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Americans Abroad

Jack Stefanowski Hopes to Elevate Nepal National Side

A 39-year-old New Yorker with a passion for coaching soccer, Jack Stefanowski has blazed a decidedly unconventional trail. Brian Sciaretta spoke with the Nepal national team coach.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
November 04, 2014
4:05 PM
WHEN AMERICAN PLAYERS OR COACHES step outside of their comfort zone and move abroad, usually their destination is Western Europe or Mexico.

Jack Stefanowski, however, is taking a different route and is trying to develop Nepal’s national team—a program that has historically had very little success. It has been a tall task to build up the program with limited infrastructure but the New York-born Stefanowski takes it all in stride.

“It’s a great experience,” Stefanowski told ASN over Skype from an Internet café in Kathmandu.

“Obviously there are challenges here but anywhere you go as a coach you just have to overcome those challenges," he said. "We had some great results last year. We did well in the south Asian tournament. Our biggest win was against India so that was a fantastic experience. Even though there are challenges we are finding ways to get results.”

The 39-year-old Stefanowski took an indirect route to Nepal. After graduating from New York University in 1997 he played with two local semipro teams. His playing career was short-lived, however, and he soon transitioned into coaching with local New York area colleges. Over the years he acquired both his UEFA “A” and USSF “B” coaching licenses.

In 2008 he made the leap to coaching at the professional level: Stefanowski had brief head coaching jobs with Puerto Rican clubs Bayamon FC and Sevilla FC. In 2010 he was even the interim head coach of the Puerto Rican national team. His longest tenured job was as an assistant coach with the Puerto Rican Islanders and he was on the staff in 2010 when the Islanders pulled off a stunning upset to eliminate the Los Angeles Galaxy in the CONCACAF Champions League.

In 2012, however, he returned to New York to explore other opportunities. Through a contact Stefanowski learned that the head coaching position for Nepal’s national team was open. At first it seemed a strange option but Stefanowski was out of work and decided to take a chance. After interviewing with the Nepalese federation, he was hired to a one-year contract in January 2013.

With wins over India, Bangladesh, and a draw against Pakistan, Nepal saw its relatively modest FIFA World Ranking move inside the top 170. At the time of his hiring, the country's soccer supporters viewed Stefanowski with skepticism but gradually he began to win them over.

“I think the perception of an American coach coming in, I don’t think people were too sure,” Stefanowski said. “But it’s something I had to push through and change people’s minds and put in the hard work. The biggest thing for me was to get results. It’s definitely a challenge perception-wise for an American coach to come out to Asia or even Nepal. People might not be familiar with American soccer. It’s been good to break through that barrier.”

At the end of 2013, Stefanowski’s contract expired and Nepal’s federation elected to go with a local coach. After a string of unimpressive results—which included disappointing losses to Yemen and the Philippines—Nepal’s federation asked Stefanowski to return and not only coach the national team but to also have a hand overseeing the youth national teams as well.

“There is definitely some progress,” Stefanowski said. “We went up in the FIFA rankings, so that is a plus. Now I am here to get them back to that standard that they were at last September—not only get there but get beyond and continue to work with the players and improve the national team program as a whole.”

There are all sorts of challenges for Stefanowski in Nepal and chief among them is handling the rising status of several of the younger players who are showing impressive potential— at least by the country’s standards. The most prominent example is 16-year-old Bimal Magar, who recently became the first Nepalese player to ever sign with a European team when he joined Anderlecht youth academy in Belgium.

In the United States, fans are frequently seeking to anoint the next promising young player as the “next big thing.” In Nepal, how Stefanowski handles Magar is a crucial because expectations are growing rapidly. Last year Stefanowski brought Magar into a match against Pakistan at the 2013 South Asian Football Federation Championship. Though just 15 at the time, Magar scored a stoppage-time equalizer in a 1-1 draw. That goal made him the youngest player to ever score for Nepal.

“That’s breaking barriers," Stefanowski said. "He’s the first Nepali player to play in Europe. It’s going to be a fantastic experience with the training he is going to get there.”

“People here are excited about him,” he added. “It puts a lot of pressure on him but I’ve had a chats with him and told him the biggest thing for him is to just keep improving and don’t worry about pleasing people or the pressure. He understood. He’s intelligent and I know he’ll do well.”

The 2015 campaign will be an important one for Stefanowski and the Nepal national team, which faces qualifiers for the Asian Games which will in turn have implicationson World Cup qualifying.

On Friday, Nepal lost 3-0 to a Philippines side that is now coached by former U.S. national team captain Thomas Dooley. It was only the second game ever between two national teams coached by Americans. For Stefanowski, he is very open about the pride he takes in being one of the few American coaches abroad.

“I think the more American coaches we can get abroad, [the] more respect,” Stefanowski said. “I hope that this matchup between two American head coaches gives our coaches back home more hope and opportunities to work abroad. The Philippines is a very competitive team who has improved tremendously over the last few years. With Thomas Dooley taking over the team, they will be stronger in the AFC.”

HELPING BUILD NEPAL'S soccer infrastructure is certainly challenging but life off the field has not always been easy for Stefanowski, his wife, and their three-year-old child. The biggest culture shock when he first arrived in Kathmandu was the country’s transportation system. To this day, he has his own private driver.

In his spare time, Stefanowski visits the city of Pokhara where he can paraglide, spend time near lakes, and enjoy the country’s remarkable beauty in the Himalayas. He has taken a plane to see Mount Everest and one day he would like to climb at least a portion of it.

“It was an adjustment but after we got through that period, we definitely enjoyed living in Nepal,” Stefanowski said. “It’s a different world, but depending on how you look at it, you can always appreciate things. It’s a different environment but the people here are fantastic. The fans here are unbelievable. Their passion for football is outstanding. I enjoy it a lot. I am just working hard and when I do have free time, I appreciate the natural resources they have here.

“I have big ambitions,” he continued. “Yes, at some point I would definitely like to return to the U.S. I think right now with my family, we want to experience the world. If we can stay in Asia or anywhere throughout the world, we would definitely cherish that opportunity.”

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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