was an outstanding career on the field in the USL.
Q: We don’t get to see you on the field anymore, but you’re still active in Oklahoma City as a coach for Oklahoma FC. What has it been like making the transition to the sideline over the past couple of years?
Gareth Evans: It’s been great, I’ve really enjoyed it. I was already coaching quite a bit before I retired so it was a relatively easy transition. My club has recently affiliated with Energy FC and expanded throughout Oklahoma, into Tulsa too and we are currently making a big push to join the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. We have a ton of talented kids here in Oklahoma, as shown recently with our girls in the SYL North American Finals last month. Our ‘05, ‘04, ’03 – which I coach – and ‘99 girls teams made their finals with the ‘05’s and ‘99’s going on to win.
On our boys side our ‘03’s and ‘01’s just won their respective National Leagues to qualify for Nationals, our ‘02’s will finish in the top three and our ‘04’s – who finish their National League play in March – have a great chance of winning and qualifying for Nationals as well. On top of that, two of our ‘04 boys just made the U.S. National team roster and we also have previous players on the girls’ side who have gone on to represent the U.S. and Wales internationally. All in all, it’s a very exciting time to be a part of what we have going on here in Oklahoma, and I’m proud to be able to play a small part in this.
Q: From what we’ve been seeing you’re having some good success as well, especially at the SYL North American Finals last month?
GE: Yes, my ‘03 girls had an outstanding tournament in Florida. We finished as runners-up and unfortunately fell a little short in the final where we lost 1-0, but it was a great experience for the team and their families who came out. The SYL did a great job hosting at IMG, it’s a beautiful facility. I’ve also coached a couple of State Cup winning teams and gone to compete at regional events, too, which has all been a great learning curve for me as a coach and has also helped build my own experience. Going from being a player – where your only worry is playing – to now the complete opposite, having to make sure the team is prepared on the field, and then everyone and everything is taken care of off the field with regards to travel, hotels, meals and everything else – where I must give big thanks to my team managers! – is quite the transition, but one I’ve loved every minute of.
Q: You made more than 100 appearances in the USL and were the first player to reach 10,000 minutes played in the league’s modern era. Was there anything in particular you enjoyed most about your playing career?
GE: I enjoyed it all really, through the good times and the bad. I was fortunate enough to travel and live all over America from East to West, get to compete day-in day-out with some outstanding players, learn a lot from some brilliant coaches and meet some people who’ll be friends for life. It also gave me a platform to form a life for myself in a country I now proudly call home, so that’s something I’ll be eternally grateful for.
Photo courtesy Steven Christy / OKC Energy FC
Q: What do you think your biggest strength as a player, and a teammate, was?
GE: I was a strong personality on the field and in the locker room. I gave 100 percent every time I stepped on the field, whether practice or games. I was aggressive, a good communicator on the field, good in the air and technically I felt I had a good range of passing. I also enjoyed the everyday banter and camaraderie, which is what I probably miss the most, especially the early Wilmington years. That group of guys we had at that time were absolutely brilliant to be around day-in and day-out.
Q: From the outside it seemed your career ended pretty abruptly after the opening game of the 2016 season. What happened that made it time to step away?
GE: It certainly didn’t end how I’d imagined my career ending, nor how I would have liked it to, but that’s soccer, players and coaches all move on at some point or another. Deep down inside I knew my time as a player was winding down because my love for playing and training was diminishing all the time. I had been coaching a lot more the previous offseason and I was finding myself getting much more enjoyment and reward from that side of the game than my own playing.
After the first game of 2016 season [then-Energy FC Head Coach] Jimmy [Nielsen] informed me he wanted to move the club in a different direction and as a player to a coach I respected his decision. Despite the timing I had several clubs interested and one or two offers that were tempting, but at my age the thought of moving across country or to another country and starting again wasn’t something I was enamored with. I love living in Oklahoma City and I love my coaching work here, it feels like we are on the start of something special happening at our club and I didn’t want to walk away from that, so I made a call to the Directors of Coaching and thankfully they wanted to keep me involved in a bigger role than when I was mixing playing and coaching, so it was a no-brainer for me.
I had a great run as a player in USL and managed to achieve some team and personal success, but it just felt like the right time to hang the boots up and really focus on my coaching career, and I haven’t regretted that decision a day since.
Q: You played a major role in some memorable playoff victories in your career. Is there one that stands out more than the rest?
GE: There are two games that stand out, and it’s almost impossible to choose just one as a favorite. The first one came from our playoff run with Wilmington in 2012 where we played Orlando the overwhelming favorites, No.1-seed, in Florida at the Citrus Bowl. We were up 3-0 inside 30 minutes and then hanging on for dear life in the final seconds to beat them 4-3, that was an amazing feeling for us. Secondly it would have to be playing for Energy FC in front of an absolutely packed house at Taft stadium. It was OKC’s first ever home playoff game in our new stadium and in terms of atmosphere alone that was the best I’ve experienced as a player in America by far. We beat Colorado Springs on penalty kicks, and I managed to score mine, which just topped the experience off for me.
Q: You were named as an All-League selection four times, but just missed out on winning a championship. Would you trade the individual accolades for a winner’s medal?
GE: Absolutely, in a heartbeat. I’m very proud of my individual accolades and they certainly mean a lot to me, but the ultimate goal would have been to win a Championship. Unfortunately, we came a little short in 2012, I think the Orlando game took it out of us, that was our final and simply enough we just didn’t turn up on the day in Charleston and they deserved to win the game.
Q: What do you enjoy most about Oklahoma City?
GE: My coaching for sure. Oklahoma City is a city that’s on the up, soccer and everything else. Everywhere you look it’s growing, the people here are fantastic, and they’ve supported me in playing and coaching since day one. The backing we have for the club both from Tim McLaughlin and Bob Funk on the business side of it through to the fans and families in the city that support not just the pro team but also the youth club is outstanding. I truly believe the sky is the limit for this club and city.
Q: One of your former teammates, Mark Briggs, has quickly made a name for himself on the sidelines in the USL. Is that a path you would like to have the chance to pursue in the future?
GE: Briggsy is flying! He had an amazing year last year with Real Monarchs and fully deserved his USL Coach of the Year award. I would never rule out being back on the sidelines in the future, I certainly think I have a lot to offer in the professional environment, especially with my experience within the league, but right now my focus is with the youth.
I am currently in the process of working through my coaching licenses, having just completed my USSF “B” License, and I am enjoying learning the ropes with the youth players. As I was when I was a player, I’m very passionate about my coaching and I’m determined to constantly keep learning and evolving to be the best coach I can be, and I feel this is a great learning environment for both the players and up-and-coming coaches like myself to thrive in. Who knows where that may end up down the line, pros or youth. Either way I’m thankful for the opportunity USL gave me in America, thankful for the opportunity to learn and grow here in OKC and I’m really excited to see what the future holds both for myself and the league as it continues to grow.