It’s not so easy scoring when Ryan Naylor is protecting the goal. No high school team has punched one past him so far this season.
It helps that no forward he faces can strike a shot on him like his coach does — every day.
“He’s had some hard shots on me,” Naylor said. “He’s got a few past.”
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Especially since his coach is former MLS midfielder Raphael Cox.
Not that Naylor hasn’t held his own.
“I’ve had some good saves on him,” he said with a smile.
Cox is in his first year as the boys soccer coach at Stadium High School, where he graduated from before being drafted in the fourth round by Real Salt Lake in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft.
His campaign as a rookie coach is, so far, going about as well as his rookie year in Major League Soccer.
That year, Real Salt Lake went on to win the MLS Cup, with Cox making six appearances (though not in the championship).
This year, Stadium is off to a 7-0-0 start in its first year moving down from the 4A Narrows to the 3A Pierce County League.
“I’ve always looked at this job and knew that one day I would always like to apply for it — I just didn’t think it would be this soon,” said the 30-year-old Cox. “I just moved back into town, bought a house, had my first son.
“I didn’t know if I would be able to coach with the new baby and other coaching stuff I have, but my schedule worked out to where I could do it.”
So while he’s teaching his six-month-old son Maxwell to kick a mini soccer ball (“It’s never too early,” Cox joked), he’s also been coaching at Highline Community College and playing alongside his brother, Jamael, with the Tacoma Stars of the Premier Arena Soccer League.
Stadium had a talented team returning from last year, when it lost to Mount Rainier in the first round of the 4A West Central District playoffs. So the foundation was in place.
And when Naylor and team co-captain Paul Wadsworth learned that they would be part of a player-interview committee and that one of the candidates was Cox, they were champing at the bit to make him their next head coach to replace Adam Becker.
“I was excited,” said Wadsworth, a midfielder who will play next year at Pacific Lutheran University. “MLS player — I haven’t worked with a lot of those guys. There was definitely a buzz. He’s won a ring, done great stuff and put a lot of great ideas into our heads.
“That’s probably why we are doing so well right now.”
Cox has taken facets of various philosophies from many of his former coaches and implemented them into his own style.
In a win over Bethel on Tuesday, all seven of Stadium’s goals came off set pieces.
“We’re a possession-based team and we’re heavy on the attack,” Cox said. “We like to get the ball forward and take our chances, and I give our guys chances to be creative in the final third.
“I’m learning every day. I’m still a young coach. I make mistakes. But as long as I’m learning from those mistakes, I think I’ll be all right.”
But what has most set Stadium apart so far is depth. The Tigers have 13 seniors and Cox doesn’t shy away from mixing up the lineups.
“What separates us from other years this year is that we are a really close, tight-knit family,” said Naylor, who will play football next year as a wide receiver at Simon Fraser University in Canada despite having played soccer for most of his life.
“There’s a family atmosphere here. Not just that we’re close on the field, but off the field we are hanging out on weekends and eating lunch together at school. We are all close.”
And Cox has fit right in.
“He’s who everyone wanted to have,” Naylor said. “Right when we interviewed him we knew he was the coach we wanted and he was going to lead us to state.”
Why not? Every other level has worked out for him.
After graduating from Stadium in 2004 — where he was selected as the Narrows League MVP and was also a standout distance runner on the cross country team — Cox went on to play a year at Highline and then three years at the University of Washington, where he was an All-Pac-10 forward and led the team with seven goals and six assists.
He might as well have played in every level of professional soccer in the United States. Cox won a conference championship at Highline, an MLS Cup at Real Salt Lake, and a Soccer Bowl with the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League.
He’s played in the Premier Developmental League with the Tacoma Tide, which eventually rebranded to the Sounders U-23 team; he’s played in the United Soccer League with the Atlanta Silverbacks and Charlotte Independence; and his first MLS minutes came at Seattle against the Sounders.
His brother won a state title at Stadium in 2010.
“Our end goal is to win state,” Cox said. “If we don’t win state, with the guys being so competitive, I don’t think they’ll be happy. And that’s a good goal to have.”
Their chances might not be so bad, especially with Cox making for such formidable daily practice competition.
“I’m not the kind of guy who is going to start chatting it up about, ‘Back when I played,’ ” Cox said with a laugh. “I don’t want to be that kind of guy. But if guys have questions I’m here for them. I mostly try to draw from my experiences when I was here and we had John Baretta as the coach. I had a great high school experience and I try to draw from that now when I’m coaching.
“We are on our way. But we have a lot of work to do.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677