Gerald Barnhart is a Spokane native that worked three seasons in public relations with the Shadow PDL team before moving on to work for United Soccer Leagues for 10 years. I sent Barnhart a series of questions about the Spokane Shadow semi-pro soccer club, still fondly remembered in the Lilac City. Spokane is currently without a United Soccer Leagues men’s semi-pro soccer club. (Read Part Two here.)
Catch up on the Spokane Shadow (1996-2005) timeline at their wiki page.
Editor’s note: The Spokane Shadow are currently an elite youth soccer club.
David Falk: How did you initially connect with the Shadow & what were your roles with the club?
Gerald Barnhart: I had not really been involved with the sport since playing as a kid because in my formative years the game really was pretty irrelevant in Spokane and we looked up to the Seahawks (Steve Largent, Kenny Easley and the original Curt Warner) and Mariners. But while attending Eastern Washington University I decided to give journalism a go (instead of my intended path of history teacher) and dipped my toes in the water with the school paper since the track began the next fall and it was spring.
That’s where it all began for me as I met Dennis Lunstroth, who was the paper’s photo editor and photographer while also working as the photographer for Brett Sports & Entertainment, which ran the Shadow as well as the Indians (baseball) and Chiefs (hockey). Since there aren’t a lot of spring sports at Eastern and I lived in town instead of on campus, he directed me toward writing about the Shadow.
I met Jeff Robbins (longtime GM) and started to cover the team, immediately getting hooked that 1996 season. Jeff was great. Even after the school term ended and the paper closed up shop for the summer, he continued giving me passes as I was essentially writing for myself (pre-internet blog days). As I got into the journalism and public relations classes, I reached out to Jeff to do an internship early (thankfully the dept. advisor allowed it) and the rest was history as I basically served as the team’s first Director of PR as an intern, eventually expanding into a more operational role too as time went by.
What was the soccer scene like in Spokane in those days?
Gonzaga was coming around, but it was before the school really hit the big time in basketball and played more of a role in the sports entertainment side of things as opposed to being known for its law school. They had some good players and the coach Einar Thorarinsson was also the Shadow’s coach, but the game was pretty much a secret. He helped really bring both sides along in those early years of 1995-96.
If I recall correctly (since I wasn’t on the inside at the time), Brett Sports got involved with the Shadow at some point during 1996 with the idea that if this team which was showing promise on and off the field was going to amount to anything, they should play a role in it. The organization’s involvement in the sports landscape was a virtual monopoly really as they also did some basic marketing stuff for the high school sports and other events. It is without question the most impressive display of business savvy in the game I have seen on the minor league level between multiple sports. The Sounders/Seahawks partnership (which is a more successful version of the Revs/Patriots) has followed that path brilliantly and the Tide organization out of Tacoma, to some extent, is similar although without the same height of achievement as they operate in a major league market.
Brett Sports’ involvement was a major boost in the soccer scene in Spokane. It infused the Shadow with cash, staff, resources etc. and more importantly, led to the revitalization of Joe Albi Stadium as the new home of the Shadow as well as renewed interest/quality in football (high school and college). The renovation at the stadium also led to high school soccer at the facility bringing people to essentially one location for most games instead of spread out all over town at each school.
As the team continued to grow, it expanded its reach out into northern Idaho in scouting local players for development as there was some decent talent there at the time. The one issue the club had, though, that kind of held back the growth of the team was the soccer community in Central Valley was fairly hesitant to come over to the NW corner of the city to support the club. As a Spokanite I can kind of empathize as I recall how it seemed to be such a trek since it was literally cross-town, but now that I’ve lived in Tampa for over 10 years, I can honestly say that it’s crazy because that commute is nothing in hindsight. Looking at it now, if the talent pool had been twice as deep, the division could have used a team out there in the Central Valley (which later incorporated into its own city) as a good derby rival for the Shadow and a second opponent for those traveling across the state. It would also have served as a nice bridge to Idaho as it was a lot closer to the border, probably half the distance from where Albi was.
As the Shadow continued to dominate in the division and become a regional power in the west and nationally, the excitement grew for the team, and the entertainment factor that came through Brett Sports’ involvement led to the exponential growth in the game over a short period of time. The PDL’s U19 rule also played a large part in the development role the club held. It led to guys like Zach Kingsley, Billy Sleeth, Troy Ready and Abbas Faridnia being a part of the club while they were still in high school. The experience they gained playing alongside ex-pros and good quality college players, not to mention the occasional Sounders exhibitions, led to an expedited surge in their development curve. I know Kingsley, Sleeth and Ready all went on to spend time playing professionally after I had departed.
As for soccer fans, it was spread all over. We had a ‘Founders’ Club’ level in season ticketing that had extra benefits which included things like an annual barbeque at the stadium with the team. Aside from that, which was really more like a booster club instead of a fan club, the only real fan gathering came by way of people joining some of the players after the game at the restaurant/bar (Stadium Pizza Parlor) that was across the street in a small strip mall next to a grocery store. The owner was a supporter and was friendly with the club.
The concept of an organized supporter’s group was absolutely nonexistent at the time because the internet had not yet begun to play its big role in the evolution of fan groups as has been seen in this country over the past 5-10 years. Online sports sites/interaction was extremely minimal at the time. Looking back, DC was probably the only club that had a big group until the Fire launched in Chicago a couple years later, but nobody knew about their supporters nationally because the internet had not yet boomed in social functionality beyond AOL instant messenger.
It’s crazy. I see people come into the sport today as fans or investors and they gripe and moan about the littlest inconsequential things without respect for or a clue as to how drastically things have changed even over the course of the last dozen years. And many of them who have minimal knowledge cast uninformed opinions and aspersions from afar about what has happened without the insight and knowledge of the inner workings of how things evolved. Hindsight does not always paint the correct picture. I saw a part of a feature on one of those Discovery-type channels the other morning about how scientists and artists approximate what they think dinosaurs looked like – but how accurate they are based on fossils is completely unknown.
Who were some of the players on the late 1990’s Shadow teams?
Wow. There were a handful that stand out for a number of reasons. I guess first off I would have to say Brian Ching and Craig Waibel – two names not only known well in Spokane and Seattle, but nationally and in Brian’s case internationally. Zane Higgins was an older, but speedy local guy that was the star striker before Ching who was the opposition’s worst nightmare as he beat defender after defender game after game out on the left flank. Kieran Barton, a former Sounder, was the enforcer in the middle of the park that was just as likely to get a red card as score with the hard-nosed attitude he played with. Defender Stuart Saunders probably is the everlasting image of the Shadow having been with the team from the beginning and went on to be assistant coach during the tenure of head coach Sean Bushey (like Thorarinsson at Gonzaga, was then and still a coach at Whitworth ) and then stepping into the head coach role in 2000 after I had left that offseason.
The dynamic of the team as my tenure was ending was transitioning from the pro-like long-term roster to the overturning aspect of today that most PDL clubs have because players develop and move on after college ends, hopefully to a pro team. Guys like the high schoolers I previously mentioned would have been a great core for the future of the team, but higher levels called them while guys like Barton, Higgins and Saunders along with good players like Chad Brown, Tim Seely and Dave Berto were at the ends of their careers passing on their knowledge and playing for local pride.
The local talent, whether home grown in Spokane or in town playing for Gonzaga/Whitworth, made up about half of the main part of the squad and nearly all of the younger developing players, who would in time work their way into seeing action. The other half were players from the colleges on the other side of the Cascades. We had quite a contingent from the University of Washington for a while who played key roles around the pitch through the years.
About the time I spent my final year with the team in 1999 though, Washington coach Dean Wurzberger began calling players back before the end of the season or during playoffs for trivial meetings and training. That became increasingly frustrating for Robbins as GM to have four or five starters, including Spokanites who were in school there, disappear at a critical time and eventually led to the decision to discontinue using Husky players who were underclassmen with remaining eligibility.
It still baffles me to this day that college coaches continue to keep this policy. I always hear it in every sport and from college coaches as well that postseason exposure is critical for the future, etc. yet they turn around and yank guys who are in the middle of gaining invaluable playoff experience with PDL (and W-League) teams that could be important to their own programs down the road, not to mention being in game shape from day one. If you look at the four or five seasons after he started doing that, Wurzberger’s Huskies were regularly knocked out in early rounds of the NCAA tournament while schools such as Indiana thrived with players throughout the PDL Central Conference on good teams like Mid Michigan, Kalamazoo, Chicago and others. Anyway, that kind of led to a slow descent in the quality of the team on the field as the Spokane youth development scene was not in full form for maintaining the great stature of the Shadow.
Describe the on-pitch highlights for the Shadow during those years…
Being personally involved, what should have been on-field highlights, despite dominating the division, felt like disappointments as the team always seemed to come up tragically short. Before I joined the front office, the team was knocked out by the division’s second-place team the San Francisco Bay Seals, who went on to reach the league final, turn pro and make a historic run in the 1997 US Open Cup (as Sounders fans are painfully aware) as a team in the then D3 Pro League (USL Second Division).
The following year, another California club ended our run after a dramatic divisional championship weekend when the San Gabriel Valley Highlanders played a very good finesse-possession oriented game that got the better of us 1-0 in the Conference Final. They went on to finish third and then win the title in 1998, a year that ended in utter disaster in what should have been the championship year for us.
Ching joined the team that season and we were flying, literally, as he headed in goal after goal by rising up above the opposition. He was clearly better than anyone else on the pitch for either club and was destined for greatness and a professional career. He went on to break team scoring records that year en route to winning the ’98 Rookie of the Year honor from the league as his time with the team proved to be a turning point in his career. At Gonzaga, beforehand, he was more of the set-up guy for then star Jeff McAllister, but on the Shadow roster against higher level competition the roles quickly reversed. As for the team, it was division domination again with the second-highest goal total in the league, but the playoffs were a disaster. We opened against the Okanagan Challenge, who received a berth as part of a deal that brought four provisional teams into the division with half schedules for a trial run. We had beaten them by an aggregate of like 7-1 during the season but it all came undone in the postseason as we fell apart and lost 2-1. That night was the first time I drank, literally. Yakima easily went on to win the division, 4-1, the next day in front of a crowd of about 200 or so after seeing 3,000+ the night before.
My final year with the club in ’99 was a total mixed bag. We qualified for the US Open Cup for the first time. With the Sounders awaiting the winner and having agreed to let us host the next round if we won, the team traveled down to California and knocked off the D3 Chico Rooks 3-2 in overtime (unfortunately I was unable to go) on June 16. But the two-week span before and after was disastrous – and it all revolved around the Sounders.
Three days before the Open Cup match we hosted Seattle in a costly friendly. Ching had played only two games going into the match, which proved to be his last with the Shadow. A long ball up the middle was bouncing toward the area and he was all alone as he and former Shadow netminder Bill May converged on the ball at the edge of the box. Brian leaned forward to head the ball down for control at his feet, but at the same time May came busting through with a punch to clear the ball away. May’s momentum accidentally carried his knee up into Brian’s face, fracturing the eye socket – the same type of injury he sustained in the other eye while playing for the Galaxy. I remember seeing him at a practice a week or so later after getting plates and screws put in and he was all stitched up with nasty looking bruises. He was his normal cheerful self, but although he was healthy and could have come back for the playoffs, he held off for school instead.
As for the Open Cup, the Sounders reneged on the agreement in an occurrence that wouldn’t happen with today’s bid format that determines the next round’s host in advance. The team trekked across the state out of sorts and promptly was dispatched 3-1 in a matchup we felt we had a chance to win at home.
Without Ching and Waibel, who had moved onto the Sounders, we just were not the same as the year before. A couple of the ‘old’ guys filled in up top during the season, but once we got to the playoffs as the automatic semifinalist by virtue of hosting the Final Four, we were outmatched. The event itself was really the highlight of the organization as it still to this day was among the finest in PDL history off the field. Willamette Valley Firebirds won the division and reached the Final Four with guys like Joey Leonetti, Bryn Ritchie and future Sounders player and indoor superstar MVP Greg Howes. We downed them 2-1 to reach the final, where the vaunted Chicago Sockers deservedly won the title – their third straight after two D3 crowns – with a 3-1 performance in front of a Shadow franchise record crowd of nearly 4,000. The team had guys like Tim Regan, Alvin Hudson, Matt Bobo and Brian Namoff on the roster along with goalkeeper Adam Throop, who was among the best in the net across the league for several years.
Coming up Next in Part Two: The demise of the Shadow and Spokane as a ‘soccer market’ today.