GCU women’s soccer hires the coach they couldn’t beat

There’s an old saying: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Or… you can just hire away their coach.

The Grand Canyon University women’s soccer program took the latter option, hiring the UM Kansas City head coach, Chris Cissell, to fill the head-coaching vacancy that has been open for more than a month at the west Phoenix Christian college.

During the four years that Cissell’s predecessor at GCU, Derek Leader, ran the program, the Lopes were unable to defeat Kansas City, a Western Athletic Conference (WAC) opponent. In fact, they weren’t able to score a goal on the Roos in any of their four annual meetings.

The closest they came to a win was a 0-0 tie in Leader’s first year.

And last year, UMKC used a 2-0 shutout to eliminate GCU in the opening round of the conference tournament.

While there’s no such thing as a sure thing, hiring Cissell might be the next best bet. Not only did he dominate the GCU teams he faced, his Kansas City teams were some of the most dominant in the WAC during his nine seasons directing the program.

Cissell’s teams won three regular-season titles and he earned a couple of WAC Coach of the Year honors. He averaged more than 10 wins a season, posted three first-place WAC finishes, and was twice runner-up.

So he’s already proved he can win in the WAC. That wasn’t the case with his predecessor.

Derek Leader’s resume included 20 years of coaching experience when he was hired in February of 2016, including four years as a D-I head coach. But his best season over the next four years was his first, when the Lopes won seven games. His last season ended with a 4-14-1 record, with just three WAC victories. He resigned in mid-November to join the staff of a youth soccer development program.

Cissell, whose hiring is still contingent on the successful completion of the school’s routine hiring processes, set a program record in 2018 when that KC team won 16 games. He leaves Kansas City after winning 60 percent of his games, posting a 102-63-22 record.

“When I was on (the GCU) campus (for interviews), I knew this is where I wanted to be,” he admits now. “I felt at home in this overall family atmosphere and faith-based culture, combined with the great passion and competitive spirit.”

The fact that GCU has a new state-of-the-art soccer stadium could have had something to do with his decision to accept the challenge of turning around a program that has been stuck in neutral for the better part of a decade.

That stadium, finished in time for the 2016 season, still has the new-car smell. It has seating for 6,000 fans, half of which are shaded chairback seats to provide some shelter from the desert sun, and a well-manicured all-natural bermuda pitch.

But how long Cissell gets to keep his job depends on how well he can fill the roster with talented players. It always boils down to the recruiting.

The nifty, new stadium will help with that effort, but he needs to find some quality players looking for the same family atmosphere and competitive spirit he discovered when he made his first campus visit.

Those are the ones who will buy into Cissell’s vision for the program.