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Grad Lands in Soccer Spotlight in Solomon Islands

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The team departed Rendova Island in a dugout canoe powered, barely, by a tiny outboard motor. Between the players, assembled ad hoc from the island’s villages, the meager amount of equipment they had and their coach, Jeffrey Allen ’00, the canoe was filled to capacity as it puttered through the Wana Wana Lagoon, bound for Gizo.

As per usual in the Solomon Islands, the day was brutally hot. Allen and his team stretched a tarp over the canoe to shade themselves during the six- or seven-hour voyage. They paused for a rest stop on a small island and drank from coconuts along the way. Soccer, they say, is the world’s game. Fitting then, that on this day in 2010, it was soccer that was taking Allen to the far reaches of a distant Pacific island chain by dugout canoe.

Dugout canoe to island tournament

After finally docking at Gizo, where the Solomon Islands Football Federation was hosting a regional tournament, Allen and his players from Rendova Island found the soccer pitch entirely abandoned. This was not entirely a surprise. Soccer, and life generally, proceeds in a more unstructured manner in the Solomons than in the United States. And so, the team from Rendova simply waited for opponents to arrive.

Jeff Allen

Eventually that happened, and Allen’s team did well enough to reach the quarterfinals but no further. They puttered back home, and the team kind of disbanded – it was not an incredibly serious, well-organized endeavor to begin with – and Coach Allen’s first tournament in the Solomon Islands was in the books.

Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, Allen was once a promising young soccer player himself. He played on an Olympic development team and received some Division I recruiting interest but didn’t quite grow big or tall enough to play at the top collegiate level. Being an elite player as an adult “takes a lot of hard work and planning, and at the same time, you have to kind of get a little bit lucky, too,” says Allen, who was not lucky in the physical stature department.

Soccer-playing brothers at dad’s alma mater

Lacking any better ideas for life after high school, he enrolled at EMU, encouraged by his father Earl Allen, a Methodist pastor who earned a bachelor of divinity from EMU in 1984, then a master’s in counseling in 2002. Allen saw decent game time as a freshman midfielder but then suffered a series of knee injuries that kept him mostly on the bench for the rest of what he recalls as a frustrating and disappointing career as an EMU soccer player. (He was proud, though, to watch his younger brother, Peter Allen ’01, enjoy a much more successful career.)

After graduating with a psychology major and coaching minor, Allen began a small photography business at a ski resort near Harrisonburg, Virginia. He spent the next five years working “night and day” to build it into a much bigger affair – three divisions, 25 employees – only to have his two biggest clients suddenly decide to take photography in-house. At some point around the time of the ensuing bankruptcy, Allen became aware of and interested in the missionary group Youth With A Mission, and eventually enrolled in a discipleship program in Townsville, Australia. That trip in 2008, which included ministry work with Aboriginal Australians on the Cape York Peninsula and Torres Straight Islanders (who, as you might guess, inhabit the Torres Straight Islands), was Allen’s first foray to Oceania.

With YWAM in the Pacific

It was also the beginning of a new sense of broad purpose in his life. After coming home to Virginia, Allen wanted to go back; he wasn’t sure what, exactly, he wanted to do, but he knew where he wanted to be. In 2009, he went back to the Torres Straight Islands – politically, part of Australia and geographically, halfway between it and New Guinea – and stayed until his visa expired. The next year, he returned for more YWAM training in Wollongong, Australia, with the intention of taking a missionary assignment in Cambodia.

That plan fell through, though, leaving Allen hanging in Australia and in search of some option other than coming back home. When a friend of his father’s named Dennis McAdams (himself an ’84 seminary grad, with an MA in religion) invited Allen north to Rendova, in the Solomons’ Western Province, he jumped at the opportunity.

Owner of chili pepper farm

Jeff Allen with children from an Aboriginal community in Cape York Peninsula, Australia.

Allen decided to stay with McAdams in the Solomons, independent of any assignment or support from YWAM or any other group. Rendova Island is remote and undeveloped; Haponga, the village where Allen lived, lacked electricity and other basic infrastructure. The islanders mostly got by on subsistence agriculture and fishing. In order not to go hungry himself, and in hopes of bringing some economic development to his new neighbors on Rendova, Allen put his entrepreneurial skills to work and started up a chili pepper farm in hopes of selling the crop to a nearby tuna processing plant.

The chili pepper thing never really panned out like Allen had hoped, though, and he began poking around at other ideas, projects, ways to keep himself occupied and solvent and to provide some employment for others in the community.

In the meanwhile, Allen was glad to discover that lots of folks on Rendova were as big into soccer as he was. He joined in from time to time, to the extent that his long-ago injured knee would allow, and eventually got to the point where soccer was occupying most of his time. He realized that he’d found a great way to connect with the locals – communication in English is far from a sure bet on Rendova – and, thus, after catching wind of an upcoming regional tournament in Gizo, did Allen decide to do a little coaching.

Players share 11 pairs of cleats

Allen’s efforts to convene an all-Rendova team were hampered by all sorts of practical and cultural obstacles. Only after considerable scrounging around, for example, did the team come up with 11 pairs of soccer shoes, enough to keep everyone on the field shod, but requiring shoe-switching at every substitution. Being a total newcomer to the island with limited ability to communicate and little social capital to smooth over fractious intra-village politics on Rendova presented its own set of challenges, as did social norms like non-adherence to rigid schedules.

As might be obvious by now, Allen had developed a determination to make things work out somehow in the Solomons, and he eventually pulled together a team. (Other business ventures that he dabbled in include bok choi farming, firewood chopping and solar panel sales; his persistence and ambition seem at times to be a sort of tropical island reboot of an immigrant chasing the American Dream.) All told, the team got in about one week of practice before the voyage to Gizo.

After several more twists and turns in this story, too long to recount in full here, Allen, by happenstance, met the coach of Koloale FC, a club team that’s pretty much the New York Yankees of Solomon Islands soccer. At the time, Koloale was floundering in the O-League, an international competition between the best club teams in the South Pacific. While back briefly in the U.S. – visa renewal was in order – an email from the Koloale coach, whose team had lost three straight matches, popped into Allen’s inbox: Help needed, please come?

Rescuing the pride of Solomon soccer

Allen answered the call, arriving back in the Solomon Islands’ capital of Honiara for what he thought would be an assistant coaching gig with Koloale. Management had other ideas, though. Midway through the 2010-11 season, days after arriving back in the country, Allen was on a flight to Fiji, the new head coach of Koloale FC. The O-League isn’t quite the World Cup, but it’s a far cry from the provincial, loosely organized Solomon Islands Football Federation regional tournament back in Gizo where Allen cut his coaching teeth in the Pacific (earlier in life, it should be noted, he’d coached extensively back in the U.S., from youth to collegiate soccer; Koloale, though, was by far the highest profile gig he’d landed).

Ten minutes into the game against Lautoka, its Fijian opponent in the O-League, Koloale went down by a goal. In the few days he’d had with the team, Allen had tried to emphasize tactics, formation, structure, and something had worked. Koloale equalized within 10 minutes, then scored another, and another, and a few more, and flew back home victors by a 6-1 scoreline. The fans in the Solomons were ecstatic, and Allen was suddenly a bona fide celebrity in the country, which takes its soccer very seriously.

“That can be good, and that can not be good,” says Allen. “If you lose, the whole place can turn on you.”

Koloale finished up the season with two more wins in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu ­– not enough to qualify for the finals after the early-season losses, but plenty to place the outsized hopes of soccer fans in the Solomons squarely on Allen’s shoulders.

By the time the next O-League season began – this was the 2011-2012 season – there’d been some upper-level machinations at the club that led to the release of a number of Allen’s best players. After losing the first two matches, Allen presented management with a series of requests that he thought would help get things back on track; after these were turned down, he resigned. Expectations were still huge, and Allen no longer felt like he’d be able to satisfy them, and he wasn’t eager become a national villain on account of decisions beyond his control.

Marriage, new business and soccer dreams

Personal matters also figured prominently into his decision to step down. Allen’s wife Suzie, whom he’d met in Honiara and married during the previous off-season, was pregnant with their daughter, Eliana, now one. Allen and his family now life in Honiara. Business-wise, he’s finally hit on something that’s panned out: cell phone sales. In partnership with a brother-in-law, he’s started a company that sells phones, airtime minutes and solar-powered charging devices, with 30 employees and stores in several towns, including Gizo and Honiara.

Jeff Allen pictured with his wife, Suzie, and daughter Eliana.

Allen’s ties aren’t totally severed with Koloale, either. Later in 2013, he hopes he’ll be coaching the team again in the O-League. Then there are always more plans and possibilities to investigate. This past winter, Allen and his family came back to Richmond for a visit, where he spent some time looking into the possibility of buying some farmland in the Shenandoah Valley. He’s been thinking lately about giving farming a try back in the States, maybe setting up some sort of exchange program with the Solomons. Soccer-wise, he’s been thinking about some sort of exchange system too, maybe getting a few players who came up through the tactical, heavily coached American system to balance out the raw talent and technical skill that are present in droves in the Solomons.

This would not have been the stuff of his wildest dreams when he was playing soccer at EMU. It all just sort of happened, piece by piece, and doesn’t seem over yet at any rate.

“It’s not something you plan. And that’s the beauty of it. There’s a lot of grace in it. … I don’t know how I ended up coaching that team,” says Allen. “I think God’s definitely got his hand in it. I don’t think you’d ever imagine you’d ever be doing something like that.”

One Response to "Grad Lands in Soccer Spotlight in Solomon Islands"

  1. Tim Swartzendruber says:

    Great piece, Andrew! I know of all our peacebuilding students from the South Pacific, but didn’t know Jeff’s story… very interesting.