EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — A rousing ovation greeted new Oregon women's soccer coach Graeme Abel when he was introduced to Ducks fans during the Pac-12 opener for the school's second-ranked women's basketball team.
Less than a month ago, Abel was an assistant with the U.S. women's national team and a veteran of back-to-back World Cup victories.
For Abel, the cheers last weekend were a taste of what success at Oregon can look like: More than 10,000 fans were at the game against Colorado — a significant crowd for a women's game anywhere — with the student body still away on winter break.
But he's got a challenge in the Ducks, who finished last season in second-to-last place in the Pac-12 with just one conference win.
During the World Cup in France last summer, Abel started to think he might be ready for the next step as a coach and asked his boss, national team coach Jill Ellis, what she thought.
She said he was ready.
"You think you're a good coach, and then you get in with the national team and all of a sudden you realize, `I'm just an OK coach' because now you're standing in front of the best players in the world and you have to be spot on with what you say to them every single time," Abel said. “So being with the national team was really good for me in terms of that piece, and the learning curve of dealing with those players day to day was huge. Getting done with the World Cup, I just felt, `OK, I'm ready for the next challenge.'”
Abel's new gig came together quickly. He was in camp with the national team in Florida, evaluating young talent, when he got an unexpected phone call. Some eight days later, he was the coach of the Ducks.
Abel was formally named coach on Dec. 30, but the appointment largely flew under the national radar because of the holiday season. Locally, Oregon's football team was preparing for a Rose Bowl appearance.
"We were incredibly fortunate to be able to hire one of the top coaches in the country at any level, be it college, professional or international," said Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens. “Graeme's experience coaching some of the best soccer players in the world, his commitment to the student-athlete experience and his vision to elevate Oregon soccer to an elite level made him the perfect fit.”
Abel joined Ellis' staff in 2015, in the team's run-up to a successful World Cup in Canada. He served as goalkeeper coach, overseeing a group led by Hope Solo, easily one of the top goalkeepers in the game.
Solo was dismissed from the team following the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, where she called the Swedish team cowards for its defensive stand against the United States. Alyssa Naeher replaced Solo as the team's starter but was relentlessly compared to her predecessor, at times unfairly. Some questioned whether the quiet and unassuming Naeher — in contrast to the outspoken Solo — was up to the task in France.
Abel said one of his favorite moments during his national team tenure was at the World Cup last summer when Naeher made a crucial penalty save in the U.S. teams' 2-1 semifinal victory over England.
“We put her in difficult situations. We stood by her in difficult situations. We knew the potential that she had, and we knew it was going to be a tough road. And in between we had many difficult conversations. But seeing her have that moment for all the work we saw her put it after 2015, it was special,” Abel said.
Since the latest World Cup victory, Ellis stepped down as head coach of the team, replaced by Vlatko Andonovski. Her other assistants have also moved on.
Before he joined the national team five years ago, Abel had stints as an assistant at Oklahoma and Washington State. But he's got quite the task with the Ducks in the competitive Pac-12.
Stanford won the national title last season and the conference had three teams — the Cardinal, UCLA and upstart Washington State — in the College Cup. Nine league teams made the tournament field. Stanford's Catarina Macario won the MAC Herman Trophy on Friday for the nation's best player after a stunning 32-goal season.
But Abel knows what Oregon has to offer. His wife was a volunteer assistant under Oregon coach Tara Erickson in 2007. And his prior college teams all played the Ducks.
"We were very aware of all this at Oregon, in terms of the facilities and the resources," Abel said, gesturing outside the window of his temporary office at the school's athletic facilities. “It was one of those things like, `If the (soccer) program ever really gets rolling momentum-wise, we're in trouble.' You looked to all the other programs at Oregon at that time, with Chip Kelly, football was flying. And then you look at when they hired the basketball coach, and they got that moving. You thought the moment Oregon gets it going, it's going to be tough to stop. So I knew all about them that way, and the more I did my research coming in, I thought this is a really, really, really good job.”
Abel plans to use those resources to be as prepared as possible, a hallmark of the national team. Ellis and her staff were known as meticulous planners.
He said when he thinks of Oregon, it's about being fast and fearless.
‘’We want to make sure that we are the fittest team in the Pac-12, we want to make sure we're the strongest team in the Pac-12, and we want to make sure we're the most prepared team in the Pac-12," he said. “And that will determine where we go from there in terms of year to year.”
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