After the GameMay 03, 2018

Life After the Game with "Mr. Sounder" Zach Scott

Zach Scott played for the Seattle Sounders for 15 years, successfully making the transition with the team from the USL to MLS. In that time, he made 272 appearance for the team and garnered one MLS title, two USL First Division titles, four U.S. Open Cups and an MLS Supporters' Shield. He now works in business development for Slalom Consulting out of Seattle. We talked to him about his impressive career with the Sounders, his transition to post-soccer life and the immense importance he places on family.

Q: Where did you grow up, and how did you get into soccer?

Zach Scott: I was born and raised on Maui. My parents were Southern California transplants. My dad wanted to take up surfing and obviously moving to Hawaii is a good way to do that. Soccer, especially growing up, was not big in Hawaii. Water sports were definitely number one and that’s what I was pushed into at a young age. But, I think my mom recognized I was pretty rambunctious and thought soccer would be a good way for me to run around a little bit and blow off some of that energy. We didn’t have any soccer playing background in our family or a ton of sports background per se, but soccer was a pretty natural fit among other sports like surfing basketball, football or track.

Q: You ended up playing in college at Gonzaga. How did that come about?

Scott: The assistant coach at Gonzaga, in Spokane, Washington, was from Oahu at the time, and they did, and still do, recruit a decent amount of players from Hawaii. It’s often a spot that gets overlooked when it comes to recruiting for colleges, especially D1 colleges. So, he came up to a game; and that kind of began the conversations with Gonzaga.

Q: When you were at Gonzaga, what did you study and why?

Scott: I went to school to be a math teacher. It was more elementary education. I wanted to stay in K-5. The way things were set up at Gonzaga, you could only major in special education if you wanted an education degree. So, you needed to have kind of a focus. I was always decent at math and loved the objectivity that math gives to your answers - either right or wrong. So, I just kind of dove into that and got my math degree with a teaching certificate attached to it.

Zach Scott Playing for the Seattle Sounders

Q: How did you get your soccer career started?

Scott: I didn’t grow up wanting to be a professional athlete. I think a lot of kids do. I wanted to be a firefighter or a policeman like my dad. Never in my head did I think I would chase playing soccer. It was just something that was fun, and fortunately, I was good at it.

I didn't have a steller college career. Still, I had a good one, and toward the end of it I recognized there might be an opportunity to continue to play. I didn't know what that looked like. I knew Major League Soccer wasn't an option. I just wasn’t somebody that would be drafted or picked up by a team, but I knew that there was the second division - the A-league at the time.

I wanted to stay in the Northwest. I had fallen in love with the area, and so, I looked at Portland and Seattle as two potential teams I wanted to try out for. I just kind of went through the normal open try out period as I was finishing up my teaching degree. Fortunately for me, Seattle was a brand new A-league team after going on hiatus for a number of years. They had new ownership that came in, and they were basically starting a team from scratch. So, it ended up working out for me because it was a completely new roster.

I got a kind of a “pay as you play” contract where if I was on the field, I got a paycheck, and if I wasn’t, I didn't. So, I was supplementing income by working a number of different jobs on the side. Year after year, I stuck it out a little longer and eventually transitioned to Major League Soccer.

Q: What jobs were you working?

Scott: The easy one was coaching. I mean everybody on the team was supplementing income with training as many teams as they could. I was also working a data entry and accounts receivable job at one of the owners’ companies. On the side, I was substitute teaching. I was coaching at least two teams and working two other jobs at the same time. So, probably 4 jobs while I was playing there.

Zach Scott on the Ball

Q: You ended up sticking in Seattle all the way up through the transition to MLS. How did that play out?

Scott: Yeah, the team just continued to find success. They kept a good core group of guys together who really just loved playing with each other. No one was making that much money. Everyone was working a couple of different jobs, including coaching. Then rumors of Major League Soccer started coming up at various times in 2009. We were basically told that we would be given the opportunity to try out for the team. Nothing was set in stone, but if you were on the USL team you would at least come to training camp and be given the chance.

At that point, I had played with the lower division Sounders for seven years and had won a couple championships. I was happy with my career, and I was healthy.  I had two kids at the time, so was kind of thinking this was probably the end. I thought, I gotta start getting my act together here and start planning for the future. You don’t really have many options when you have a family and a life to support. So, we were really not throwing too much weight into trying out for the Sounders, and we were definitely planning for the future beyond soccer.

Q: But you did make the team?

Scott: Yeah it was pretty typical tryout. You're just holding on for dear life hoping to last another week. You’re seeing friends not make the cut and being called into the coaches office and just kind of wondering, ‘well why am I being chosen? That guy is better than I am, why am I being chosen to stick around?’ And, long story short, I was able to do that.

I don't even know if it was five days before the inaugural game for the Sounders, but I was pulled to the side of the training session and basically handed a contract. I don't even know what it said, but I would have played for peanuts just to be given the opportunity.

Q: You end up playing in the MLS from 2009 until 2016. Did you ever think about what you were going to do next, and if so, what things did you try to do to prepare yourself?

Scott: I’d like to say that I thought about it, but I think, at the time, if I was fully invested in preparing for the future, I feel like it would have taken away from what I was doing on the field. That being said, I knew I had my degree and that was big. I knew immediately post-soccer I could go into teaching if I wanted to. I didn't see myself doing that, but at least I knew I had that to fall back on.

I made sure that I stayed relevant in the community, and I think that's something that players need to keep in mind. You can't close yourself off. You have to be out there meeting people, having conversations and getting to know people. Not only from a standpoint of ‘what can they do for me,’ but one of ‘what does this person actually do’ and how does that relate to maybe what I foresee myself doing in the future. I think we're definitely in a position as professional athletes where everyone wants to talk to you, and I think that's something you need to be open to.

Q: Is there a balance that can be stuck between focusing on what you are doing on the field and what you want to do after?

Scott: Something that I only really saw as my playing career came to a close, and a seed I tried to plant in some of the young guys minds, is that you really don't realize how much extra time you have. Sure, you might think that if you focus on anything outside of soccer you are doing yourself a disservice and you're not preparing properly. But there is actually a lot of time.

A couple of things for players. Number one, the platform that you're given. If there are causes that mean a lot to you, you're given an amazing platform to speak to the public about them. You are also given an opportunity to basically walk into any business and say ‘hey I play for the Sounders and i'd like to learn what you guys do.’ It's the players that are taking that opportunity that are going to set themselves up post-soccer. I think you are missing out on this massive opportunity if you are not using this extra time that you have to go out and do those things.

People, to this day, ask me ‘how’s retired life?’ I laugh because I am not retired. I work harder than i ever did playing soccer. I'm way busier, and I have way less time than I did with my family. The perception is that I’m set up financially, and that's definitely not the case.

People, to this day, ask me ‘how’s retired life?’ I laugh because I am not retired. I work harder than i ever did playing soccer.

Q: What are you doing now? How did you land there?

Scott: Towards the end of my career, I saw the writing on the wall. The Sounders didn’t ask me to come back for the next season, so at that point I quickly closed the door to my playing career. I was happy with the way things turned out. I still felt like I had something left, but was also happy that I was relatively healthy, and was able to do things that I wanted to do with my kids.

I knew coming out that I had one of two options. The easy one was to stay in soccer;  be a coach and stay involved with the team somehow. The other option was to get outside of the team. I talked to our owner and basically said, ‘I don't think coaching is for me.’ It follows a very similar schedule to playing, and I didn’t want to do that anymore. I didn’t want to miss out on evenings and weekends with my family because I was out coaching a number of teams. The business of the Sounders was what really interested me because I think, as we all know, the Sounders have done a fantastic job of really pushing the expectation of how a professional team should be operating and how they should be engaging fans. So, I really wanted to explore that. I didn't know in what capacity, but I just asked if there was something in there for me. Our owner immediately came back  to say they couldn’t create a role for me, and unfortunately, in professional sports, they get a lot of people who want these jobs. A lot of them will work for very little money in order to just get their foot in the door. It was a good conversation. I think it was good for me to hear. I kind of closed that door and start looking elsewhere, outside of the Sounders and outside of sports.

I got a resume together, and I started to reach out to the contacts that I had in the business community. Some of those were the partners of the Sounders that I had made good connections with on and off the field at different events. Eventually, through those connections, I was able to set up a bunch of meetings with several of the leaders and founders of Slalom Consulting.

Having a math background, I thought it would be interesting to get into the information management analytics space, but after meeting with leaders in those practice areas, I realized that, being 15 years out of school, I was pretty far behind. It would take quite a while to ramp up and get knowledgeable in the area. That said, business and technology and the intersection of the two had always been really interesting to me. Even though I had gone to school to be a teacher, that was a space that  I was reading books about when I was still playing.

So, going back to meeting with Slalom, I met with leaders and realized the analytics space probably wasn't where I was going to make my mark initially. Then, I met with the business development team, and I just loved the way they had that team mentality. Coming from sports, that was something I was worried I was going to miss out on. It was a great fit, and I was lucky to find it. It's been a truly fantastic learning experience because everyone has been so generous with their time and knowledge. It’s not sales. It's definitely business development. Everybody is in it to make sure the other guy succeeds and we all get pulled up together. Definitely not something I would have foreseen myself getting into post-soccer, but it's definitely been a blessing to have found the opportunity when I did.

Q: What did you think was the hardest about transitioning from being a player to working in an office environment?

Scott: Oh gosh, so many things! The biggest thing is the family dynamic. For 15 years I was able to take my kids to school, work out for 4 or 5 hours, and get home in time to pick them up. I could be the one that makes breakfast, lunch and dinner, and I could be there to do homework with them. So, I identified myself, first and foremost, with being a father and a husband. To kind of throw that on its head and realize I’m working 8-5, and there are times or evenings where I have to go out with clients or go to meetings - that was definitely the hardest. Of course, that’s an internal thing, something you are managing with your family. But, I think that's important to note because I think people might expect to be given flexibility in the business world.

The other side of it is that I hate using the fact that I played professional soccer as a means to open doors. I'd rather be viewed as being good at what I do post-soccer. And maybe that's not the same for everybody else but I’m very much focused on being able to close the professional soccer playing career and open up a new one that I can be fantastic at.

Overall, I’ll compare it to an injury. When you get back from an injury and you start playing, you don't feel great. It takes you a long time to get up to speed, and that's definitely how it is in the business world. You feel like you are constantly trying to get up to speed where the people coming directly out of college are able to utilize the knowledge they have and use it quicker than someone who's been playing sports for 15 years. It took me a solid year to feel like I had my feet underneath me and had gotten into a good rhythm. I think I'm still learning and that's a good thing because I tried to keep that same mentality when I was playing. I didn't want to ever coast through anything. I always wanted to be sure I was learning each and every day.

Q: What advantages do you think players have in the business world that they should be highlighting or recognizing?

Scott: A big part of my job is being able to talk to anybody, and I think you kind of develop that when you're playing and interacting with fans. Your fans aren’t one race or one sex or one socioeconomic level. They are just people who enjoy the sport and who want to connect with a professional athlete. I think that's a big part of the business world as well. You can’t ever fit anyone you interact with into a box. Everyone is different and you have to be able to adjust to communication styles with different people.

Leadership is also a huge thing, especially in the business world. They want to see leaders, they want to see people who are ambitious and are willing to take charge but do it in a way that's humble and wants to pull everybody along with them. Athletes often have that ability.

The other thing is being able to understand the dynamics of a team and not only know your role but the roles of other people. It is important to be able to interact in a way that you accentuate everyone's strengths and do your best to lift up people's weaknesses while not trying to hide them. After you've played for 15 years, not many people look at your education and ask you what your GPA was or ask you what school you went to. They are looking for the small things you did when you were still playing, like how you interacted with the community and what the perception of you was when you were playing. Was this someone who was accessible, that I could relate to? Would i want him to be a part of my business? Can he help my business? Would he drive my business moving forward?

Q: What do you see in your future? Is there a longer term plan?

Scott: To be honest, there isn't a ton from a business standpoint. I obviously want to do well at everything i start. I'm very much a perfectionist and while I was never able to attain that, it doesn't motivate me any less. That said, I’ve always associated myself with being a good father and being a good husband. I think the other stuff can come and go, the playing career can come and go, friends can come and go, but that is the one thing i want to stay consistent on. I want to raise great, smart kids and have a wife that loves me. That is probably not the answer you're looking for, but I know, if I've got all of my family ducks in a row that, no matter what happens in the business or playing world, everything will be good.