Revitalizing the Beautiful Game: How head coach Joey Worthen restored a winning culture in the FAU men’s soccer program

From the bottom of Conference USA to being 30 minutes away from their first NCAA Tournament appearance, head coach Joey Worthen explained how he changed the trajectory of the men’s soccer program in five years.


Eston Parker III

Since winning only four total games in 2017 and 2018, head coach Joey Worthen coached the team to back-to-back winning seasons, got them their first-ever win against a defending NCAA Champion, and led them to their first appearance in a tournament final since 2007.

The day was Nov. 14, 2021, when the FAU men’s soccer team saw their season end in a 2-1 overtime loss to the University of Kentucky.

What was different about the loss, however, was that it occurred in the championship game of the Conference USA Tournament. This marked the team’s first appearance in a tournament final since 2007, and it came after they won a penalty shootout against Charlotte in the quarterfinals and their first-ever game against a defending NCAA Champion when they beat Marshall 3-1 in the semifinals.

Winning the C-USA Championship would have given the Owls their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament in program history. They were 30 minutes away from doing so before Kentucky came back to secure the title.

At the center of that success was head coach Joey Worthen, who has been at the helm since 2017. From the bottom of C-USA to being 30 minutes away from their first NCAA Tournament appearance, Worthen explained how he changed the trajectory of the men’s soccer program in five years.

Head coach Joey Worthen describes South Florida as a “soccer hotbed” and a “melting pot” of cultures, and the location helps him to recruit the best international players he can find. Eston Parker III


Enter the Worthen Era

Until Worthen arrived, the program went through a rough patch of years since its last winning season in 2007.

After a 2007 campaign that saw the team finish with an 11-7-2 record and earn their first conference championship in program history in the now-defunct Atlantic Soccer Conference, the program won just 45 times combined in the next nine seasons.

Former head coach Kos Donev, who coached his 30th and final season with the team in 2016, said though his time did not end how he wanted, he was proud nonetheless. He helped promote the program from Division II to Division I of NCAA Soccer in 1993, won two regular-season titles in 2004 and 2007 and earned the aforementioned championship in 2007. 

It became way overwhelming, but regardless of all that, I really enjoyed coaching all of the players and being part of FAU and being part of the growth during the years I was there,” Donev said. He currently is the owner and director of Goal To Goal, a Boca Raton-based soccer academy he has led since 1998.

Coming to FAU after five years as an assistant coach at the University of South Carolina, Worthen wanted a new challenge. 

“I knew the [FAU] program because they were in the same conference with South Carolina so it felt like I had a pretty good understanding of at least the conference,” Worthen said. “Then just knowing [that] I don’t know all the insight into the FAU program, but I feel like they’ve got a lot of positives and I feel like that’s a place where I could go and at least try to improve whatever challenges were there.”


Tough Starts

Worthen won just four out of 27 games total in 2017 and 2018. Despite the struggles, Danny Del Rio, who played as a midfielder with FAU from 2016 to 2017, knew the program was in good hands. 

“[Worthen] has an eye for talent and mentality, which has brought him the talented players [who] are overlooked by other programs,” Del Rio said.

Rafael Arcila, who played as a defender for the team from 2016 to 2017, shared Del Rio’s sentiments.

“The team had a real leader with experience, knowledge of the game, and real recognition of a player’s required ability to play at the D1 level,” Arcila said.

To help the program progress, Worthen wanted to establish a culture within the program of a winning mentality.

“We might not win every game of the season but what [we can] do, whether it’s winning in the classroom, winning in the spring season, winning the Owl Cup, [or] whatever it might be, we start to develop that winning mentality,” Worthen said.


More Money, More Scholarships, More Opportunities

Recruiting is critical to improving any program, and soccer is no different. Worthen thanked his current and former staff for carrying out what he says is their “number one priority” in their jobs.

“You’ve got to be good at recruiting because even [with] the culture, you can have all those things but if you don’t have talent, then it’s tough to win games,” Worthen said.

Worthen describes South Florida as a “soccer hotbed” and a “melting pot” of cultures, and the location helps him to recruit the best international players he can find.

“The appeal to these international players from all over the world is they know South Florida,” Worthen said. “Also, just the idea of playing college soccer where they can combine their academics and their playing which they don’t usually get in their home countries is a big draw for them.”

Tom Abrahamsson, a defender from Sweden, joined the program in 2019. Then-assistant coach Jose Robles was integral in detailing the program and its benefits. Robles now coaches at the University of Tulsa.

“I didn’t go to FAU because, at the time, FAU [wasn’t] one of the top programs in men’s soccer; I did go to FAU because I saw and I knew that FAU had [the] potential to be,” Abrahamsson said. “Robles and the coaches, they showed me the potential and they told me their program [was] under construction and they want to build a good team.”

Tom Abrahamsson (#20) has three goals in 39 games over three seasons in his FAU career, as he played a major role in the team’s run in the Conference USA Tournament in the Fall 2021 campaign. Eston Parker III

Jose Alastuey, a midfielder from Spain, came to the team in 2019 after Worthen and Robles recruited him when he finished playing a game in Madrid.

“They were the first ones telling me that they want me to join their program, that they like me very much so that made me think that they really wanted me because after watching me play [for] 60-70 minutes, that the first signal was really good with them,” Alastuey said. “They told me that they wanted to become a winning program and I love challenges and I think that this was a great challenge for me.”

Being surrounded by teammates from the Americas, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, Abrahamsson thinks it’s “funny” because he gets to know people from all over the world.

“You get to know all these people all over the world. And whenever you’re done with college, you’re gonna have friends all over the world and if you want to travel around, you can always have a place to crash, which is cool,” Abrahamsson said. “In the soccer way of it, everyone comes from a different background. Everyone comes with different abilities, different ways to play, and everyone trying to contribute with their way of [playing] soccer.”

When the soccer program joined the Mid-American Conference in 2008 and C-USA in 2013, they consistently faced opposing programs with more robust budgets and full-time assistant coaches. 

It was a very difficult and challenging time to compete in very competitive conferences and [play against] non-conference schools with just 3.5 [or] 4 scholarships, [a] limited recruiting budget and [a] part-time assistant coaching staff,” Donev said.

Worthen understood that he needed the funding for scholarships.

“We’ve gotten a lot of help through a couple of really special donors [who] believe in this program and in me and my staff, and we’ve been able to get a lot of help from Brian White to help increase our scholarship situation so that’s constantly improved,” Worthen said. “I think with being very specific in who we’re recruiting and giving the expectations to them, in addition to the financial help that we’ve been able to have, has made all the difference.”

With the low budget in mind, Athletics Director Brian White and Worthen solicited donors to help contribute to the funds.

“Now, we’re actually fully funded in scholarships. So it’s actually just about triple the number of men’s soccer scholarships in the past few years, and Worthen has done a great job with those improved resources,” White said. “When you improve your resources into a program, the coach needs to take that improvement and show it on the field with enhanced success and Worthen has done just that.”

Athletics Director Brian White (left) and men’s soccer head coach Joey Worthen (right). When it came to improving the low budget of the program, both solicited donors to help provide with the funds. Courtesy of FAU Athletics

Coaching with a Demand for Respect

Worthen describes himself as extremely competitive as he wants his squads to win with his detail-oriented personality as the leader and coach.

“Earlier in my career here when we weren’t winning, that only fuels me more to find a way to win. Whether it’s outcoaching, outplaying, outrecruiting, like ‘what can we do to find ways to win and beat these other teams?’” Worthen said. “Coaching-wise, I think we’ve had to change a little bit to adapt to our conference, the competition that we’re playing, making adjustments, finding players that are going to fit into our system [and] are going to be successful in our conference.”

White notices the high energy the players have on the bench and sees great relationships between them and Worthen.

“I love watching the bench. To me, that’s helped me so much about what’s going on the field,” White said. “Do they really love each other? Do they love playing with each other? You see it in his culture and it’s a great group of guys and a great group of student-athletes.”

Danny Del Rio the former midfielder who graduated in 2017said the players are looking for a mentor, a place to develop, and a place to grow off the field.

“[Worthen] has been able to not only show his players that but he’s executed as well,” he said. “I do give a lot of credit to the players they have now because leadership begins at the bottom and they have all been receptive to what he’s building.”


The Upward Path of Success

2019 proved to be an important year. The team finished with a 7-8-1 record (3-4 C-USA) as it featured two wins against nationally-ranked teams and their first appearance in the C-USA Tournament after winning a 4-3 overtime thriller against Old Dominion University. 

“To jump into year three and make this massive leap and get into the conference tournament, it was really reassuring like, ‘Okay, what we are doing is the right thing. We’ve just got to continue to do it,’” Worthen said. “We’ve had really good players that bought into it [and] had a really good staff in the assistant coaches that really helped that flourish.”

As a freshman, Alastuey played a direct role in helping the team reach the C-USA Tournament as he scored the game-winning goal with a free-kick against ODU in overtime. “That was, for me, one of the happiest moments of my soccer life,” he said.

Jose Alastuey (#10) scored seven goals in 40 games over three seasons with the Owls, one of them notably coming from a game-winning free-kick against Old Dominion in the regular-season finale on Nov. 8, 2019. Eston Parker III

The team played their 2020 campaign in 2021 as C-USA officials pushed it back to the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did they have their first winning season since 2007 but it was also their best defensive performance, only allowing a program-best 11 goals. 

“You have to give the players a ton of credit because they’ve got to buy into what we’re trying to do and then ultimately, they’re the ones that have to go and play,” Worthen said. “My job is to get everybody on the same page and create a vision that they want to buy into.”

The team concluded 2021 with back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 2003 and 2004, beating a defending NCAA Champion for the first time in program history, and making the final of a conference tournament for the first time since 2007. As a head coach, Worthen feels accomplished about the achievements he had with the team.

“We hit a rough patch in conference [play] and we made some adjustments and credit to the coaching staff for us [to] make those adjustments and credit to the guys [to] adapt and to pick those up that quickly,” Worthen said. “I fully believe that, combined with the belief of the team and the winning mentality, is why we’re able to do what we did in the conference tournament, which was phenomenal.”

Abrahamsson counts the tournament among his fondest soccer-related memories.

“Honestly, it was the best time I had in soccer for a really long time and I felt like a little kid out there and again, just understanding why I first started to play this sport. It was just so fun,” Abrahamsson said.


Next Step Moving Forward

As FAU enters the American Athletic Conference by 2023, Worthen says the next step is to continue winning and reach the goals of winning a championship and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament as they prepare for the new challenges of the conference.

“It doesn’t get any easier, necessarily, but that’s another big thing that I like. I didn’t want to go to a school where we could play bad teams and just win the conference easily because that doesn’t set you up for success. That doesn’t prepare you as a player if you want to move to the next level,” Worthen said. “We [have] a big challenge but I think that again, those are the kind of guys we recruit in here; guys that want to meet that challenge and help exceed any expectations. That’s what we’re gonna do as we look to the future.”

White wants to see the program continue its success and achievements.

“The [AAC] is extremely competitive in men’s soccer, so we’re going to have to go into that league and compete at an even higher level,” White said. “There’s always enhancements you’d like to see in a lot of programs, but I think the appeal of recruiting both domestically and internationally to play soccer in South Florida is pretty strong.”

Worthen remembered when nobody came to the games in his first year as he understood that fans wanted to be part of something exciting. With his team wanting fans to attend their games, he told them that if they want that to happen, they have to win those games.

“It’s been really exciting to see now that especially in this last year where we played a really difficult conference, we’re playing top 25 teams every week and we’re getting results against these teams that people are starting to come out,” Worthen said. “I think it’s an awesome atmosphere for the student body [to] see their peers playing in this international game.”

Joey Worthen says the next step for FAU to take is to continue winning and reach the goals of winning a championship and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament as they prepare for the new challenges when they enter the American Athletic Conference by 2023. Eston Parker III

Alastuey expects an especially successful season for the team.

“We have a great team, we are really confident in ourselves [and] the coaching staff, and I think next fall could be the best season so far for the FAU program,” Alastuey said.

Del Rio is excited to see what they can accomplish moving forward.

“With the attention FAU has brought to themselves last season, they put the program on the path to only improve from here,” Del Rio said. “The amazing environment, conference, coaching, and school will surely continue to attract top talent.”

With the way the team tasted defeat when a conference tournament title was in their hands, Arcila knows they will be motivated.

“They defeated some of the best teams in the country and so they know they are fully capable of achieving real success,” Arcila said. “All they need to do is continue to grow under his guidance.”

When freshmen played for Worthen years ago, there wasn’t a winning season or a tournament appearance. Now, the expectations have changed towards having aspirations for a conference championship and making an effort to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

Each year, the expectation has changed and it’s changed within the mentality of the guys and it’s been pretty cool to see that now this isn’t a losing program. It’s a program that wins,” Worthen said. “We have winning seasons and we’re going to continue to build on that and compete for championships.”

Richard Pereira is the Business Manager for the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @Rich26Pereira.