When legendary University of Louisville Head Men’s Soccer Coach Ken Lolla stepped down after the program claimed its first ACC title in 2018, it caught the university and fanbase by surprise. The Cardinal program had been built up to a level of prominence throughout the past 13 years leading up to his departure, thus creating some rightful concerns surrounding the program’s upward trajectory. Louisville native and assistant coach (at the time) John Michael Hayden was hired less than a month later, looking to continue what Lolla started.
For Hayden, the call from Athletic Director Vince Tyra letting him know he got the job was as surreal as it gets. “I wasn’t sure how it was all going to play out,” he explained. “I was working with Ken Lolla and I was really enjoying my time. Abruptly, he decided to pursue a different calling. At that moment, I wasn’t sure what was next, but I obviously wanted to stay in Louisville. I always said to myself as a youth that when I got done playing, I wanted to be a part of this program in a coaching role and help lead it to a national prominence.”
Hayden is a product of Trinity High School where he won Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year in 2001 before going on to play under Hall of Fame coach Jerry Yeagley at Indiana. The Hoosiers won two national titles in Hayden’s career. After college, the center midfielder got drafted in the first round of the 2007 MLS SuperDraft by the Houston Dynamo, who ended up winning the MLS Cup the next season.
Having a decorated career filled with significant successes, Hayden incorporates lessons he learned in his playing days into his coaching in the present day. “I think that’s what helps me be the coach that I am,” he said. “From the relationships with the guys to my understanding of what these players are going through. I feel like I’m fairly sharp tactically, so I can see things as they develop and help pass on messages on how to solve a certain situation. The bottom line is that the biggest thing that helps me is having those experiences of winning at the highest level as a player, because it gives me the blueprint of why things were successful.”
Another aspect of the job that being a former player helps with is the pressure. Regardless of who the head coach is, the expectation at Louisville remains the same: compete for national championships.
“In my own career as a player, I had pressure. I was one of the top youth players going through, and I always felt like it was a privilege to be in situations where pressure is there. That carried over into my college career where at Indiana the expectation was to win national championships and we won two,” Hayden recalled. “I was kind of accustomed to environments to where that was the expectation; you’re expected to win. So, stepping into this situation here, I know what the expectations are. However, I probably put more pressure on myself than anybody, and I think that helps move things along.”
In his first season, the Cardinals made it to the Sweet-16 before losing to the eventual-national champion Georgetown Hoyas. Shortly after the campaign, the coronavirus sent shockwaves throughout the world. The pandemic made things challenging for programs all over the country in many different ways.
“It presented so many challenges for us,” Hayden explained. “We had a small roster as it was because of some of the international players not being able to come here due to visa issues related to COVID. Our whole team got hit by COVID in the preseason so it made implementing a philosophy almost impossible. There were some days where we had only four guys available in a preseason training.”
The 2020 season was broken up into two parts with half of the matches in the fall and half in the spring. With a constantly revolving lineup and a squad filled with significant youth, Louisville stumbled out of the gate early on, going 1-6-1 in the fall.
“The newcomers arrived to us last fall unready,” Hayden admitted. “We were also thrusted into playing one of the most difficult schedules as well. It’s humbling in a way because you don’t want to lose. We had gone through so much adversity in the fall that you saw a group that was a now able to do some of things we wanted to do, in the spring.”
In the spring, the Cardinals did a complete 180. The team won four of the six matches including a regular season finale victory against #1 Clemson. “Through that adversity, I think it helped us. We brought some more guys that fit the character of what we needed into the program after the fall, and then when had a really good spring. If we would’ve made the national tournament, I felt like we would’ve made a really strong run,” Hayden added.
Fast-forward to present day, and that momentum has carried over into the 2021 season where Louisville currently sports a 10-5 record. The consistent top-ten recruiting classes that the program has bought in is starting to pay off for the Cardinals; three of the team’s top four scorers are freshmen, headlined by Aboubacar Camara. The 5-foot-8 freshman is second nationally in goals scored (12), but Hayden still expects more.
Photo Courtesy of gocards.com
“I think Aboubacar could actually have more goals than he has,” Hayden said. “In the match against Oakland, he missed many opportunities. That’s just our philosophy however, we wanted to be a team that the opposition is scared to play. I’m happy with how he and some of the younger guys have done, but I still want more from them and I believe that they have it in them.”
Hayden’s drive to never be complacent and always work hard to get to the finish line is an embodiment of the culture that he has attempted to instill into the program’s philosophy. “This young crew understands the accountability that we’re asking from them along with the demands of the program,” he said. “As more players come through, it will then be there responsibility to ensure that they are the ones passing on what the discipline needs to look like. When I was on the best teams that I ever played for, the coach could step back and the team runs itself. We’re trending towards that here.”
A program led by its players is a phenomenon that Hayden became aware of after learning from Lolla and Yeagley. “Both coaches instilled that you’re going to work,” he recalled. “There won’t be easy days in training; training is where you get everything right. I think the overall message learned was that if one guy doesn’t do the work, then we are all going to suffer. There has to be that accountability both on the field and in the classroom.”
Despite Lolla’s departure, Hayden still remains in contact with one of his mentors. “Ken is a guy that I can call at any point,” he explained. “He’s a guy with 20-plus years of head coaching experience so he has kind of seen the ins-and-outs of it. He’s always there; I’ve gotten phone calls from him just checking in and seeing how I’ve been doing. He has been very supportive of me in this role.”
With this being his first head coaching job, Hayden is open about the learning process that comes with the territory. There are obviously big shoes to fill, but he is confident that through hard work, attention to culture, and never getting complacent, that the program will continue to inch its way closer to winning the first national title in program history.