Editor’s Preface: When Kevin Baron (Kamiak HS) scored the first-ever goal for the Snohomish County FC Steelheads in league play in late April, it was a big moment for the player, the team and the head coach, Dagi Kesim. Now we learn more about the 12 years behind that match-winner. Most photos below by Glen Moffitt.
By Kevin Baron
I’ve known Dagi for half my life now. I met him for the first time at a small group training session when I was twelve years old and fairly new to select soccer. Now I’m twenty-four and have gotten to know him both on and off the soccer field by playing, training, and coaching for him. My name is Kevin Baron. Dağhan “Dagi” Kesim is the name you won’t want to forget. If you’re part of the high-level soccer scene in Western Washington, chances are you’ve probably heard of him or know him yourself. For those of you who are just now reading his Turkish name for the first time, and for those of you out there who want to get to know him a little better than you already do, please feel free to read on.
I started coming to Dagi’s technical trainings with my teammate Michael from Evergreen (which later merged with Washington Rush) because I saw that Mikey was becoming quite skillful, even at our young age, and I wanted to see what sorts of skills and techniques I could pick up. On the weekends, we trained in small groups of about four to ten players near our own age, from various teams around the area on different local fields. We would work on everything it seemed like, from Brazilian fakes to Italian defending, from trapping the ball out of the air to scooping it as a move to beat a player, from defensive heading form to what I liked that Dagi called artistic shots—aerial volleys like bikes and scissor kicks. We would bring it in for him to demonstrate and explain in depth whatever technique we were focusing on, and then split up to get our repetitions in. Dagi always stressed how important muscle memory was for mastering these skills. Often, at the end, we would play a small scrimmage or other game to try out what we were working on in a more game-like environment.
After just first few training sessions with Dagi, I was hooked. He had this whole soccer thing down to a science, which fit perfectly with my rather scientific mind. I enjoyed physics and geometry, and Dagi would use the language of those subjects to explain the concepts he taught. We would discuss the angles at which we struck the ball with our foot to create different passes, shots, crosses, or long balls, as well as the angles we would make in play to try to create a safe pass option for a teammate. We talked about what was (and at times when we would all burst out laughing, what was NOT) physically possible with a human body, a ball, and a pitch, whether it was about how far a person can reach with their leg or how much spin was necessary to stop a ball on the grass without rolling or bouncing off the field.
But besides just thinking about soccer from a highly analytical standpoint, Dagi also spoke at length about the artistry involved in the game, the beauty of how certain players touched the ball or faked out defenders or read plays. He revered certain pro players. Some were from the late ‘80s. Many were from the ‘90s, when he played with and against a number of them, both on his home professional team, Galatsaray, from Istanbul, which has been in and out of the UEFA Champion’s League over the years, and during his time playing professionally in Germany. He would also bring up contemporary early 2000s players, who we were certain to see playing on TV, back in the day of Fox Soccer Channel.
This near-religious reverence for the sport was ingrained into Dagi’s teaching. We would break down the difference between Ronaldo scissors and Robinho scissors, distinguish between Beckenbauer style finishing and (the other, younger) Ronaldo style knuckle ball shooting technique, and a certain way of dribbling he dubbed the Messi style. I distinctly remember Dagi calling out Messi as the best player in the world when Messi was still relatively unknown, before his astronomic rise to fame in the years to follow.
Website: Gala FC (Youth)
So there was the lore of soccer, the great saga unfolding on the world’s stage, but the artistry of soccer was also nameless and unglorified in many moments. One of my favorite artistic shots was called the falling shot, where you sort of dropped onto one forearm as you bent your knee and tried to time the ball coming in from a cross. Nothing spectacular in itself, but if you did it just right, you could send a rocket flying off your foot and into the back of the net, or perhaps more nostalgically for me, banging against the wire fence of the back of the dugout at McCollum Park near Mill Creek. But that was the beauty of the sport, focusing all those muscle-memory-building reps into that one moment, and then taking it from the practice pitch to the game field. It was what we sometimes called joga bonita, the beautiful play. That stuck with me.
Another thing that definitely stuck with me was becoming a man at the age of twelve. You see, our training sessions were not all fun and games. They were a precisely balanced recipe of those ingredients mixed with very tough love for us as players. Dagi demanded respect. Any time players were talking when he was showing us a technique, he would have them run a lap. He would become furious about us not offering a straight drop behind a teammate in a scrimmage, because an angled drop toward the middle of the field, or God forbid, a square ball, were simply unnecessarily risky, and we knew that.
One Sunday in the snow at Wilcox Park in Lynnwood, Michael brought up that he wanted to do twenties. This fitness routine was legendarily leg-burning among Dagi’s players. You would run in place with high knees and very very fast feet, punctuated by things like forward and backward sprints, headers, sit-ups, and push-ups, so-called because in his professional days, Dagi would do them with his own teammates for twenty straight minutes at a time. Dagi made a point of not running fitness for us during technical trainings unless we asked for it, and boy were we asking for it. I didn’t really know what I was getting into, this being only my third session, but I was a fitness junkie myself by this point in my life, so I was up for it. We did our twenties on the move rather than standing still, and they were about as hard as one might imagine, but what made me a man that day in my own mind was pushing through how painfully frozen my hands became from doing the push-ups in the snow. I was at the point of tears, but by the end, I felt that if I could do that, and I had, I could do anything I set my mind to, and that made me grown up. The whole experience made concentrating on things like keeping my toes down while shooting seem a lot easier by comparison, and Dagi encouraged us through it all, so I have him to thank for my becoming such a young adult.
It wasn’t until a decade later, when I was actually a young adult, at the age of twenty-two, that I began to become deeply familiar with Dagi’s coaching and tactical side. I was working in Chelan at the time, but when I saw that he would be head coaching the new semi-pro team from my home county, the Snohomish County Steelheads, I knew deep within myself that I had to do whatever I could to help him with this project in thanks for all the years of training he had given me. I had wanted to play for him in summer tournaments throughout my high school years, but it had never worked out with scheduling, so this also seemed like a great way to fill that gap in my soul. I had been tracking Dagi’s own select club, Gala FC, since he opened it in 2013, even if from a distance, being busy at the time with heading off to college. But with this opportunity to be directly involved with the Steelheads, to finally play for Dagi, I knew I couldn’t pass it up, despite the fact that I was working my dream job with hang gliders on the other side of the state.
Website: Snohomish County FC (Adult Semipro)
So I made the long hauls to practices and back to work. I studied and asked questions about our 3-5-2 formation, which eventually led to coaching for Gala, where we teach the same system to our youth players. And I discovered the details of how Dagi developed and evolved this three-back system carefully over the years, specifically to beat the most common tactic played in this state, the 4-4-2, and more generally to be able to beat any system it goes up against.
You see, Dagi is a very smart person in general. To be honest, he is a total nerd; he loves video games, sci-fi and fantasy movies and TV shows, and pop culture, among other topics (all of which make him a great trivia host on Monday nights at 7:00 at Delizioso Wine & Gelato in Mill Creek and at 7:00 on Friday nights at 13th Ave. Pub in Martha Lake in case you’d like to come play sometime!).
But when it comes to soccer, he has a special sort of intelligence that even he admits he wishes he also had in other aspects of life. He watched the game from a young age with a highly analytical mind. That seems to me to be where it all started. Then he got to put all that thought and theory in to practice as he ascended the ranks of the soccer elite in Istanbul, seeing everything he had seen on the screen now in real life, in real time, on the field around him. This helped him to visualize possibilities that could happen faster than they actually would, seeing ahead in the game the way you are required to be able to do at the professional level. This soccer sixth sense, combined with his ability back then to run fast all day long, got him the spot on a professional team at the age of fourteen, beating out hundreds of other more skillful players by keeping things simple, completing every pass, and doing what the coach asked for.
Tragically, just five years later, at the age of nineteen, his top-level professional career was cut far too short when a teammate vying for the same position intentionally and blatantly destroyed Dagi’s knee with his cleats while Dagi was on the ground. This was one of the greatest hardships in Dagi’s life, but he was somehow able to make the best of it by channeling all his soccer knowledge back into analysis with coaching in the United States. This I think was the catalyst for all the elements already present in his mind to fuse and kick into overdrive, giving him the soccer supermind he now possesses.
That soccer supermind has the ability not only to visualize numerous possibilities for an attack before any one of them unfolds, but also to optimize and categorize those possibilities, to in a matter of minutes see gradients of weakness and strength, slowness and speed, and other data on the field for every player on both teams, and above all else, to remember and recall all of this information on command even decades after he gathers it in. Dagi can replay an entire game or tournament in his mind, and can’t help but stay up at night doing so after some losses. This is how the 3-5-2 came to be, through painstaking years of trial, success, error, and reevaluation. Because it is so different from other systems, Dagi makes a point of having classroom sessions for any team that is learning it. Over time, though, its success has been proven in boys and girls high school, select, collegiate, and semi-pro levels, helping him to win the Coach of the Year award at Cascade High School in 2007, among many other awards and nominations.
That collection of accolades is also due in part to Dagi’s highly creative and logistical set pieces, which produce goals with machine-like efficiency, and gained him a reputation for being a master set play tactician. Many college and select coaches would hire him just to teach his plays, including my own select coach, so I got the chance to see him in the soccer world outside of his training sessions, which was cool.
But besides game and tournament narratives, and set plays like throw-ins, dead balls, and corners, Dagi’s soccer memory also encompasses every player he has ever trained, remembering them by the way they touch the ball, how they dribble, how they shoot, how they pass, their defensive stance, what their attitude toward him and their teams were, and many other minutiae. And he doesn’t simply remember any one player as one player. He can detail in great depth how and when each aspect of their game improved over time as he trained them and as they grew up, so that it’s more like he remembers different versions of the same player. He can do the same thing for every coach he has trained over the years to be able to teach his techniques and tactics.
We’re talking about hundreds of players, hundreds of training sessions, hundreds of games, and scores of coaches, and it’s all in there. One of his favorite pastimes it seems like is letting some of these memories out in the form of soccer stories. Before and after practices and games, he loves telling current players and coaches the tales he is reminded of, from the funny scenarios on the field, to the unexpectedly gruesome practice moments, both of which show his rather theatrical side as well as his sense of humor, from happy reminiscing of great players, to mournful remembrance of those whom he and we have lost, may they rest in peace. Those sad stories especially are where you see how much Dagi’s players mean to him, how big his heart is, and how much he cares, which is far more than most people could even imagine caring.
But now that you know about some of Dagi’s softer sides, I figure it’s time you also found out about the hard side of him, the side that plenty of folks see only exclusively, and draw their own incomplete and incorrect conclusions from. Here it is plainly: Dagi yells, he’s hard on players, and he isn’t afraid to tell us (yes, I include myself here, still being his player, and still taking my deserved fair share of yelling) the things we don’t want to hear, so that we can be aware of and improve those things. He will criticize every little mistake, and especially every big mistake, until we stop making those mistakes. Then he will move on to a higher level mistake to correct, so that before you may realize it, you’re suddenly playing at a very high level, if you’re willing to learn.
Dagi is tireless in this. He says that when he sees, for example, someone passing the ball with their toes down, he hears a deafening screech in his head and can’t help but say something to correct it, even if it’s an older player who he’s been training for years. He still won’t let it slide. It’s simply not good enough for him, so it shouldn’t be good enough for his player. He believes that perfection does not exist, but that striving for it makes us better soccer players and better people.
Dagi coaches like this because this is how he was coached. He often remarks that even with all the yelling, he’s going easy on us compared to what he experienced in the ‘90s in Turkey and Germany. He draws upon his time playing pro when it comes to fitness drills as well, teaching (primarily to his older players, understanding age and maturity concerns for younger players) how to use both adrenalin and team comradery to fuel ourselves to keep going and push through tiredness, soreness, or whatever else might limit our potential to achieve what we put our minds to.
So it felt pretty full-circle, after trying to finish this article this morning, when, earlier tonight as we discussed the practice plan on the way to Tambark Creek Park, Dagi told me that I was to run the Steelheads and older Gala players really hard with some good old twenties while he trained the younger Gala players at the start of practice. Pretty standard fare for a Steelheads/Gala Tuesday night training session. But I had to contain a smile as I recalled that cold snowy day, half a lifetime ago, when I ran my first twenties. As the nostalgia starts to burn my tear ducts just a little bit here, I must thank you, personally, Dagi, for everything you have given to me over the years, and would also like to thank you on behalf of all the players and coaches you’ve shared your love of the game with.
Hopefully all you other readers out there might now know Dagi Kesim a little better. I highly encourage you to get to actually know him yourself. I promise it will be worth it.