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Kickin’ It over a Beer: Forward Madison captain Connor Tobin discusses soccer, coaching and household pets

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We recently sat down with Tobin for an extended interview.

Twitter/Connor Tobin

Connor Tobin (aka Turbo) is just as approachable and affable as you would expect from a team captain. Watching him take pictures with fans in between halves at the Forward Madison’s friendly against UW Madison, you can’t help but be impressed by his efforts to ingratiate himself with the fans. Even at halftime, he’s hanging with GM Peter Wilt, talking to supporters.

Turbo and I

Recently — okay, back in April, right after the Forward Madison FC v Greenville “Snowmaggedon” game — I had the chance to sit down with him over a beer and talk all things soccer. Well, that, court, why cats are secretly trying to kill you and what makes a good player.

So first things first. Turbo is a Spurs fan, but his mother, like most mothers, is going through soccer withdrawal and finds herself watching lower league EPL like U-18 Spurs he tells me. If she’s anything like mine, she’s also yelling loud enough to hear through the tv.

He also shows his understanding and support for supporters groups. Charleston Battery? “Great supporters group. Wish them well with the troubles they’re going through at the moment. I hear they might have to leave their stadium after this season,” he confides.

He loves when a team’s supporters grow organically. “Wonderwall is great for Minnesota. There was a time when there was just 4 back office folks working when it was Minnesota Stars. And as teams grow, it’s natural for them to lose a little of what made them great.” Will we see that with Madison? “We’re small. We don’t care, though. We’re ok with being everyone’s 2nd favorite team.”

Why Madison? “Their supporter groups are great. Love what they’re doing here so far. Doing all the right things to involve the fans and players. It can only get better.”

Now, I have to admit, I am going to be a little biased. Small world that soccer is, Turbo went to the University of Vermont and while there, coached my twin nephews Max and Dillon. Fast forward about 10 years and he’s here, sipping on some hard cider at a table sitting across from me at Next Door Brewing, a few miles from Breese Stevens Field.

Less than 24 hours ago, Connor Tobin, aka “Turbo” was helping steer Forward Madison to a 0-0 draw with Greenville, lead by former USMNT coach John Harkes, as large flakes of snow obscured parts of the field in what could only be described as an “typical Wisconsin” match.

I did a little research on Turbo. At the tail end of college, he did a stint with Sheffield in England. From there, he moved up to Norway before making his way back stateside.

How’s your Norwegian?

“Not so bad. So my Junior year of college, spring, I started getting that feeling that I wanted to play pro. My coach had some connections with Sheffield so I went outside the college and set up my own study abroad with the College of Sheffield. Took some classes. 2 of the 3 were pretty much ‘just show up’ but I got to train with their reserve team. Huge jump in technical skills. Fantastic experience. I was ahead of them professionally, though. Kyle Walker (formerly of Spurs and now Man City), was training with me every day. Kyle Naughton (ex-Spurs) too. You were around good players, and you see the first team training every day and you see how they carry themselves. Being in a training session with Gary Speed. Robson was there. Blackwell came in after the sack and talk about a change of atmosphere... But it’s all down to how you need to act and professionalism. The very first day Blackwell was on the job, he came in the reserve locker room, and he bollocks us because the boot room was dirty. On the field, we were like, this guy has no idea. And at practice, he’s up on the side observing I did something and he stops it. I don’t think he even knew I wasn’t technically part of their set up.”

Did you see anything like that again? Like a new manager comes in and the whole heart of the team changes like that since?

“You don’t want to go through that. It’s more frequent in England, probably because of all the money in the game there. I think it really opened my eyes to how cutthroat the sport is and you become more aware of it.”

You’re getting up there, what do you see yourself doing after you retire?

“I don’t know. I continue to play soccer because I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do. I got my degree in mechanical engineering but I got to the point, ‘I can do this, but am I gonna be happy doing it?’ I had a point where I was like, ‘I can continue to play and figure it out.’ It’s a better or worse thing. Obviously, with Vermont, I got introduced to that. I got to coach youth for a year. So I have my licensing, but there are parts I like, I find fascinating, but I don’t know if it’s something I want to do. I don’t think I’m compulsive on the soccer side. Some can nerd out all day on it, but that’s not me.”

“I don’t think a license makes a coach, though. I don’t think a player makes a good coach either. It comes down to personality. You can have players that really really get it, but ask them to articulate that, much less teach someone else how to do that, and there’s no chance of it. I mean, I got my B license with Ozzie Alonso [currently with Minnesota United]. Obviously there’s a language barrier, man, I’m lucky that I’m more comfortable with who I am as a coach. Nah, what I think it is, well, where it’s, how can I take all these experiences and do something with them. I knew I wanted to go back to school at some point, but I wanted to have a better point where I can know what I want to do with it. So in the last 3 years, I got lucky, I built into my contract with North Carolina FC, part of the reason I stayed there so long, was they helped out with my MBA at UNC. Ultimately, it ties in with people, how do you get it to tie in. How do you get them to believe in a vision, but not only that, buy in, and subsequently believe that the vision was theirs in the first place? I don’t know what my transition out of the sport will look like, but I feel that the education I got will help me translate this into any industry.”

We talked earlier about your mom going through soccer withdrawal. Are we going to see her out at a game?

“My mom was just complaining that they can’t figure out all the technology so they watched the game last night (against Greenville) with no sound. They’ll watch the games and call and are like, ‘What’s this?’ ‘What’s that?’ My dad isn’t really a soccer person. He played baseball and football growing up. Really defensive minded so he’ll ask about the communication.”

So when they finally make their trip out, have a place in mind that you want to take them? I know you’re a fan of those hole in the wall, hidden type bars…

“Yeah, I’m a big fan of everything off Willy Street. Like the older crowd [laughs]. My dad’s college buddy lives in Chicago so they’ll go down there for a few days, and my mom went to Beloit College…”

Was that something that help push you to give Forward Madison a look?

“Nah, no effect.”

So my wife was asking when Forward Madison is going to start putting numbers on the backs of jerseys. She’s a big Cubs fan. Liked the catcher Ross, from when they won the WS. Big character, good guy. So I see your jersey number is 13. That used to be my go to number. Seemed lucky for me. Any story behind 13 for you?

“It was something I got in club soccer back in high school. Kid from Milwaukee while I was at Vermont, they gave him the #13 over me. So I had #15, and I had all this gear that I wanted to keep wearing so I stuck with it. In Norway, #3. Whatever number you want to give me, I’ll wear it. Rochester, back to #13, then to North Carolina and “Taco” had #13… not gonna get that off him. Went back down to Carolina, wanted a fresh start, so took it back to high school.”

That wasn’t your first snow game, how’d it go for you?

“I told the guys before we went out, most of our minds were with JC [Banks, who lost his father just before the game] and what he was going through, and I said to them, this game is something you will remember. This is something special, part for the weather, but also being able to open up a franchise, a home stadium, let’s make sure this is a memory you don’t have a bitter taste in your mouth about. And I stand by what I said, and it may not be something many people agree with, but as far as US Soccer goes, the atmosphere, the closeness of fans, the noise, this rivals anything in soccer. MLS, on down. They may have 20,000 fans or something, but this is something special.

“Once, in Norway, it was snowing so hard that we had a guy walking the touchline the entire game, to keep the lines clear of snow because he didn’t have a snowblower.”

So post-career, do you see yourself staying around, getting out in the community or traveling on? Being from Colorado, and playing at several different clubs, you’ve gotten around.

“I don’t know. Definitely like to travel. The funny thing about this sport is it takes you funny places. Minnesota was a good introduction, but as a player you’re always going to be transient, and the minute you let emotion become involved, you’re always going to get hurt. It’s hard. Just don’t know.

“I mean, I play for the fans, but going back to Sheffield, it just takes one coaching change and that can change everything.”

In North Carolina, they had that cooking class of yours. So have you made it to our Farmer’s Market up on the Square?

“I haven’t. It’s on the list. We’ve been away.”

We talked earlier that you’re not so much a beer guy anymore. We’ve got some good wine up this way. What’s your go to wine?

“Red, white? What we talking about here? I mean, I like Gewürztraminers. Mix it up, go a little German. Reds? Cabernet. I’m pretty simple. I tend to stay dry. I’m still learning. Maybe over the last year and a half, I’ve been learning. Last year I lived with one guy, Kyle Becker, Canadian. Big wine guy. So that had a big influence on me.

“Becks moved back to Hamilton, hometown team, in the CPL this year, so when we’re up there, I might have to call him up and be like ‘Becks, road trip.’”

Do you have a go-to meal?

“Been going a lot more veggie heavy. Gotta take care of the body…Yeah, so you have to stay away from some things. I mean, there’s one I like, I’ll rate it. Brussel Sprout Carbonara. Pretty good.”

What’s your cheat meal then?

“If I’ve been out, and I’m just... Get me fettuccine noodles, parmesan garlic butter, mix it all in. Good stuff. I think the other thing that would be a good cheat meal, I mean, I’m the type of guy who will take a block of cheese, a knife, and that’s it.”

You’ll fit right in around here. So what do you do on your off day with no recovery-type workout?

“Yeah, so, just got a road bike. Biking around town. If I’m tired after a game, have a hammock, find somewhere and lay around. But to be honest, don’t have a lot of down time. I’ve got a role here with the front office, so I’ve been in there. Any free time, helping with the team and build for the transition to my eventual out to life.”

“Contract wise, we all run to October, but it’s all to be determined. I mean, I wasn’t sure what to expect, and with my age, they didn’t know what they were getting, so signed a one year deal obviously, we’ll see what happens…”

Doing alright so far. You are leading the league in clearances at the moment.

“It’s not necessarily a good thing as it means I’m not organizing well in front of me.”

What about those kids that are looking to go pro? We’ve been making those strides to build up a league, USL2, USL1, Championship, what’s a kid to do to break in domestically?

“Obviously there’s more of a pathway becoming available to the kids now. I mean, we talk about USL, and I think it’s something that is often overlooked and its that infrastructure piece and you need a healthy lower division to make MLS better, and to make USSoccer better, but it takes time, it takes money, and that doesn’t happen overnight. One of the things that’s exciting about where USL is going is one, their growth represents stabilization in the lower division, and USL and we didn’t even know what leagues were going to be around, much less and you’re talking about teams coming and going, and it starts to codify ‘this is the path to follow.’ So it becomes a lot clearer for what kids need to do. With USL1, kinda joining that development model, it’s going to take a while for those things to become firm, to develop that ecosystem, but in the long run, it will be much better off.”

So how do they get ready for their first season, college, USL? If they want to walk on that team and impress the coach?

“The big thing is from the prep standpoint, end of January/February, it’s a tough thing, but put yourself in front of as many coaches as possible. If you’re on the fringe trying to break in, it’s about going to the open tryouts, chipping away, you might get 10 ‘no’, but it’s that 1 ‘yes’ that gets you in. If you’re that sort of player, you have to be fitter than everyone else. That’s an easy way, where that’s not about ability, it’s an indicator to the coach that when they say, ‘who do we bring in?’ ‘Who do we want?’ Hey, you can really influence a coach decision because he’s going to say, from a professionalism standpoint, ‘I don’t have to worry about him.’ You want to be that player. That, and as you go, speaking from my own experience, it’s changed a lot. I wasn’t an established guy, so that was me, but I’m not going to come in unfit. I mean, you do a lot of experimentation with play. You don’t want to come in peak performance at the start of the season because you’re just setting yourself up for injury, but it varies depending on the player and you have to learn to listen to your body.”

What do you see with the young players we are bringing in to Forward Madison? Who is one that is impressing you as an experienced player?

“If you look at someone habit wise, someone with a long career potential, a kid willing to learn. Eric Leonard. Obviously, a grittiness out there a hunger. If he can figure out a few things, he’ll be around a long time. And another one, I really enjoy, a really good kid, open to learning, is Nizi... Vital. He’s got that local connection and he wants to do a lot of things. That’s the nice thing about this group, we have a lot of guys like that. Carl’s like that. We have a lot of guys who are buying into that.”

I noticed that with this team. We might be bringing in some superstar player. Instead we’re bringing in guys that work together, and help each other…

“Yeah, look across League 1, and from a mentality standpoint, we’re not all a finished product so from the coach’s perspective, this needs to be about learning. If everyone’s preparing themselves to be better the next day, then we’re going the right way. That doesn’t just tie in to what I’m bringing to it, but rather what I’m doing the day before. Pushing each other. If I’m getting a little better, and you’re getting a little better, that’s how we get better… moving the needle and getting better as a group and that’s how you win championships.”

So UW Madison, in between quarters at their football games, will sometimes put up something silly like, what you don’t know about a player, so like one of them was one guy was growing two lemon trees. What’s something the fans don’t know about you?

“I try to be transparent… let me think about that.”

Okay, okay. So we’ll circle back around to that. Who’s one of the funniest players in the team. One who’s always cracking jokes.

“Intentionally funny? Or just actually funny? Nizi is an absolute character.. So we have a fine system in our locker room. So if you get a fine, you have an option to appeal it. To a court. We have a multilayered judicial system. You can get lawyers. The works. I mean this kid has come in all decked out for a day of work, argued and gotten out of some fines because he articulated so well. He’ll just have guys rolling on the floor.”

“Other guys? That think they’re funny, Eric Leonard would be the first to fall into that category. Ryan will be the first to tell him that. Ryan is like Eric’s dad and will keep in line.”

Case in point...

So becoming the captain. The experience, the intangibles… How does the team go about picking you? Was it with Coach Shore and Peter Wilt, they just knew?

“Usually that’s the coach’s decision. There’s obviously a role to fill. When Kyle left Minnesota, I stepped in and in North Carolina, I had some type of role like that. Sometimes I look back and am like, ‘I had no idea what the hell I was doing.’ What I was looking at was there were a lot of things I had wished I was better at and almost feel I wasn’t good at it because I was in that role as captain. And I felt I needed to be certain things in that role and coming here I was like, ‘ok, I don’t need to worry about that. Let someone else have that responsibility.’ It’s something that Pete asked me to fill that position here and we have a lot of good leaders in that locker room and it juxtaposed with what had happened in the past and I’m not carrying the load anymore. ‘How do I give them that platform?’ That’s my job. ‘How do we push their comfort zone?’ It’s a work in progress and something I’m still learning.”

“I actually coached a girls High School team up in Minnesota and it took me a while to find my voice. I mean it’s all about setting high expectations and getting them to buy in. If you have a coach who’s not yelling, understand this, he may not give a **** about you. ‘I know you’re capable of this and I’m holding you to it.’ With girls, it’s how you create that… I’m pretty crass on the soccer field sometimes, but I realized I could pull them aside and tell them, “Look. You are the best damn player on the field so go be the best damn player on the field.” And I found when you can use that in that matter to reinforce what you think about them, girls respond even better than boys. With guys it’s rare to be that way.”

What is a typical day like for you as a player?

“Depends on the games schedule and day of the week. As a regular day, some days you’ll have a two-a-day with a gym session in the afternoon but before a game it’s just one session. I tend to wake up early. I’m a bit on the anxious side. I think it’s more the time you can use. Over the last few years i’ve tried to focus on the mobility aspect. I start the day off with like an hour of yoga and then make breakfast. On a good day, I may bike into practice. Training, we have to be there by 9:15 for a 10am training. I like to be there early so I may get there at 8, 8:15. When I get in, I have my own routine. Foam rolling, work with a little lacrosse ball [to work out kinks in the muscles], and I do a lot of stuff with ankle mobility. A lot of stuff to prep your body. And as guys start to roll in close to time, as far as this team, if there are any outstanding fines or court sessions, that happens around then. Trainings start around 10.”

So is that normal? As captain, are you in charge of these court sessions?

“Nah, I’m just a member of the team. We have the honorable JC Banks as our circuit court judge. If you want to take things up the ladder, our Supreme Court judge is Jim, from the coaching staff. If you talk about UW, he’s seen it all. But, you don’t just get to go to court. If you appeal, the penalty is double, if you lose, and with the appeal to the Supreme Court, the penalty is quadrupled. And so a fine, in our case, is like, so we have a ‘Wheel of Misfortune” that you have to spin and it could be stuff like you have to pay money in, to have to work in the club store or show up to a training session in costume, a good range of stuff.”

Wow. I’m starting to wonder if I can integrate this in the classroom where I teach…

“Oh, I think it’s easy to do. The hardest thing to do is to think of a range of stuff that enforces discipline vs. something that, ‘this is funny.’ When we presented this to the group at the start of the season, there was a lot of skepticism, but now, 9:15, guys are there [laughing]. They never want to be the one fined but they are loving when anyone else is going up there sweating it. You know if we have to go to court, you get a jury by peers. But if you get guys that don’t like you [laughing again]... Good luck!”

“And a lot of it’s for banter, hilarious arguments, and some of it has nothing to do with the actual fine itself. And guys are getting more and more into it so now there are like written citations, calling for people to come to court.”

What about game day? Do you bus? Fly?

“Fly. About the only one we bus to is Lansing. Usually fly down the day before. Depending on the schedule you either train the day before or when you get there. On game day, breakfast on your own, team walk, at the stadium, team meal. Depends on the trip and where we are. Sometimes it’s per diem in groups. At home, you’re on your own. It’s a professional environment. Some have their family here, so it’s a fine line. A balancing act. I know it is a team thing. In Minnesota, you were on your own with a per diem thing. And, as I was leaving that year, then it was communal and at set times and that did not go over smoothly at first.”

“For me, pregame meals are like 4hrs before game time. I wanna play on an empty stomach. I know what works for me. And with an experienced group of players, they should be aware of what works for them. But with a young group, there are certain things like, ‘you can’t just eat fried food here bud, you gotta shape up.’ And we’re doing a lot of teaching to them, a lot of things like that.”

“Going back to your earlier question. Huge cat guy. Cats over dogs any day of the week. [Laughing] I don’t dislike dogs, I’m just more of a cat guy. It takes care of itself. Dog takes too much work. I’ve got too much to do now. I haven’t had a cat since high school. But, if I was gonna get an animal, a cat is it’s own being and doesn’t need me.”

They’re secretly plotting your demise.

“I can appreciate that. They’re cunning. Dog? Sometimes a little too dumb for me. They follow me around, and are like, ‘play with me!’ I’m not in for that. I need to be left guessing. ‘What is going through your mind? Are you trying to come at me?’ “

“I think I got biased in high school. My cat was a complete badass. We were watching it in the back yard and it caught and ate a humming bird whole. It doesn’t get cooler than that. Ultimate hunter. It was like ridiculously smart. He could open the pantry and knock his food over so he could eat. He could open doors. It was wild. And he got cankerous as he got older so he’d go to the top of the stairs, and he knew what he was doing. He’d sit there, look around, and howl until someone came and carried him down. And so the top story. The humming bird thing happens and my mom freaks out because she was watching it through binoculars so she decides our two cats are now indoor cats. She puts the bells on them. They tear it off in less than a day and they would sit by our sliding glass door, waiting to be let out, meowing. And this goes on for a week. And he’s brooding around the house, pissed off.”

“My mom has this dinner party at the end of the week, Friday. Fourteen people. Foods on the table. They’re all eating and the cat walks in, turns around and sprays her, and walks out. It doesn’t get more legendary than that. Unbelievable. I totally thought he was gonna die. I mean, as a cat, how does he plan that? He had no history of that. We even had a dog at the time and our dog was scared to death of the cat. We’d put their food down on the same mat and the dog would wait till the cat was done just in case it wanted some of the dog food. It was wild.”

Most players I know have a charity they’re big on. Anything like that for you?

“I mean, I did, the last couple years. Ultimately I didn’t have the same pull there (North Carolina) that I have here and so I channeled that frustration into a charity event that I got off the ground with our current Assistant Coach Neil Hlavaty working with our supporters group where we did this bar soccer mini-golf pub crawl. So we made adult sized miniature golf course 4’ x 20’ with a size 1 soccer ball. Huge obstacles, water obstacles, loop-the-loops, the whole nine yards. And we had a 9 hole course, called it the ‘Oak City Classic.’ They had teams of 4, bar to bar, score card, like all over the top. Play two holes and you could actually promote/relegate so you could change divisions. First year we had 120 participants. Raised nearly $5K that went to a charity youth soccer program helping with autistic kids, further on the spectrum that wouldn’t normally be able to play in with mainstreamed kids. They had a therapist on hand and teams of 6-7. And these kids, for that hour, their kid was doing something that felt normal, and they had some kids who were able transition onto regular teams and it all started with this mom and dad who were like, they wanted their kid to play. And they had maybe 20 kids, and it’s now over 100 and a waitlist of nearly 80 more. The second year was over 180 participants and raised over $10k. The scale is ridiculous. Our final hole was at the back of this bar and you stood on this platform that was like 5’x5’ and 4’ high and it looked like a giant skee-ball. The first 8 were always on the ground and you never knew what the final hole was and with the pro-rel, it always came down to the final hole. It was team score, not individual. The last year we messed with people. Giant plinko board. There’s tons of cool things available to the club and it’d be really cool to help co-author something that is uniquely Flock, uniquely Forward Madison, that would work in this community.”

“I think it’s the engineer in me, it’s cool to build things. We had a completely modular setup that filled a complete car garage. Absurd stuff. The more outlandish, the better.”

The more outlandish, the better. #FullMingo straight from Turbo.