Category: Archive


February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Success seems to come in threes for Downs, who has won 12 amateur soccer titles as a coach with New York Athletic Club and his previous club, Etc., in the last 15 years.
Even as they struggle to get back on track after a rocky start to the Cosmopolitan Soccer League season this fall, NYAC, like Downs’s first team, have twice enjoyed three-year championship reigns.
The congenial Dubliner with the Midas touch makes winning sound simple.
“It’s all to do with personnel [and] the recruitment of players,” says Downs, perhaps the best coach of his generation in local soccer. “My role is to pick the team, keep discipline, and put the right players in the right positions.”
Sounds easy enough.
But surely there’s more behind the enormous success that he has enjoyed since the late ’80s.
Johnny Cavanagh, a long-time associate and partner in some of Downs’s past success, thinks so.
“He’s a leader and he’s a great motivator,” said the former Irish youth international who lured Downs to NYAC as a player in the late ’70s.
“He’s also a great socializer. He goes around and recruits, and he knows the game.”
Cavanagh credits Downs’s motivational skills for that indomitable NYAC spirit that has led to many second-half comebacks during the club’s championship runs.
“He always insists the we’re the better team at halftime even if we we’re down two or three goals,” he said.
Case in point: Athletic Club versus CD Iberia at Travers Island on Nov. 10. Missing several players, NYAC trailed 2-0 after 20 minutes and faced an
unheard of three-game losing streak. But they responded to the halftime pep talk with a blitz of goals and prevailed 4-2.
Downs’s own favorite comeback story goes back to the final game of the 1994-95 season, one late spring afternoon. Needing full points against leaders St. Barnabas to clinch their first-ever championship, NYAC made the most horrendous of starts at SUNY-Purchase when the Saints reeled off two quick goals in the opening 15 minutes.
If St. Barnabas, who dropped out of the league this season, thought it was over, they were badly mistaken.
“We beat them 4-2,” Downs recalled.
There would be four more CSL titles, a total of six in eight years, to add to the silverware collected by Downs with his first club, Etc. in the late ’80s.
Sponsored by a pub of the same name that Downs opened in 1985 on the Upper East Side (he is currently a partner in two Wall Street establishments, Beckett’s and the Waterstone Grill), Etc.’s dynastic reign, first in the defunct Queens Irish Soccer League, and then the Governor’s Island League, had yielded another six championships.
It was with Etc. that Downs, then player/coach, first put his good eye for talent to use, recruiting performers like defender Gary Davis, current Shamrock veteran Mick Haley, and forward Derek Donnelly.
Other Etc. standouts, such as forward Kevin McCarthy, midfielder Jim Wurster, and Scottish goal-getter Brian Arkinson, would later follow Downs to NYAC after his appointment as coach in 1992.
“We had a fantastic team,” he said of his Etc. squad. “We won the [Queens Irish] League three years in a row and went 40 games without defeat.”
Before the Irish League folded, Downs had scooped up a Cup competition and bagged a one-day tournament to go with the three championship trophies.
It was then on to Governor’s Island with Cavanagh at the helm as coach and Downs playing second fiddle. The lads, however, didn’t skip a beat and brushed aside all opposition to win another three titles in as many seasons.
Back in the Cosmopolitan League, NYAC were searching for a coach. Downs didn’t hesitate to return to his old club when offered the job before the 1992-93 season.
Athletic Club’s results were more than credible the first two seasons under their Irish boss. Then he retooled the squad and began another dynasty in New York amateur soccer.
“The first year we finished third, the second year second. Then we got an influx of players,” he said.
In came Mike Connelly and Peter Dimaggio, two forwards who would be critical to NYAC’s early championship wins.
The victory over the St. Barnabas in the de facto 1994-95 title game proved to be a turning point.
“The next year we won the league easily,” he said. “Then the team got better and better.”
New York Croatia halted the NYAC title express in 1997-98, but there was little moping at Travers Island as Downs’s men ended a remarkable season by reaching the final four of the United States Men’s National Amateur Cup in Chicago. They lost to Salinas, a California-based Salvadorian club, in the semis.
And if any proof was required to underscore the fact that NYAC’s previous season’s title loss had been an aberration, it came in the way of another three consecutive championships, while Croatia quickly faded into oblivion.
From 1998 to the new millennium, NYAC ruled the roost in the CSL before perennial rivals New York Albanians broke their stranglehold last season. Downs’s mission this year, albeit made more intriguing by a
surprisingly inauspicious start, is to regain the title and begin another dynasty.
Triumphant as his teams have been in terms of results, the real success Downs may have achieved as a coach is to get his side to play with the same quality and adventure that he showed as a player.
Born in Dublin 50 years ago, he attended Blackrock College, one of the citadels of rugby in the Republic, but stood out as a footballer, along with the Shamrock’s Eltin Colman, for the great youth team Dominic Savio and later TEK United in the Leinster Senior League.
Later, his skills and a persuasive letter on the merits of sharing and melding the Irish and American cultures earned him acceptance to Oneonta State University in 1974 where he majored in business.
“I was one of the first Irish to come to the United States on a soccer scholarship,” he said.
The success of imports like Downs, an All-American in his senior year, opened the pipeline for other Irish players to U.S. colleges.
Cavanagh, who’d played with former Arsenal star Liam Brady at St. Kevin’s in Dublin, recalls how Downs helped him win a soccer scholarship to Oneonta in 1976.
“He’d written an article in the Irish Independent [about] his studies at Oneonta,” Cavanaugh said. “I contacted Ronan and he set the wheels in motion.”
After college, Cavanagh would repay the favor in kind by introducing Downs to Athletic Club as a player in 1979. “And he played very well,” Cavanagh added.
In those days, NYAC played in the old Airlines League. The competition was fairly decent and comprised largely foreign amateurs representing carriers such as KLM, Lufthansa and British Airways.
Before that, Downs had spent his post-graduate years balancing a semi-pro career with his travels around the United States.
He gave up an opportunity to play in the American Soccer League with the New York Eagles in 1977 to head west with a girlfriend. Back in New York, Downs was drafted by the Brooklyn Cosmos of the Greek League, for whom he made summer appearances at the princely sum of $60 per game.
The itinerant Irishman flew west again to spend the second half of the 1978 season with the Las Vegas Sea Eagles in the ASL. On his return, Downs played in the Greek League before beginning his long association with NYAC.
Said Josh Schonhaut, who was NYAC’s chairman when Downs first signed up: “He was a very ‘useful’ player, as they say in England. He played in defensive positions, right wing sometimes, and crossed the ball very nicely.”
Even more impressionable for Schonhaut today is Downs’s demeanor. “His personality is excellent,” he said. “The way he deals with people, the rapport he has and the allegiance he inspires, he’s the glue that binds NYAC together.”
Dick Cini, another NYAC veteran, commends Downs for the success he’s reaped with the club.
“He’s exceptionally well respected as a coach because of what he’s produced,” Cini said.
For Downs, who refuses to be second best, the success has been just rewards in a pursuit that’s more than a sport for him.
“Soccer is the great melting pot. It breaks down barriers and gets us to become one world and to understand each other,” he said.
And having achieved more than most coaches can ever wish for in two lifetimes, Downs, a new father of a 4-month-old boy, can be excused for being sentimental when it comes to his future goals.
“It’s to stay in the sport long enough to see my son play, whether with the Shamrocks or Athletic Club,” he said.

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese