Sharolta Nonen, a former All-American at Nebraska and star of two Canadian World Cup teams, is the new assistant women’s soccer coach at Georgia Gwinnett College. (Staff Photo: Christine Troyke)
Former All-American Sharolta Nonen, a star member of the 1999 and 2003 Canadian World Cup teams, is the women’s soccer assistant coach at Georgia Gwinnett College.
Nonen is one of the most decorated former players in the game, twice being named to World Cup all-tournament teams as a top defender. She played professionally in the U.S., twice for Atlanta teams, and in Europe.
In this installment of “Getting to Know …,” the Vancouver, B.C., native talks with staff writer Christine Troyke about a variety of topics, including coming to Atlanta right out of college after being drafted by the Beat, her tour of world cities and making the switch to coaching.
CT: How did you end up joining the GGC coaching staff?
SN: I started as a volunteer this past spring with (head coach) Dom (Martelli). He and I met quite a few years ago when I first came to Atlanta to play soccer. We kept in touch a little bit. Every time I came back in town, we’d shoot each other an email or a text. Once I decided I wanted to stay here in Atlanta, I gave him a call — do you need any volunteers? Can I help you guys out?
I came out in January or February, started helping out with the team a bit and getting to know the staff. We just went from there. It just happened that it was good timing, on my part, that Mandy (Schneider, the former assistant coach) was looking for a bit of a change. She went into the youth game and I got the opportunity to stick around and help with the team.
CT: What appeals to you about coaching here with such a new program? Especially after having such a successful playing career yourself?
SN: Quite a few things. It is a new program and that’s cool for me because the way I started out my college career was pretty much the same way. When I went to my university, it was the third year of the program.
CT: Really? I assumed because it’s such an established university that the program would have been there.
SN: Not for women’s soccer. Football, basketball, yes, have been there for many years. But when I got there, it was actually just the third year of the program. So it’s nice that you can come in and now I’m obviously coaching, but you get to set the tone for what kind of an environment, what kind of a program you want to establish. I’m really excited to be a part of that.
Then of course, you can’t beat the facilities. Even at the University of Nebraska, we had a 10-15 minute drive out to the soccer complex every day for practice. Now I’m feeling very spoiled, but also very fortunate that we have all of our offices here. We have the student study area. They can come here and get tutored, go downstairs for treatment. We’ve got the locker room and they can walk right out to the soccer field.
CT: You’ve lived in Atlanta, off and on, for quite some time, right?
SN: I graduated from university in 2000 and the draft actually happened that fall. I graduated in December, so while I was still in school there, I got word of being drafted to Atlanta. I moved out here in January or February of 2001. The league lasted about three and a half years. We had a shortened season that fourth year. I was here that whole time. Once that league folded, I went overseas.
My last year playing, my sister actually moved out here to Atlanta from Vancouver. So we lived together. I kept an apartment, although I really wasn’t here most of the time. Then I came back to play a year or two with the Silverbacks. I was also playing with Canada. In that time, my sister met her husband, moved to New York, and that’s sort of when I just lived wherever I was playing. Whether it was overseas or California. I was in Indiana for a little bit and New York. I was kind of all over the place.
Then after playing in the WPS in L.A., I got traded to come back here to play in Atlanta and I was really excited about it. I came back in 2010 and was planning to play that season, but it didn’t work out. So I retired and just decided to stay. I knew people here. I knew people in the soccer world. I knew I wanted to stay involved in soccer. So it was an easy, but logical, first step.
I got a job over at United Futbol Academy with Iggy (Moleka), who I also knew from playing. He played a lot of years with the Atlanta Silverbacks.
So I started working over there and practicing. I really think that helped me a lot to gain confidence on the coaching side of it. I knew I knew how to play the game, the ins and outs. But telling somebody else how to do it and explaining the situations and the cues and making sure they’re seeing what I’m seeing, that was kind of a different story. So I got a lot of practice there with them. Which was good. It was great. It was what I needed. Two years later, here I am.
But there was definitely a learning curve. I feel like I’ve come a long way. Just like playing any sport, there’s always room for improvement. There’s always tons more for me to learn. That’s definitely one of the benefits of having played so long and having been successful. I know most of that success came from knowing there was still so much room for improvement. I was always looking to take constructive criticism and try to become the best you can.
I try to do the same thing in coaching now. I’m not afraid to hear I could have done something better. That’s the attitude I take.
CT: What did you think of Atlanta when you first got here? Because you went from Vancouver to Nebraska, which is a big change. Then Nebraska to Atlanta. Had you been down to the South to play or anything?
SN: By the time I’d gotten here, I’d already played two or three years with the national team. So I’d already done quite a bit of traveling. Even playing with the B.C. provincial team, which is kind of like ODP, we did some traveling. Also, my parents are American.
I’d been places, but it took — it’s still taking — some getting used to. Being from Canada, being from the Pacific Northwest, I’m used to a certain amount of diversity and open-mindedness. That’s not necessarily the majority, depending on where you are. Maybe a few more negative experiences. When you’re traveling with a team, you’re likely to be treated a little bit differently than if I find myself in a place on my own dressed casually.
It’s a different mentality and some is good, some is bad. The good parts are compared to Vancouver, people are a lot friendlier. That’s a nice part of being in the South.
CT: Any idea how many cities you’ve been to?
SN: Cities? Countries would be easier. China, Japan, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Guatemala, England, France, Germany, Holland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Australia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Morocco. I think that might be it.
CT: Then of course all across the U.S. and Canada.
CT: You said your folks are American. How did you end up growing up in Vancouver?
SN: My father’s mother was actually Canadian. My dad is from Detroit and my mother grew up mostly in Oklahoma, but also in Southern California. They met in Missouri in grad school, got married, had my sister and my father started a furniture business and moved across the border to Windsor. Then somehow they decided they would open another branch in Vancouver. They stayed there. They liked it in Vancouver.
CT: Was there a season with the Silverbacks where you coached and played?
SN: Yeah, I don’t think I knew exactly what I was getting into. I think the first summer I was planning to play with the Silverbacks, in between my seasons in Denmark, I was injured. So I couldn’t play, but I helped a bit with the team. That went pretty well and I sat down with the management and we said, “Yeah, OK, this sounds like a pretty good idea. You can help and you can play.”
It was kind of strange because the players are my teammates and I knew them from before. It was difficult. When I’m talking to the team, I have to say “We need to … and myself included.” If I’m getting mad at them, well, I have to be getting mad at myself as well.
About halfway through the season, the head coach, his mother had fallen ill. He was Canadian as well. So he left and the second assistant coach started her job. So all of a sudden I became the head coach and a player. That was when it was really not that enjoyable. It was tough because I was by myself. So I didn’t do that again. I have to do one or the other.
CT: The team did really well that season, though, didn’t it?
SN: Yes, we lost in the finals. We actually had a pretty good team. The players were really dedicated. So it was actually a pretty successful season.
CT: Just clearly not the way it sticks in your head.
SN: (laughing) Clearly. Now that you mention it, I never really think of that part. I should.
CT: After that season, did you retire? Did you keep playing for the national team?
SN: That was a bit of a sticky situation. I think it was right after that that I stopped playing for the national team. It wasn’t official until some time after that. Myself and two other players basically removed ourselves from the team. We ended up going to an arbitrator. We filed suit against the coach at that time and the Canadian Soccer Association. That took about two years, that whole ordeal.
So I’d stopped playing for the national team but I wasn’t officially off the team until two years later. Which, we didn’t win, but we didn’t lose. It depends on how you look at it. The head coach did end up getting fired. The president got fired. But we never played for the national team again.
But I knew going into it and I was willing to take that risk because things that were happening there were just so bad. I have a lot of people that say, “Oh, you played in the World Cup! How was it? You guys placed fourth and you made it on the World 11 team. That must have been so great.” And you remember some good, but a lot of the bad.
The situation, the environment was really awful. It was probably the worst situation I’ve been in as far as being associated with soccer.
CT: Did it end up cleaning up some problems in the national program?
SN: It cleaned up one of the biggest problems, which was that coach. But, no. Unfortunately one of the problems, probably not just with female soccer players, but with us in general, we tend to just take what we’re given and not want to cause a fuss. They’re worried about getting in trouble. That’s pretty much what the situation was there.
We all knew we were right to remove ourselves. We stuck our necks out to say, “look, we’re three of the best players in the world and we would rather not play than to play in this environment.” But I’m also pretty sure what was happening while we were there, probably happened while we weren’t there. Players were being cornered and threatened.
Whatever we had intended to come from us boycotting was ruined basically because the rest of the players felt so threatened. It’s unfortunate, but Canada did well in the last Olympics. The last time we’d done well like that was 10 years before. So when we were sticking our necks on the line, that was the time that Canada had the best team it had ever had in history, men’s or women’s. So that was the time to say OK, these are the demands. We want some security. The coach had such autonomy that he was in charge of the funds and he could say, yes, you’re getting paid this month and not next month. Players could get injured and you’re a player that he likes, then you’re probably OK. If not, maybe not.
I mean, I was on the World 11 team and I wasn’t getting paid.
Players were getting injured. Serious injuries. Career-ending injuries. And nobody knew.
Nobody had any security and that was how it was run. It was awful. That was the least of it. I could go on for hours. But what I think is the players were just scared. They were really good at threatening your position. People want to represent their country. They want to play. So I can’t fault them. But I know if we all stuck together, it wouldn’t have taken 10 years to get back to where we were.
They have a good coach now. They’re getting more funding. So hopefully that will make a big difference.
CT: So what was your last season as a player?
SN: That was in L.A. for the Soul in 2009.
CT: Did you make an official decision to retire? Sometimes there’s not a definitive moment.
SN: I went into preseason with the new Atlanta Beat in their first year. I was excited about playing and thought I had come full circle. … Geez, now I feel like everything is negative. … By that point, I had played 10 years and really felt like I was at the top of my game. Unfortunately, with it being a franchise team and such, the staff didn’t have the same experience I had. Or any experience. So I walked in and said, this doesn’t seem right, that doesn’t seem right, this isn’t right.
Plus, by soccer standards, I’m old by that point. I can’t make up for all the issues so best just to be on my way.
CT: That was the beginning of the 2010 season? That’s when you really got into coaching?
SN: That was spring and pretty much when that happened, I went right into coaching. I already had known quite a few people from playing here previously and some DOCs at other clubs and coaches. I just started putting in the calls — what kind of field space do you guys have? I’d like to do some coaching, some training. I spent the summer building up a base and working with young players. Then I got with Iggy over at UFA and took a team over there. Then two teams, three teams and got my coaching license.
CT: Did you play any other sports growing up?
SN: Yeah, I’ve played, like, every sport. By the time I was a junior and senior in high school, I played basketball and soccer. Before that I played tennis and baseball and volleyball and field hockey. I tried water polo. All the random sports. But that’s a difference with players now and when I was playing. I did everything. I tried every sport. And I think that helped me. Now kids play one sport and all year round. It’s a different mentality.
I speak to my old college coach, John Walker, from time to time, who really sort of picked me out of Vancouver. I had nobody recruiting me. No offers. They came to watch somebody on the other team and happened to see me. He pushed me further than I’d ever expected to be pushed, beyond what I thought was … sane … at the time. He forced me into a position I didn’t want to play.
CT: Where did you move from?
SN: I was an offensive player. I thought of myself as the creator. Give me the ball and I’ll set up the chances, I’ll score the goals.
He said, “’If you want to get on this field, you’re a defender. Do you want to play or do you want to sit on the bench?”
And I did sit on the bench for a while. But looking back, of course, the real creators and offensive players of the world are really good. So now I know I could have been a pretty good midfielder or forward. Or the best defender. Thanks to him pushing me, past my limits, and having some long-term vision for me that I didn’t have at the time, he got me to where I ended up on the world stage.
But last time I was there, he was just saying the players are so much different from when I was in college. He was saying the players now are much more technical, better on the ball than the players that were my age. But their mentality is so different.
CT: The everybody-gets-a-trophy syndrome?
SN: When we used to step onto the field, we used to say we’re going to kill you guys. That’s the goal, just to demolish you guys. It’s not like that today.