Eric Rudland guides AFC Ann Arbor with steady hand

Larry O'Connor
The Detroit News
Eric Rudland has been coach of AFC Ann Arbor since 2016, taking over after two successful seasons with Lansing United.

Ann Arbor — At the end of training, Eric Rudland notices one of two ball bags looks suspiciously light. 

"There were 10 Mitre balls here at the start of practice," he said. "Make sure there is 10 here by the time we leave."

Rudland didn't get AFC Ann Arbor to the National Premier Soccer League's summit by not paying close attention to detail, no matter how seemingly minuscule.

The Mighty Oak are preparing for the playoffs, having clinched the NPSL Great Lakes Conference division regular-season title for a second straight year. They will play Cleveland SC on Friday in a Midwest Regional semifinal at Ann Arbor Huron High. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m.

Rudland, 39, is in his third season with Ann Arbor, having spent two successful seasons guiding Lansing United where the capital city club went to the NPSL national final four in 2014, bowing out to eventual champion New York Red Bulls U-23 in the semifinals.

Rudland, a Jackson native and Seattle Pacific University product, has developed a knack for mining a diverse, if not unheralded talent pool. The Mighty Oak’s global roster includes representatives from Kenya, France, Brazil, Norway, Germany, and Trinidad and Tobago.

To uncover such prospects, Rudland pipes into a vast network of college coaches, agents, scouts and others worldwide for potential targets.

More: Kenyan duo helps lift AFC Ann Arbor to NPSL division summit

Eric Rudland, a Jackson native, played at Seattle Pacific and previously served as head coach at Spring Arbor University.

That’s also where his detail-oriented style comes into play.

“I’m very honest with players,” Rudland told The Detroit News after a training session at WideWorld Sports Center recently. “I tell them, ‘Here’s our expectations. This is how we go about our business. We train every day, we go 8 to 10 (a.m.). We take one day off, but we’re not taking training days off.'

“Guys are wearing GPS trackers. We know how much you are running. … We want to bring in like-minded players who want to get better in the summer.”

Only 45 miles separate the Ann Arbor club from its chief rival, Detroit City FC, but the contrast between the two operations couldn’t be greater.

DCFC draws 5,000 to 7,000 fans a match while raising its international profile by attracting the likes of Germany’s FC St. Pauli, Mexico’s Club Necaxa and Italy’s Frosinone Calcio in friendlies to Hamtramck's historic Keyworth Stadium.

Meanwhile, AFC Ann Arbor’s attendances at Ann Arbor Skyline High are about a fifth of that, but the four-year-old outfit is content to grow as a Washtenaw County community cornerstone while celebrating its on-field achievements and those who are able to move on to bigger things.

On that front, Kenyan defender Stanley Okumu scored a trial with United Soccer League’s San Antonio while goalkeeper Mike Novotny is in Denmark for a tryout tour with clubs there.

Rudland mirrors AFC Ann Arbor's “small club, big impact” philosophy, co-owner Bilal Saeed said.

“Eric has not only built the sporting side of the club but he has done just as much for the club within the community, and it's genuine, which makes it fit perfectly into our club culture and mission,” Saeed said.

AFC Ann Arbor co-owner and former University of Michigan soccer standout Knox Cameron suggested the club pursue Rudland, who was commuting an hour and 10 minutes to Lansing three to four times a week from Dexter.

The move made sense for family reasons — he and his wife, Kristin, had their first child — but it "was probably one of the toughest decisions I had to make based on a loyalty standpoint,” Rudland said. “(Lansing United owner) Jeremy Sampson gave me my first crack at this level. I was very blessed and grateful.”

Capital climb

Sampson, a former sportscaster at WILX-TV 10 who started Lansing United five years ago, understood. The team owner was grateful for Rudland’s stewardship during the club’s formative years.

“As a dad of two kids myself I certainly understood where he was coming from,” said Sampson, whose men’s team has since moved to the Premier Development League and defeated AFC Ann Arbor in the Michigan Milk Cup final on July 4. “He was very upfront with me from the very beginning when that was a possibility.

“To this day, we still talk and it was amicable the way things were left."

Rudland fondly recalls his Lansing United tenure, but the biggest learning experience occurred during the second season when things skidded off the road.

Lansing sprinted off in the 2015 campaign as one of only a handful of undefeated NPSL sides in the nation only to lose four straight and miss the playoffs, finishing 6-4-2. The ordeal stuck with Rudland.

Eric Rudland with his wife, Kristin, and 3-year-old daughter Myla. The couple also has another daughter, Kinley, who is 3 months.

“I think you get this feeling after the first year of having success that, 'Hey, it's going to come again' just because we had it before,” he said. “It's, 'OK, we're clicking on all cylinders.' We picked up right where we left off and then all of a sudden you lose a game and we didn't know how to respond and hit that barrier, that moment, that hurdle …

“When I look back in my years in the NPSL, that was probably my biggest learning curve for me was my second year in realizing that things don't come easy just because you have success.”

Rudland could be forgiven for feelings of deja vu last year, especially when Ann Arbor’s talisman Dario Suarez received a six-month ban for kicking a ball at a referee.

Unfazed, others simply picked up the goal-scoring as the Mighty Oak finished a superlative 12-1-1 en route to a Great Lakes Conference title before losing to Detroit City FC in the Midwest Regional final in Hamtramck.

More: Niyo: Detroit City FC constrained by its semi-pro soccer status

This season, injuries and other personnel issues have posed challenges, most notably the loss of last season’s standout goalkeeper T.J. Tomasso to a broken lunate bone. Novotny, whom Rudland scouted at a combine during the winter, admirably stepped in and produced six shutout performances.

Backup Nick Barry, who played during Ann Arbor’s Milk Cup run, appears to be next in line with Novotny's exit to Europe.

“You can dwell on it or you can move on and that's been our mentality,” Rudland said. “We are going to move on.

“The way we look at it is another guy has an opportunity.”

Developing a repellent to adversity permeates through to players.

During the Milk Cup final against Lansing, Ann Arbor conceded two goals within a four-minute span in the first half.

On the sidelines, there wasn't any coaching histrionics. The team regrouped and, despite being up a player with Lansing having a man sent off, Ann Arbor didn't get an equalizer but made a game of it with a 3-2 result.

"When he talks to players, he gets the attention of all the players in the dressing room," said Ann Arbor defender Jack Cawley, who is from England. "Sometimes when managers talk players don't listen to what he's saying. He seems to take the whole team on board. 

"You can just tell the players in the dressing room have a lot of respect for him."

Hurdles faced by Rudland and other soccer coaches in summer league circuits are magnified because of a condensed schedule, Sampson said.

“You get these players in the first week of May and you turn around and you're playing a game sometimes less in a week before you start training, oftentimes in less than two weeks,” Sampson said. “All coaches at this level have to come in with a particular plan that they want to put in place and then you have to be able to adapt.

“I think Eric did both of those things very well.”

Rudland learned from the best.

He played for one of collegiate soccer's coaching deans, Cliff McCrath, at Seattle Pacific University. McCrath, a Detroit native who served as the first soccer coach at Spring Arbor College, won five Division II titles at Seattle and registered 597 wins.

"You can tell just tell the players in the dressing room have a lot of respect for him," defender Jack Cawley said of coach Eric Rudland.

English reign

Rudland also undertook a six-month coaching apprenticeship at English football’s Crewe Alexandra where he worked in the club’s community center and youth training schemes while playing amateur soccer with Midland League outfit Biddulph Victoria.

Crewe's manager was Dario Gradi, who served 26 years there in different tenures. Steve Holland, assistant manager to England's Gareth Southgate, also worked at the club as did Port Vale legend Ray Walker, who oversaw Crewe's community center operations.

Rudland marveled at how Gradi organized all facets of first-team training and would still watch 8-year-olds play on Tuesday nights.

"Those guys are working seven days a week. They are in in the morning. They're in talking to players, watching video and then they are there at night watching the little guys train," Rudland said. "We don't have that full spectrum setup here at AFC Ann Arbor, but that's how I view things." 

At his side is his father, Ron Rudland, who coached him at Parma Western High. The dad, who played American football at Flint Carman, fell into soccer at Olivet College when the Division III school started its program. 

Ron, who also coached wrestling and was the school's choir director, drove his son to Kalamazoo so could play elite travel soccer with TKO program.

"I wouldn't be in the game if it weren't for him," he said.

Rudland juggles a network of duties with his AFC Ann Arbor job, which includes serving as youth director with Michigan Rush. Until this year, he was an assistant women's coach at Madonna University.

Rudland's day consists of picking up AFC Ann Arbor players who don't have cars around 7:15 a.m. before running practice for a couple of hours. Then he confers with assistant coaches Boyzzz Khumalo, Rod Asllani, Jeff Shuk and his father, goes over GPS tracking data, watches video or washes training bibs.

Afternoons and evenings are spent coaching Michigan Rush youth teams. Rudland gets home around 9:30 p.m. to answer emails and see his family.

"It's not a full-time gig. I'm paid, (but) I'm an independent contractor," he said. "I lug around my balls and cones wherever I go."

Rudland, who holds a USSF A coaching license, aspires to someday oversee a pro team. But he's not chasing a job, citing former Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler's approach, who is said to have never sent out a resume. Rudland said he's had offers but likes the family atmosphere at AFC Ann Arbor.

"I'm never going to have an opportunity at the next level if I can't do a good job where I am right now," he said.

NPSL Midwest Region finals

When: Friday — semifinals, 4 p.m. Minneapolis City vs. Duluth; 7:30 p.m. Ann Arbor vs. Cleveland. Saturday — final, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Ann Arbor Huron High, 2727 Fuller Road, Ann Arbor

Tickets: $10 adults; $7 youth (ages 4-12); $15 weekend pass