Grief has engulfed the American soccer community, with news emerging late last week that renowned goalkeeper coach Des McAleenan passed away in his native Ireland at the age of 53.
McAleenan’s stateside career involved numerous stops in Connecticut, leading to local friends and mentors telling New England Soccer Journal stories of reverence and admiration.
McAleenan battled depression, as Quinnipiac women’s soccer head coach Dave Clarke explained, and that surfaced throughout his final months. McAleenan and Clarke originally came stateside one day apart in August 1987 and remained close in the ensuing three-plus decades.
“Des knew he was good, but he almost never believed it,” Clarke said. “Coaching can be an egotistical profession and people sometimes think they’re better than they are and that they’re big-time. Des was the opposite, where he was big-time and thought he was small-time. And yet he was so good at the craft, and you just need to look at the résumé to see it.”
In the professional arena, McAleenan spent nine years coaching the New York Red Bulls (MLS). While there, he worked closely with former U.S. men’s national No. 1s like Tim Howard and Tony Meola, then spent several years with Saudi Arabian club Al-Hilal, co-record holders with three AFC Champions League titles.
McAleenan also coached several U.S. youth national teams, helping now-Houston Dynamo head coach Tab Ramos’ team earn quarterfinal finishes at the 2017 and 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cups. Most recently, he was with Colombia’s national team and worked alongside famed manager Carlos Queiroz until Conmebol World Cup qualifying struggles resulted in La Tricolor opting for another staff.
This in-between phase introduced struggles, Dan Gaspar (South Glastonbury, Conn.) said. When Gaspar’s Star Goalkeeper Academy was founded 26 years ago, McAleenan helped the program reach its current heights.
“If Des wasn’t on a pitch striking a ball, then Des wasn’t Des,” Gaspar said. “He felt an empty soul when he wasn’t working and around the game. He felt isolated and alone when he didn’t have a project. When he stopped, and if it was for a longer period of time, that’s when the depression elevated. The pitch really was his arena, that was his heaven. That’s where he encountered joy, his comfort zone.”
Aside from playing at CCSU and working with Star Goalkeeper Academy, McAleenan competed for the Connecticut Wolves in the old A-League. He coached at Newington (Conn.) High School and Trinity College (Division III), then earned a master’s degree in elementary education from Sacred Heart University.
McAleenan’s early Connecticut roots saw him cross paths with Leszek Wrona, who now runs the AJAX Premier in Bristol, Conn. Wrona told stories of playing together with Gremio Lusitano in Ludlow, Mass., and dubbed him a “master of his craft.”
As talented as McAleenan was, many of Wrona’s memories involved holidays together and laughing about old times. Since Wrona is originally from Poland and played professionally across Europe, McAleenan shared stories from coaching the U.S. at the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland.
“He was soccer’s friend, not just mine,” Wrona said. “We’d host him in our home when he visited Connecticut, he was always welcome. But every person who Des knew had a big heart for him. He was such a warm person, very friendly. People couldn’t help but feel drawn to him.”
Since McAleenan’s passing, conversations around mental health have risen to the forefront. Shaun Green, who coached McAleenan at CCSU and runs SoccerCoachTV, hopes people tackle issues like depression anxiety with open arms.
“The biggest problem, I feel, is there’s a stigma attached to mental health,” Green said. “If you’re struggling with mental health issues and are in a hospital, you’re not getting get-well cards. But if you have cancer or heart disease or other injuries, people send you flowers. They don’t do that with depression or anxiety or other issues.
“There really is that stigma attached to it and some people who experience mental health difficulties, they don’t share it because of those stigmas. They don’t want to let people at work know they’re struggling, but we have to embrace mental health in every corner of our society, whether it’s football or not. It has to be addressed.”
Clarke raised a similar point, encouraging the soccer community to realize the behind-closed-doors version of somebody might be different than what’s public-facing.
“When you look at the résumé and the players he worked with, they speak so highly of him,” Clarke said. “And then you scratch your head and wonder how someone who had so much to live for can feel a sense of despair to the point where he wants to give up. It really is hard to understand and shows much work we all have to do in this area.”
That duality informs McAleenan’s legacy, a brilliant goalkeeper coach who battled “mental demons,” as Gaspar put it. It leaves friends and colleagues wishing they could have done more, that an extra phone call or work opportunity could have made a difference. They’ll never know the full answer, of course, but it’s clear that McAleenan made the soccer world better everywhere he went.
“The majority of my moments with Des were so pleasurable, joyful, entertaining, a bigger-than-life character who’s an incredible storyteller,” Gaspar said. “You have that side of him, then you have the side on the pitch where he gets intensity and passion that’s second to none, challenging the goalkeepers to be the best they can be. Then there’s almost this third component where he didn’t believe in himself. My mind really struggles to understand that. We all wish we could have done more.”