Ryan Beier remembers the inception of Sioux Falls soccer. The sport's first organized league came to the city when he was five, and he has been involved ever since. His first year at Dakota Gold was his sophomore year of high school. They would play for high schools in the area and compete across the state in what was still a recreational league.
Soccer came to his college his junior year, one year after the women's program opened at the University of Sioux Falls (then Sioux Falls College). Beier played those two years before becoming an assistant coach one year, and then the head coach for one year after that. But his teaching took priority to his coaching, so he took a full-time teaching position at O'Gorman High School.
The position also came with an offer to coach junior varsity soccer. A couple years later, he was the head coach at O'Gorman, and he has just finished his twentieth year coaching high school soccer. Throughout that time, he has coached Dakota Gold and later Dakota Alliance and age groups from U10 to U20.
He knew Amadu Myers (the previous Thunder owner) when Myers was playing high school soccer, which later led to an assistant coach position at the Thunder. He's now stepped into the role of head coach, and heads into a season marked by uncertainty. Here, Beier talks with the Thunder social media manager about his life, the Thunder, and South Dakota soccer.
Q: This is not your first foray into the NPSL, but now you're in command. That must be exciting.
A: It is. In previous years, I knew all the coaches through connections and helping them out and I really wasn't in a position to be the head coach at the time because I was coaching club teams and some other things. It kind of worked out timewise where I thought I could take it this year. I'm going to have enough help where if I'm still planning on going to my kids' tournaments I can do that and we'll have enough staff to fill in if I have to miss some training.
Q: You have a lot of years of coaching experience. Are you nervous about coaching at this level? Does it feel like another level?
A: What I take into this is, with the experience I've had with coaching, it's very similar to coaching college and those guys that are just out of college. What I like about this level of coaching is the commitment of the players is typically there to improve and get better for some purpose, whether it's to move up on their college team or to play after college. I've been around in the town long enough and I look back on some of these guys in the Sioux Falls area who are the quality of player that can go to colleges in the Midwest and farther and compete on their college teams. What's happening now is those guys who have done that are coming back to Sioux Falls and saying, "Hey, do I stay in my college town for the summer or do I come back and play in Sioux Falls?" What the Sioux Falls Thunder is going to do is give them an opportunity to do that.
Q: Have you lived in Sioux Falls your whole life?
A: The Sioux Falls area, yes. I've been a part of the different growth spurts, and growing pains, of soccer. I go back to when Sioux Falls soccer first started and it was all hands on deck. It was any parent that wanted to stand on a sideline. We were kicking volleyballs around with whatever we could find to play some soccer. Some of the early people who knew soccer were able to get things like Yankton trails set up with the original soccer fields. As for the growth of club soccer in the Sioux Falls area, there's been probably five or six different club organizations--smaller, parent-run groups. When Dakota Gold was originally formed, it was along the lines of, "How can we advance these players? Can we keep building with those trained coaches, the coaches who wanted that ongoing learning and training and were willing to take those things on?" I think a huge instrument of growth in Sioux Falls is having those professional coaches, those people who continually go to trainings and conferences and continue to work on the development of players in the area.
Q: Do you still see any weak spots to shore up in Sioux Falls soccer? Is the Thunder a part of that? Are the clubs a part of that?
A: I think it can be. Originally when the Thunder was formed it was to let younger players see a next level of player. That's obviously a continuing aspect of what younger players want to be, they want to see what that looks like. When you go back to the original Sioux Falls Spitfire that was here, that was huge when it first started off, and a lot of the players that played are still in the area. They're parents now, they're business people. Now there are avenues in the NPSL that maybe a player can continue on and get into the next level of NPSL and latch onto some other teams in the NPSL. Even some MLS academies can happen.
Q: Both you and the general manager have a local focus. Do you have any plans for the area youth in preparation for the future?
A: A lot of that is up to the management. I absolutely think we'll offer training opportunities within our organization for younger players to come up and do some training. I think there will be some camp opportunities. Even the college coaches that we've talked to already that will be sending players in our direction, that helps our younger players with the connections. If they say, "Who's that coach in that school. Do you know that coach?" That's just building a brand and building connections of, "Hey, I have this player who's willing to come back to Sioux Falls and play." I think the biggest thing the Thunder will bring with those local players, and even the players who are from out of town, is that consistent training. We have the Spanish leagues, we have the men's leagues, but those are once a week. It's very difficult for a college player to consistently train with a higher level of a player that they want to play with. A big benefit of our organization is that you're not just playing on Saturdays. It's the consistency of training, of trying to improve those players and improve themselves, keeping their fitness level up and keeping their touches at the technical level that they want to improve at. It's going to be a continuation of the level they came off at and trying to advance that so that they're always taking steps forward.
Q: It's very growth oriented.
A: Exactly. It's giving players an opportunity. That player who says they love playing in games but they hate to train...the NPSL is not for them. Players get better by training, teams get better by training. It will be more of the training to get better, and when you do that, the games take care of themselves. The North Division will be a difficult division to play in. At the same time, I don't think it's a huge difference from the top team to the bottom team on how you compete and how you play. Most of the teams are using college-level players. When you put those players on the field, their instinct to play and their level of intensity make those games so entertaining to watch.
Q: Speaking of games, what are your preseason goals for the Thunder, and your first season goals and beyond?
A: At this time of year, our preseason goal is getting the players that have that interest, that passion, that fire, to come and play. We don't know what that number will look like. One thing I know is that we don't want to be too short with those numbers. You always have injuries and different situations where players can fill into different spots. At the NPSL level, you might have a guy who starts a couple games, and then the way the tactics and formations for your next opponent will be, you change some things up.
With that being said, going back to the training, the first thing we'll do is get a feel for the dynamic of the player that we have. Are we talking about a fast player who likes to get up and down the field, or do we have some players who are more compact and possession focused? With any team you find the combination of both of those things to really work. I'll tell you right now we're not going to sit back and wait for a counterattack. It's not a style of soccer that I believe in and it's also not really a fun style of soccer. Looking at the technical aspect of things, what's unique to the NPSL this year is that most of the college players we're going to bring in, or players just done with college, is that most of the players are going to be just done with their seasons. With the [COVID-19] protocols, a lot of league play is still going to happen in the spring a week or two prior to joining us. So it's getting a feel for how the players will fit together, getting them to gel together and figure out what they can form. The one thing I really like about the NPSL and coaching this level of player is that if they're technically sound and physically fit is that we can easily change formations and that can happen within each game. It's not quite as structured as a high school game, most of these players are able to adjust on the fly with those tactics. That's where the game really takes that thinking part of it and adds a higher tactical quality and awareness of the game.
Q: I forgot that their conference games are happening in the spring.
A: We're planning and hoping and doing all of our things like it's going to be a regular season. But the schedules for the NPSL are very fluid right now. That's part of a discussion among owners of the teams and what they're able to do. The NPSL is very flexible and accommodating with the players that they want. I know if we needed twenty players from the Sioux Falls area to go out and play we could do that, they just might not be the players that we want. We don't want to have a glorified Sunday afternoon men's team. We want to put together the highest quality team that we can. That won't mean we'll win every game, but we want to be competitive every game. When you do that in soccer, if you are competitive enough, you start earning some breaks and start earning some wins over losses with that chemistry that can happen.
Q: Do you have to mentally prepare these students to make the switch from college to the NPSL?
A: Like I said, the North Conference, all of the teams are all similar. If you go to Med City out of Rochester, they're mostly college kids. If you go to Duluth, to Fargo, same thing. I don't think the switch is that hard for the players. I do think the biggest difference is that possibly they were one of the best players of their team and now they might not be, they might be in the bottom part of that group. They might be a non-starter. Knowing their role is huge. If a guy can score goals in college, they can score goals in the NPSL. The difference, though, is each team will have a handful of players who are game-changers, and those game-changers are what can make or break a team and I think that's what makes the league fun. You will see a level of player that they've maybe never played against before. I think for any team that's exciting. When I look back now on the best players I played against and played with, those were fun experiences. Any player always wants to challenge themselves with better players. If they don't want that opportunity, I don't think they're in the right spot.
Q: Wow, I'm excited for the season now. We need to get some fans out! Well, I suppose that's my job.
A: Yeah, it is! Well, already in a few days here we're gonna have a kick-around. The buzz of the local players that are now hearing about us and the opportunity to try out for us, they're gonna come play for us in a day or two. We have our tryout dates set [for January 23rd and February 6th], we're talking to the colleges and the college coaches and the contacts that we have, we have our staff that will continually be announced in the coming days and weeks. We're already working hard at taking good looks at players and where they're coming from. I've taken looks at college players who are on our watch list and seen their footage. Excitement is great, anticipation is great, and having that new freshness. Last year everything was shut down, and now it's a reset. Hopefully we get everything going and it will be a great experience for Sioux Falls and the surrounding area.
Q: For such a relatively small city, I think it's fantastic that Sioux Falls has this team.
A: It is. We are a minor league town. What I mean by that is that if you go to a Storm game, there are a ton of people that support the Storm. If you go to a Canaries game, a Skyforce game, a Stampede game, they have their followings. What happens is that people love the idea that they see the players of those teams around the community. For the Thunder, I think it's the same thing. People who come to the games are going to get to know the players. It's not just watching a game on TV that you might with a professional game, these players will be working in the community, hopefully doing camps and different things. We hope to make them as visible as possible, not only on the soccer field but in and around town.
Q: How do you think the Thunder will make an impact in the Sioux Falls community?
A: I think it can make a huge impact. I go back to when the Spitfire was in town playing at O'Gorman, I think that was a great model and a great opportunity. For the younger kids in town, they could see another level of soccer. Now that was just when the MLS was starting up, so now you can watch all sorts of professional leagues on television. But now these people are in our community and that's huge. I don't think we'll have it all in the first year. It will take a handful of years to build that product and build that relationship. But I definitely think if people give us a chance, they're gonna enjoy the level of play, they'll enjoy coming out and meeting the players and the coaches. I've lived in this town my whole life and I'll probably know half of the people at the game. If they come out and give the Thunder an opportunity to show them what we can do, that will be huge. It's going to be a great opportunity for our players and our team to build in our community.
Q: It's almost trust, in a sense, between Sioux Falls and the Thunder.
A: For sure. That's the biggest thing, is having that consistent level of play and the level of players around the league. We hope to be able to build some rivalries. Some of the teams in the NPSL and in our conference have been around longer, so they have a grasp of how to build in their community and what that's looks like, but I definitely think that when we start going to their facilities and playing and they come to our facilities and play, it'll be a very entertaining product for people to come and watch.
Q: Last question. Do you have any advice for players or newer coaches?
A: The advice I will tell every player is absolutely enjoy the opportunity to play and never take for granted that opportunity. Even coaching, never take for granted that opportunity to coach. I don't think it matters what level you're coaching at, that's a great opportunity. What I've realized throughout my twenty years of coaching is that you never stop learning something new about the game. Soccer has been around for a long, long time throughout this world. Depending on the players that you're coaching and teaching, I think there's always something you can teach them that's new and improved. A lot of times coaches can get stuck in a rut and I don't think that does players or coaches any good. The game is always evolving. Always keep trying to better yourselves, better your level of play, better your level of coaching. As with any job, doing it the right way, doing it the best you can, I'm big on that. Not settling, not just being good enough, but being the best at what we're doing. I think the results take care of themselves if you're putting that effort in each day.
The Thunder season will begin in May. Season tickets can be purchased here. Tryouts for the team will be held January 23rd from 10am-12pm and 4-6pm, and February 6th from 4:30-6:30pm. The snow date is February 13th, time TBD. Registration can be found here.