Meet the Aussie coach who's made it in the MLS

Alex Calder, head of sports science at Houston Dynamo Source: Getty Images

Six years ago, Alex Calder was battling it out in the semi-professional state leagues of Victoria. Now, after working his way up the professional sports ladder in the United States, he is the head of sports science at Major League Soccer club Houston Dynamo.

Calder relocated permanently to America in 2016 to try and find a role in strength and conditioning.

After interning at Purdue University and working for the University of Louisville’s athletic program, he landed a position with MLS outfit Orlando City.

In Florida the Australian served as a fitness coach when the club’s squad included Brazilian great Kaka. Then, at the end of 2018, he was approached to head west and join the Dynamo.

“It’s really interesting for me because this is the second club I’ve been at,” Calder told The World Game.

“When I was at Orlando it was really eye-opening because there was wealthy owners and it was a wealthy club, and at the time we had Kaka and he was the highest-paid player in the league.

"However, the resources and facilities were probably below-average at Orlando, but we had the most expensive player.

“Now at Houston, I was humbly surprised because the facilities are really nice, but this club just prior to my arrival had three years in a row with the lowest-paid roster in the league.

“[But] it’s good. It’s the off-season now so we’ve got a bit of time to step back from the training facility and recharge. I wish we would have won more games this season and been in the playoffs, but look, this is football.”

Houston are owned by a high-profile consortium that includes boxing legend Oscar De La Hoya and NBA star James Harden, but finished bottom of the Western conference last season.

The club are coached by former Real Betis midfielder Tab Ramos and their roster includes American international Christian Ramirez and Chilean defender Jose Bizama.

“I cover all the monitoring side of things, so a whole lot of periodisation schemes and models, and really I provide recommendations to our high performance manager,” Calder explained.

“And then I program and coach the strength and conditioning sessions, and I’m heavily involved in the rehabilitation process. My hands are full, I’m wearing a lot of hats in one role.”

Calder spent the final season of Kaka’s career working with the ex-AC Milan and Real Madrid attacking midfielder, who lifted the FIFA World Cup with the Selecao in 2002.

“My first year at Orlando was his last, it was interesting times because I don’t feel he was fully ready to retire,” he said.

“But working with him was sensational, he’s an absolute top lad. He was the most professional guy I ever worked with, no question.

“There was no combating any of the recommendations or anything like that, he was probably too nice at times! He was the club captain as well, and it was the first time I’ve seen football player fines not be implemented because he was really laid-back.

“He was the best player to work with, he made my job 10 times easier.”

Calder grew up in Melbourne’s south-east and spent his junior days playing for the likes of Berwick City FC and Peninsula Strikers. At the age of 17 he was offered a scholarship to play college football in the United States.

“I was buzzing about that,” he said.

“I accepted the offer to go to a Division II school in North Dakota on a soccer scholarship. I came in 2008, I did pretty well. Then I ended up going back home and tried to get back into some clubs I had previously played at, but struggled to get back in.

“I got some low-level strength and conditioning licenses and improved my own football. At the same time I started training a lot of the players and doing one-on-one sessions at the age of 19, 20.”

Calder holds a master’s degree in high performance sport from the Australian Catholic University, and a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and exercise science from Fitchburg State University, along with a number of licences from the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association.

After working with ice hockey players in Melbourne and interning at AFL club Collingwood, he decided to try his luck overseas.

“I took a bit of a leap of faith and said I’ll go give it a crack out there,” he said.

“I flew to Boston where I spent two years at a private facility training all sorts of athletes, trying to get a foot in the door. During those two years I was flying all over the country, going to conferences.

“I was broke but I was borrowing money, trying to meet people and network. It worked out, I networked a good amount and ended up getting an internship at Purdue.

“After two-and-a-half months the guy I was interning for recommended me for a role at the University of Louisville they had open. I drove down for the interview and he hired me on the spot.

“I was there for one year, two athletic seasons, then the guy at Orlando City approached me. He created a position for me of assistant fitness coach. I had two years there and then got offered the job at Houston.”

Calder says his background as a footballer has helped in his career in sports science in the MLS.

“I always knew I was going to end up in football because I played for 20 years,” he admitted.

“Even when I came to Boston, I was playing out there. When I was at Louisville I was working with the football teams there, so when Orlando called me and offered me a job it was kind of a no-brainer. I had to take it to get into football.

“It really helps getting your message across if you can kick a ball too. You get a bit of respect from the players if you have a half-decent touch.”

The MLS, which was founded in 1996, is often compared with the A-League as both competitions do not have promotion and relegation.

But while the A-League has struggled to grow crowds and ratings in recent times, its American equivalent has gone from strength to strength and, in 2018-19, had the seventh-highest league attendance in the world.

“When the A-League started in 2005 it was fairly on par with the MLS,” Calder said.

“I remember it was around the time David Beckham came and Galaxy played Sydney FC. The two leagues were quite close. But now you look at it and the trajectory of the MLS - it’s not comparable.

“Now you’ve got all these players like Kaka, Steven Gerrard, (Frank) Lampard, Zlatan (Ibrahimovic), all these big players are coming over here now. It’s just absolutely sky-rocketed and it’s the same with all the facilities and everything, because as soon as these big players come over it drives everything else up.

“The resources across the league have just gone up as well, along with the player quality. The new clubs are building new facilities, new stadiums; because there’s more interest. The interest has gone up massively.

“Atlanta United averaged 52,000 fans a game in 2019, it was one of the highest in the world.

"I got into the league in 2017 at a really good time because now it’s ten times harder to get a role like mine.”