Nkongolo remains soccer coach after tumultuous season

Jamie Stewart-Aday

As the boys varsity soccer team prepared for playoffs, Coach Jean-Claude Nkongolo’s coaching status was unclear due to tensions between him and his players. Nkongolo ultimately remained the head coach and has no plans to leave.

Nkongolo’s near exit raises questions about the role of parents in their children’s sports, the standards by which coaches should determine playing time, and the impact of off-field drama on on-field performance. 

Tension was brewing between Nkongolo and the team throughout the season, generally centered around how practices were structured and which players were getting playing time. Nkongolo based his starting lineups not just on which players were the most technically skilled, but on players who showed discipline and fit within his system.

“Discipline means team players, [players who] come to practice on time, [are] respectful, and those kinds of things,” Nkongolo said, adding that the players he values are those who can best fit into the system he runs. “To me, I view a ‘best player’ as the person who can play the system. In [the players’] view, the best player is who can dribble the most. In my system, I don’t want people dribbling… even if [Lionel] Messi comes to play in my system I may not play him because he dribbles too much,” he said. 

Some players disagreed, feeling that the best way to win was to play the most talented players. “Playing time should be determined by how well a player is playing in the game,” junior captain Ethan Slager said. “I think the best players should always play in games because the team should want to win.” 

Tensions rose so high over Nkongolo’s approach that one player left the team and others considered sitting out in an effort to have him removed. However, none ended up sitting out due to fears that they would be punished individually.

These players expressed their frustration to their parents, who became increasingly involved as the season wore on. Nkongolo saw a group of parents talking to Athletic Director Mitch Gore after one game, and another parent went to Nkongolo directly to express their discontentment.

Being confronted by that parent led Nkongolo to tell the players on the bus that “maybe he need[ed] to consider leaving [the players] alone,” he said. The players on the bus used this to tell their teammates that Nkongolo had resigned, though in reality, he was still unsure on whether to stay or leave. 

Nkongolo would end up staying, his decision boiling down to his desire to help the players who he felt could benefit from his expertise, as well as his desire not to give in to a group of parents he considered bullies.

“At that particular moment, if I left, then the bully wins,” he said, “I didn’t want them to see that I was going away because they did what they did.” Nkongolo believes that parent overinvolvement is a systemic issue at Wilson, impacting coaches and teachers alike.

When Nkongolo came back, he made attempts to improve communication with the team, particularly through his group of captains. However, players were still frustrated that they did not feel he made it clear to them why he came back. “A lot of kids were unhappy with it, especially because he didn’t give an explanation of what went on,” Slager said. 

Many members of the team took their complaints to athletic director Mitch Gore, who declined to comment for this article but noted that he tried his best to balance the interests of the players, coaches, and parents. However, the players did not feel those meetings were especially productive. “With Gore, we’ll usually go in there, we’ll talk about what’s wrong, and Gore will always say ‘yeah I have the best interests of the team’ and then nothing will ever change,” Slager said. 

The team did its best to focus on their play on the field, but coaching drama served as a major distraction. Slager believes that the team cannot be 100 percent united under Nkongolo, but isn’t sure if the problems would be solved under another coach. “Ideally, it would be best if we could all find a way to get over it, whatever way that would be best for the team, but it would be hard to see that happen,” he said. 

Nkongolo, however, rejected the idea that the off-field drama impacted play. “The reason I do not make that connection is that in my view, every single team that we played against we played better soccer than they did (with the exception of the game against The Heights). So in my view, it has nothing to do with the drama,” he said. 

Although the team played high quality soccer, they ended up falling short of their season goals, losing to Roosevelt in a penalty shootout in the first round of the DCIAA playoffs and failing to qualify for the DCSAA playoffs. 

Despite the tension this season, Nkongolo plans to continue coaching next year and beyond. “I’m here to stay, I’m going nowhere,” he said. “I have a mission. I want to make sure that the way soccer is played here in DC is different, and I want to leave my footprint at Wilson, and I want to bring more championships here. Until I’m satisfied, I have nowhere to go.”