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From Dublin's northside to coaching Kaka: Dave McKay's American adventure

The 28 year-old from Drumcondra has been with MLS side Orlando City SC since last year.

Image: Orlando City SC

THE NEW MLS season got underway last weekend and much of the focus was on the game between Orlando City SC and New York City FC – the league’s brand-new franchises.

The game was an easy sell. On one side there was Kaka, who had swapped Madrid for Miami. On the other was David Villa – NYC’s marquee name (until such time as Frank Lampard finally arrives).

There were a couple of neat Irish angles too. There was a Corkman, Alan Kelly, officiating. And having signed for the club in the build-up to the game, Sean St. Ledger was named on the Orlando bench. But also in attendance at the Citrus Bowl and keeping a close eye on proceedings was another young Irishman: Dave McKay.

“It was fantastic. 62,000 people there. We didn’t get the win but it was a decent result in the end.”

McKay has been the head fitness coach with Orlando for the last five months and spent the last decade immersed in the American sports science environment.

The journey began in Finglas eleven years ago. Having turned out for St Kevin’s Boys and then taking in a brief stint with Shelbourne, McKay spent a year doing a football course at Colaiste Ide. Once he had finished, he was offered a scholarship by an American university. So, in his late teens, he packed his bags and headed for Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay McKay (centre) puts the Orlando City SC players through their paces. Source: Orlando City SC

“I went to a small, private Christian college right in the middle of the Bible Belt so it was a massive culture shock. I was lucky in a sense that it was me and another lad from Lusk, Jamie Caul, and we had both come through Colasite Ide at the same time. Another Irish guy from Derry was there as well so there was three of us and the following year four or five more fellas came over so there was a lot of us in the end. But the deep south of America is a different world – very religious and still with an element of segregation. Overall it was a great experience but when I first went there, it was a massive adjustment.”

McKay knew his limitations as a footballer. He knew he wouldn’t have a future as a professional player. But he always had a plan running parallel to his boyhood dream. And in spite of being in a strange place with little or no support network, he began working towards it.

I wouldn’t say the plan has changed, I’d say it’s coming to fruition. When I did my Leaving Cert, there was only one course that I was ever going to consider and that was Exercise Science because I knew it was the road I wanted to go down. When I came to America I obviously wanted to be a footballer but that wasn’t going to happen so you have to figure out what’s next. For me, being a footballer is the best job in the world and being a coach is the second best. So I have the second best job in the world and that was my plan all along, to be honest. I’m that type of person really – I had a goal and it wasn’t something that just happened, it was something I made happen.”

While studying, McKay began to accumulate various coaching badges and certificates. Soon he had qualifications in strength and conditioning and personal training. He stayed on at his university after finishing his degree and volunteered as a fitness coach before his journey around America began in earnest.

“I actually moved from Jackson to Orlando to do a Masters so I was here for a year and a half before. I was working for a local club and in a gym while at university but I applied to every single Major League Soccer team to try and get my foot in the door somewhere.”

MLS Cup Soccer McKay spent a number of years with Sporting Kansas City prior to taking up his current role with Orlando. Source: AP/Press Association Images

“Sporting Kansas City got back to me and I had an interview with them. They had an intern position and they said ‘It’s a volunteer role. If you’re willing to come up here and work for free, we have a job’. So I left Orlando and drove the 22 hours to Kansas City and worked there for nothing for seven months and eventually got hired from there.  I was an assistant fitness coach for the first team and the head fitness coach for their academy. I was taken on full-time and spent three years with them before landing this opportunity back here in Orlando.”

McKay left Ireland before the crash, when the economy still promised much. Yet, like so many thousands of young people that have subsequently left Ireland behind in recent years, he felt he had little choice but to go, restricted by what he thought were the country’s limitations.

“For me, I had to leave. And for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I didn’t get enough points in my Leaving Cert to do Exercise Science in an Irish college so it wasn’t an option. Secondly, the Irish league doesn’t have the structures or the resources for someone to make a living as a fitness coach. I don’t even know if there were many fitness coaches in the league ten years ago. So, I felt I had to leave. But when I was in Mississippi for five years, I felt like I had to leave. And when I was in Orlando and an opportunity cropped up in Kansas City, I had to leave. You have to do what you have to do.”

MLS New York City FC Orlando City SC Soccer McKay is now coaching Kaka - the winner of the Ballon d'Or in 2007. Source: John Raoux/AP/Press Association Images

Last summer, the excitement in Orlando was ramped up a level. Deep in preparations for their maiden MLS campaign, the club needed a high-profile name to whip everyone into a frenzy. They found one in Kaka, the former AC Milan and Real Madrid playmaker, crowned the best player in Europe in 2007. Last weekend, in his very first league outing, the Brazilian popped up with a late, late equaliser against New York City. McKay has been impressed but not overawed by the presence of such a talented and decorated player.

“He’s fantastic and works extremely hard and I think you’ll see that he’ll have a fantastic season”, McKay says.

“It’s great to work with someone at his level. My approach is that, yes, he’s a fantastic player and a big name but I work with him as much as I work with anyone else. I try to treat everyone the same and I think that guys like Kaka respect and appreciate when you treat them as normal people because they have to deal with so much stuff – signing autographs, photographs every minute of the day.”

ITALY SOCCER Kaka played with some of the world's best at Milan but McKay isn't overawed. Source: LUCA BRUNO/AP/Press Association Images

Kaka spent six years at Milan – a club that prides itself on the physical conditioning of their players. Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacourta played into their 40s while the likes of Clarence Seedorf, Cafu and Serginho were a fine vintage before moving onto pastures new.

But McKay doesn’t feel pressure. North America, he says, offers a similar obsession with caring for their elite athletes.

“The American culture and mentality for the physical side of the game is a huge thing. The emphasis on the physical side of the game is definitely higher over here. But in saying that, we’re in a league now where we have maybe 9 internationals – guys from Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador. Those guys wouldn’t have spent any time in a gym growing up – they just played football. So we have a mixed bag of people and cultures.”

MLS New York City FC Orlando City SC Soccer With a great fanbase and an impressive start to the MLS season, McKay doesn't see himself leaving Orlando anytime soon. Source: John Raoux/AP/Press Association Images

Married with two children, the 28 year-old is settled in Florida. With football in North America developing at a solid pace and interest in the game growing season by season, McKay feels now is not the time to pitch up somewhere else.

“It’s the highest level of football in this country. It’s an exciting time for the league – now wouldn’t be the time to leave MLS, now is the time to stay. It’s growing and getting bigger and bigger. There are more opportunities and more exposure. The new Sky Sports TV deal – that would’ve been completely unheard of a couple of years ago. You’d be surprised at the amount of people from Europe that want to come here.”

“I’m an ambitious person and always wanted to go as high as I can go. I still believe I can go higher but it’s a great place, a great league. For now, North America is where I see myself.”

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Eoin O'Callaghan

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