“When you get older, you won’t remember how many soccer games you’ve won or lost,” Mark Foster, head coach of Little Rock (LR) soccer, tells his players. Soccer has been Foster’s life since childhood. He’s played on the amateur and semi-professional level in his home country of Ireland, the college level in America, and coached at multiple soccer clubs, high schools, and colleges. And despite leading the Trojans to their most successful season in program history in his first year as coach, for all his success, Foster emphasizes the relationships he’s built through his journey. “I forget how many goals [I’ve scored], but I don’t forget the friendships I’ve made along the way.”
Foster grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, at a time of great strife in which the country had suffered through periods of civil war. To raise their children in a better environment, Foster’s parents moved the family to the coastal town of Newcastle, a tourist hub of some 6,000 people.
Despite the turmoil of Belfast, soccer was a constant in Foster’s childhood. “Growing up in Ireland, soccer’s everything,” Foster said. “From the time I could walk, I was playing soccer.”
As Foster aged, opportunities arose to play on the amateur and semi-professional level. He played for Kilmore Recreation Football Club (Kilmore Rec.) in Crossgar and Glenavon Football Club in Lurgan.
Playing for both clubs has had a significant impact on his coaching today. “You learn from every coach,” Foster said. “If they could see me now, I think a lot of the coaches I played for would say I’m plagiarizing their work,” Foster laughed. “When we’re growing up, those coaches shape a lot of how we think and how we are, and I definitely think those experiences have made me a better coach and a better person.”
In 2005, however, Foster had a realization. Despite his success, Foster knew he wasn’t good enough to become a professional in England, “the dream for Irish soccer players,” according to Foster. He shifted his focus to his education and a future career in coaching. When offered a scholarship to attend and play soccer at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Foster jumped at the opportunity.
Foster’s career at Trevecca was wildly successful. He still holds school records for most goals, points, and assists and was named Freshman of the Year in 2005, as well as TranSouth Athletic Conference Player of the Year in 2008. Foster, however, isn’t keen to brag about his on-field accomplishments. “I forget the records,” Foster said.
He is proud of his work in the classroom at Trevecca. Foster is dyslexic and struggled academically in high school. At Trevecca, however, he was an Academic-All Conference player and graduated with a degree. “It’s easy to look and go, ‘Well I won some soccer games and scored some goals,’” Foster said. “But, the greatest achievement for me was the friendships and the fact I was able to get a great education.”
Foster’s always been interested in coaching soccer. His grandfather coached soccer, while his dad played. Even when Foster played, he’d help coach the youth teams and ask his own coaches to explain the decisions they made.
Foster’s first head coaching job came in 2009, after graduation, for the U16 boys’ team of Brentwood Soccer Club in Nashville. Foster’s greatest lesson at Brentwood came in dealing with the pressure. “I was on my own on the sideline,” Foster said. “I had to make the decisions.”
Foster also learned how to handle the stress of being watched. “I had directors of coaching who expected me to help these kids develop and give them a good experience and I had parents who were paying club fees who expected their kids to be treated and coached in a manner that was going to help them enjoy the game, but also learn and grow,” Foster said. “Coaching is not easy. It’s not just about putting Nike or Adidas gear on and having a laugh, it’s proper work.”
While working at Brentwood, Foster spent time as an assistant at Donelson Christian Academy, a private school which helped him define his direction. “I was trying to learn, ‘Am I going to be better as a women’s coach or a men’s coach? Am I better being a high school or college coach?’” Foster said. He has fond memories of his time at Donelson and credits the athletic director and coach there as having given him very valuable experience.
In 2011, Foster left Brentwood and Donelson and joined the coaching staff at his alma mater, Trevecca. Despite significant success as a player, Foster didn’t feel any pressure returning. “I felt like I was coming back to my comfort zone,” Foster said. “I came back because I had decided I wanted to be a college coach.”
Foster worked first as an assistant on Head Coach Brett Armstrong’s coaching staff until he took over as head coach in 2013. Foster took the job at Trevecca as a sign of appreciation. “I felt like I owed Trevecca something,” Foster said. “Trevecca brought me to America, gave me a scholarship, and a wonderful opportunity. [It was a] perfect school, perfect time, perfect place.”
In his six years at Trevecca, Foster’s teams won the 2012 G-MAC Championship, and he became the second-winningest coach in program history.
In 2017, Foster made another move, this time to spend a lone season as an assistant at Sun Belt school South Alabama. Foster credits South Alabama with preparing him for the job at LR. The opportunity to play against LR and other Sun Belt opponents helped him to learn the standard of play and set the stage for Foster to accept his first Division-I head coaching job.
“Although it was enjoyable to be an assistant at South Alabama, I still had that ‘itch’ to be a head coach again,” Foster said. “But it had to be the right fit.”
What made LR the right fit for Foster? “I knew it was a good group of girls and that there was the right administration that cared about athletics and would give me the support I needed to build a great program,” Foster said. “It was too good an opportunity to turn down.”
Foster was introduced as head coach of LR soccer on Jan. 16, 2018, taking over from former coach Adrian Blewitt. Blewitt had led the Trojans to four winning seasons in his five years at the helm, but the team faltered in 2017, finishing 9-9-3.
What were Foster’s expectations entering his first season? Did he expect the kind of success the team would go on to achieve? “Yes and no,” Foster said. “If I say no then I’m contradicting myself because I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t think the team could have that kind of success.”
But Foster is realistic. He knew the growing pains the team could suffer under a new coaching staff. The team had to bond and play under a new system. It was going to take time.
Foster’s team, however, showed early signs of the potential to be special. On Aug. 17, the team played UCA in Conway and the game ended in a tie after two overtimes. Two days later, the team played Kentucky at Coleman Sports Complex and lost 3-2 in a second straight double-overtime game. Despite not winning either game, Foster saw the team’s talent coming together. “At that point, I knew our season was going be defined on whether the girls stuck together,” Foster said. Despite a lack of results, the team did stay together and won four straight games following the loss to Kentucky.
Once results started piling up for LR, was there a point the team had to refocus after an especially tough loss? Foster pointed out the Sept. 14 game versus Coastal Carolina as the turning point. LR lost 2-1 at Coastal Carolina in a match Foster believes the team should have won. After the game, the team called a meeting. “We said, ‘Look, we can do this. We were close today, and [Coastal Carolina]’s a team that has a chance of winning [the Sun Belt Championship], and if they can win it, why can’t we?’” Foster said. “The Coastal Carolina game was a ‘turning the light switch on’ moment for us.”
The light switch indeed turned on for LR. After the Coastal Carolina game, the team went on to win eight straight games and only surrendered two goals. Despite a final regular-season loss to Appalachian State, the team entered the Sun Belt Conference Tournament on a high, having finished in second place in the standings.
In three matches at the tournament in Foley, Ala., LR won on penalty kicks twice, first on Oct. 31 versus Arkansas State in the quarterfinals, then against Texas State in the Sun Belt Conference Championship. How do players and coaches deal with the pressure of a penalty shootout? “As a player, it’s the toughest thing,” Foster said. “I ask the players which ones are feeling confident because if a player doesn’t feel they can do it at that moment, they don’t need a coach bullying them into hitting a penalty.”
For all the pressure, the feeling of winning on penalties is the greatest. “It’s the hardest way to win for a player,” Foster said. “It’s the most nerve-wracking way to win for a coach, but when the last penalty goes in, and you win, there’s no better feeling.”
LR soccer left Foley with a Sun Belt Championship, but the trophy wasn’t the end of the story. Days later, watching on televisions with other members of the athletic department and supporters, the team was drawn to play Arkansas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“For soccer to be the first LR team to play Arkansas in a competitive game at the national tournament was fantastic for us,” Foster said. “It was the one the girls wanted.”
While the players were excited at the prospect of playing Arkansas, the matchup, from a soccer perspective, was always going to be a challenge. And due to a collection of factors, the team gave up five goals in the first half and was effectively eliminated by halftime. Foster described his halftime speech. “The team talk was, ‘Hey girls, we’re not going to score six goals against Arkansas in the second half, but we’re a better soccer team than that,’” Foster said. “’We have to go out in the second half and prove to everybody how good of a team we are.’” After that halftime talk, the team’s play improved, and LR scored a goal, the first NCAA Tournament goal in school history.
Foster blames himself for the loss. “I think I wasn’t able to get the girls to believe they could win and I wasn’t able to provide a platform for them to relax and enjoy the game,” Foster said. “I’m glad we were able to relax in the second half, and my only regret is I wasn’t able to help them through that in the first half.”
Despite the loss, LR soccer’s 2018 season was the best in program history and has raised the standard for the program moving forward. For LR, much like Mark Foster’s life, it’s about reaching the next goal. “The culture is in place,” Foster said. “I don’t think LR soccer has ever been at a better place and the future is bright.”