March 6, 2023

James Oppenheimer

James Oppenheimer just won South Dakota Youth Soccer’s “Girls Competitive Coach of the Year” award…again. He won this award in 2015 as well. 

His teams at every point of his career have been winners. 

While an assistant at Augustana they won the NSIC Tournament Championship.

James took over a Sioux Falls Christian team that was struggling and turned that program into a contender. 

During his time at Dakota Alliance he helped grow the club as a Tournament Director and then Director Of Business Operations. On the field his teams won multiple Regional and National Championships.

He’s a winner and develops winning soccer players, but the thing you hear players and parents say over and over is how great of a person James is. He treats his players, their parents, referees, and opposing teams/coaches with respect. Girls want to play for him and I think the results on the field speak for themselves. 

I hope you enjoy our chat.

Can you tell the readers a little about yourself and how you ended up in Sioux Falls, SD? 

Yes I can. I lived in England for the 1st 20 years of my life. During my 2nd year at the University of Portsmouth in Hampshire, England, I was given the opportunity to do a 1 semester exchange to Moorhead State University (now MSU Moorhead). When I arrived in January, I was told not to buy a coat in England because they do not make coats warm enough to handle Fargo Winters there. I decided to extend my exchange, and transfer to MSUM. After finishing college, I moved with my then fiance (now my wife) Marisa to the Twin Cities. We lived there for 5 years before moving to Grand Forks, ND near my wife's home town of Hallock, MN. I was working for Progressive Insurance as an adjuster, and in January 2008, I was offered a promotion, but it involved moving to Sioux Falls. We moved with the intention of staying in Sioux Falls for a short time, before moving on. Sioux Falls turned out to be our forever home. After having kids, we discovered that this is an amazing place to raise a family, and the most friendly place I have ever lived.

How were you involved with soccer as a child? What are your best memories of playing or watching soccer while in England?

I played for both my school and my local club. When I was very young, I played for a club called Chiltern United. When we moved house, I started playing for Berkhamsted Dynamos (now Berkhamsted Raiders). I can think of a number of epic games and memories, but the greatest was in my U15 year. A year after getting relegated from the 1st Division of our league, we won promotion from the 2nd Division. We won the Championship with a 2-0 victory at Chiltern United, my old club. That season, I was named as "Clubman" for our team. That was someone who led by example, never missing training, never missing games, and leading by example performing at a high level. 

At the same time, we had season tickets to go watch Chelsea FC. My Father still has those tickets 30 years later, and going to the Bridge on a Saturday afternoon was a bond with my Father. I saw a number of very memorable games there, the overall highlight of which was a 1997 comeback from Chelsea when they were 2-0 down at half time against Liverpool in the FA Cup. They came back with goals from Vialli, Zola and Hughes to win 4-2. That began Chelsea's run to win the 1997 FA Cup. That was Chelsea's first trophy in 27 years. Back then, they were not the dominant, billionaire club they are now...

Wow, pro/rel at u15! Totally different world.

Speaking of which, how did you get involved in soccer once you were living in the US?

It is a different world over there. 

Once I was over in the US I was involved in playing in some men’s leagues and running a pretty competitive coed league team in the twin cities. My only red card came during a game there where I may have taken an extra kick at someone. I also played in a league and refereed when we moved to Grand Forks. When we moved to Sioux Falls, I played in the co-ed and mens leagues here, running a Lloyd Companies team for quite a few years. With young kids, I decided to try to earn some extra cash by refereeing. After a year of refing, I decided it was not for me and asked about coaching at the newly formed Dakota Alliance Soccer Club. I got a call that changed my life in Winter 2009. I was driving to Aberdeen and Steve Burkhalter called me asking to go coach “My Pizza Pie” in the U12 Girls Rec League. That was my 1st coaching gig.

When you started, the Dakota Gold Soccer Club and Sioux Falls Soccer Association had just merged and DASC was in its infancy. Over the last 14 years there has been tremendous growth. 

Tell me a few of the things you are proudest of during your time at DASC. 

Wow, over 14 years there has been a lot. This may be a bit of a long answer (which of course you can edit down).

Winning coach of the year in 2015 and 2022 are obvious highlights, but the real pride comes from seeing my player centric philosophy work. An assistant coach at Sioux Falls Christian, Amber Vanderveen, once told me that high school teenage girls just want to feel like their voices are heard. That was the single best piece of advice I received as a coach. I allow the girls to speak, I listen, and I treat them like adults. I am extremely encouraging to those who play for me. I try to give them confidence, and the knowledge that I have their back, and that they can trust me. I also make sure we always have fun when playing and training. I have never been kicked out of a game, and always keep calm making decisions that benefit the team. That philosophy has really paid off in terms of team and individual player success.

Obviously I am proud of the 2005 and 2007 Girls Teams who won the National Presidents Cup, and the 2006 Girls team who became the only team in South Dakota history to qualify for the most prestigious soccer tournament in the US, the USYS National Championships, making it to the semi finals. Being able to bring 2 National Championships and a USYS National Semi Final to DASC is a great legacy to leave.

My greatest pride, however, comes from seeing the players I coached succeed as they grow up. I have been lucky to coach some very talented players including Theresa Pujado who played at Nebraska, Taylor Thomas who is at Dayton and Hailee Christensen who is going to SDSU. I truly hope I helped these players, but their talent got them where they are today. I take a lot of pride in players who may not have been stars, but who I supported, and helped give confidence too. Specific examples are Delaney Horan, who played for DWU, and Clara Nelson who just committed to Northern State.

Everyone remembers the 1st team's big wins, but I also take a ton of pride in coaching 2nd teams and players who may not have the same talent level but have the passion, pride and love for the game that every top team player has. Those players are always underappreciated but being able to show them success is a source of pride. A real highlight for me was coaching a mixed 2nd team of 06 and 07 Girls at NSC Fall Cup a few years ago. Due to COVID hitting the team, we only had 11 players. The tournament had been scheduled for us to play back to back games in our final group game, and the final on Sunday. The girls went into the final exhausted from the last group game. We scored a goal 25 minutes into the game to take a 1-0 lead. In the 2nd half, we had a player break her leg and have to come off so we were down to 10 players. We "parked the bus" to hold on to the lead, and the 10 players battled harder than any other team I have ever coached to win 1-0. This was a small tournament, but that win meant a ton to those players, and I could not have been more proud.

A turning point in my life was in 2017 when my closest friend in the world, Kurt Schneider, passed away unexpectedly. The large tattoo on my left arm is somewhat of a memorial to him. Anyway, I found out about his death during the Evolution Memorial Day Tournament. 2 years later the 2005 Girls were getting ready to play in a final at that event, and they showed me they had all written his name on their wrists. I have not been moved to tears many times on the field, but that did it. Two years later the 2007 Girls did the same thing. This was very emotional. One thing I learned from Kurt was to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and treat everyone with kindness.

I have had a lot of success on the field, but most of it comes down to being lucky enough to coach some very talented players. I have also been blessed with some amazing assistants. I had a lot of success with MaKayla Grady (11-1 record together at National Events), and Ashley Haflett, but have also been blessed to coach with Nicole Hurt, Joelle Johns, Amber Van Voorst and Stephanie Haines. Having a strong female influence as an assistant coach is so important when coaching young women, and their positive influence on these women cannot be overstated.

Off the field, I am extremely proud of what DASC has developed into. Doubling the size of the Ohayon Invitational as the Tournament Director was great. As the Director of Business Operations, I helped steer the club through a difficult time off the field, then helped DASC grow in a fiscally responsible manner, treating everyone with respect, and promoting DASC's #morethanaclub philosophy really.

I had a lot of proud moments with DASC. I also had a lot with coaching away from DASC at Lincoln, Sioux Falls Christian and Augie. 

At Augie, I was blessed to be an assistant during the best year in team history. In 2015 I was on staff when the team won 20 games, and won the NSIC Tournament Championship, still the only time Augie has ever won a conference title. The credit for that goes to Brandon Barkus, but being on staff for that win was awesome. 

At Sioux Falls Christian, I was immensely proud to take a program that was one of the weakest in High School "A", and over 4 years develop a culture of success turning us into a respected state semi finalist.

That’s a lot to be proud of. Pretty amazing. I love your philosophy on coaching, especially coaching teenage girls. I selfishly was pretty bummed when you announced you were leaving DASC, I had hoped you would have been my daughter’s next coach.

If you had a magic wand and could change one thing about the South Dakota youth soccer scene or US youth soccer in general what would that be? 

I would create more competitive teams in South Dakota so we could have a quality league. I grew up playing 1 game a week on the weekend, and training a couple of times during the week. That is how soccer is designed to be played. We never traveled very far to play, and we competed in a league, with a champion crowned at the end of the season. Due to there not being a league in South Dakota, everyone has to play in Tournaments. This means 3-4 games a weekend. As players get older, this places a lot of stress on the body and takes away from quality. Everywhere else in the world, tournaments are pre-season, or Winter events. It is not the way the game was designed to be played. It also creates the need to spend a lot of money and stay in hotels, pricing a lot of families out of soccer. If we had a league here the game would be more affordable and grow quicker.

If you could give one piece of advice to soccer parents, what would that be? 

Give your coaches some grace and back them up to your kids. 

Last season, I coached 2 age groups, and took them both to Nationals. Getting them to that point involved countless hours of planning sessions, running 6am Winter training, doing film sessions with individuals and a lot more. I put my heart and soul into those teams last year. I had a lot of success but it was very tough on family life. I put other people's kids above my own. 

Every coach cares about every player. In the case of both National Championships that I won with teams, after the final game, I had parents upset at me about issues, and complain to me directly about them before I had even lifted the National Championship Trophy. Every player played in every game, but there were parents in both cases who did not see the success their child was having as part of a championship team, but were more upset that their child was not the star of the show. 

I have lost more sleep over comments, emails and texts that I have received from parents than over anything else in my professional life. Please think before criticizing the coach. I was one of the more popular coaches at DASC, and went through some very harsh parent confrontations. I cannot imagine what other coaches dealt with. 

If your child has an issue, have them talk to the coach, then back up what the coach tells them. Over the last 15 years, the parent standpoint has shifted from siding with the coach and telling the player to work harder, to blaming the coach for the player not being a star. It is getting tougher to coach, so as a parent, I can only ask you to trust the coaches you allow to train your children.

Any advice for youth players? 

2 pieces of advice:

1. Work harder than the person next to you. Everyone gets the same training, so find what else you can do to get ahead.

2. Watch soccer. I learned more from watching than playing. So many players in this country do not watch the game. It is key to getting better and learning to love the game.

You have recently moved on from DASC and the soccer world. Can you tell us what you’re up to now? 

I have been blessed to find a position where I can serve another amazing cause. I am the Executive Director of the Sioux Falls Area Humane Society. We take in over 7000 animals every year, trying to find each of them their forever homes. I have an amazing group of 50 animal loving team members who work to fulfill our mission to be a Safe Haven and Human Voice for all animals in need. If you want a new pet, come find me and I can help you out.

I would really like to thank my wife, Marisa and kids Henry and Gemma. I have been gone a lot coaching soccer and they have been very supportive. I am now excited to be able to spend more time with them.

I hope you enjoyed my conversation with James, I know I did.

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