BOWLING GREEN, KY If you go to Preston Miller Park on any given day of the week, you’ll be hard pressed to find an open soccer field. From pickup games to full-fledged travel team practices, dozens of kids have congregated to play the game known universally as a unifying power.
If you peer over to the far side of the park, you’ll notice a soccer coach picking up the mess of cones and balls as a practice comes to a coach. The jubilant coach jokes with his players as they wrestle with the pop-up goals like they’re fighting to take a giant salmon off a fish hook.
On the surface, he seems like any other fun-loving soccer coach with a sporty black jacket and matching tapered Adidas pants that are signature to the sport. Once you begin to talk with him, you’ll learn that this man has gallivanted around the country building a skill-set that has helped him become one of the most important public servants in Bowling Green.
Among his many feats, Zach Salchli has created an outlet for hundreds of Bowling Green kids and adults to come together with people from cultures around the world to learn about Christianity and to help develop themselves through playing the Beautiful Game.
Among coaching 14-15-year-old travel team, Salchli has picked up a dizzying number of positions in different organization. He is the Executive Director and Head Coach of the ministry-based Kentucky Ambassadors Soccer Club, a franchise owner of the Mighty Kicks Soccer Club, a teacher at Warren Elementary, and recently became the Director of Student-Athlete Development for Western Kentucky soccer.
This humongous workload would drive any normal person to insanity. Once you meet Salchli though, you’ll come to find that he is driven by his grand mission to bring the Bowling Green community together through soccer.
“My heart was in working with refugee populations and growing the community and growing the community around them,” said Salchli
The former Greenwood coach has taken a long and unexpected journey to reach his very deep understanding of the importance of soccer in developing a person. He always had a love for the game while growing up in Frankfort, KY, but his high school coach showed him how soccer can teach someone skills that reach far beyond the game itself.
“My high school coach was instrumental at developing me, not just as a soccer player, but as a person,” said Salchli.
A nasty leg injury in high school greatly limited Salchli’s athleticism and diminished his potential to play college soccer. So, he decided to close the book on his soccer career and go to the University of Kentucky. This decision would help decide Salchli’s future long before he even knew it.
“I didn’t want to give up soccer. So, I just started emailing coaches asking if I could help out and this one guy in Richmond responded to me – the only guy who responded to me,” Salchli explained.
While at UK, Salchli was working towards a degree in anthropology. Like many young adults around the country, he came to terms with the fact that he didn’t have his life figured out at the age of 18. The recent WKU hire would have to make a slight detour in his career path before coming full circle.
“There aren’t too many jobs for anthropologists,” Salchli said with a chuckle.
Salchli began to develop a passion for coaching after watching the improvement of his players. That passion developed into understanding as he met his eventual wife, who was an early elementary education major at UK. Through talks with her and coaching, he found his calling in life to become a teacher.
“So, I actually ended up joining Teach for America out of college. Then I ended up becoming a teacher through an alternative program in Baton Rouge – where we lived at the time – teaching first grade,” Salchli explained.
Salchli’s spent much of his time in Louisiana working with inner-city kids. This experience was vital for giving him a direction in his teaching and coaching career. The 2011 Louisiana Teacher of the Year found his purpose in helping those who weren’t given the best opportunity growing up.
“My mission is equity. Equity is giving equal resources to everybody and giving kids those opportunities,” said Salchli of his goal as a teacher. “A lot of these kids that we work with are lacking those support systems. If we can provide them that access to these resources and support, the sky is the limit for them.”
The former Greenwood Girls Soccer Coach would further that mission after him and his wife decided to move to Tennessee to get their master’s degree at Vanderbilt. While in Nashville, Salchli helped develop a charter school in one of the city’s most impoverished communities. This break from his busy schedule of coaching and teaching gave him the opportunity to create the blueprint of his future.
“Grad School gives you a whole lot of time to think,” Salchli explains. “So, I started crafting this idea of going to schools during the school day and offer a soccer program… and start teaching them the important skills”
After doing some research, Salchli found that someone had a similar idea to him with the Mighty Kicks Soccer Program. The organization was developed by former MLS and USL player, Luke Vercollone, in 2008 with an emphasis on teaching preschool-aged children social and life skills through soccer. With the franchisee-based model of Mighty Kicks, this program provided Salchli with a proven business model, yet allowed him the experience of running a program himself.
Once they finished their master’s program, Salchli and his wife packed their bags yet again, this time heading farther north to Alvaton to be closer to his wife’s parents. Since he knew a little bit about the area, the award-winning soccer coach decided that Bowling Green would be a great place to execute his plan by starting a Mighty Kicks Franchise.
“That first year it exploded faster than I thought. We got some schools, here in the area, that signed on and it kept growing.”
Salchli quickly made a name for himself with his success through Mighty Kicks and the Greenwood soccer team. In his four year’s coaching the Greenwood program, he made it to the state tournament on two separate occasions. During this time, a few of his students asked him he could help them start a soccer program. This would catalyze the idea to start a soccer club that caters to Bowling Green’s refugee community.
“The next step is can we get these the opportunities to be seen by others? Can we get these kids to travel and be seen by college coaches?”
From those questions, the Kentucky Ambassadors Soccer Club was born. Salchli brought together all the knowledge from years of teaching and coaching and tied it together with all of the organizations he worked with to bring it all under one umbrella.
As the club’s founder, Salchli sought to achieve multiple meanings through the Kentucky Ambassadors name. The team name primarily references a verse of the Bible that calls everyone to be ambassadors of Christ. Yet, it also references the multiple different cultures that are represented in the club itself.
“All these kids are from different countries - they’re ambassadors of their own countries – so this club was built on this idea that we can use soccer for something bigger.”
In January of 2019, Salchli received a huge boost in his mission to develop kids for the collegiate level. After WKU Head Soccer Jason Neidell took notice of his work with multiple organizations, Salchli was offered a position with the WKU soccer team to help develop their leadership qualities and get the team involved in the community.
“In all of his endeavors, he truly seems to care about the people he works with first and foremost.” Said Neidell of Salchli.
Salchli’s partnership with WKU doesn’t just help the Hilltoppers grow, it’s had a direct effect on KASC. In one practice alone, I was able to see freshman, Kerragan Mulzer, giving a weekly devotion to the players, and junior, Anne-Marie Ulliac, giving advice to a player about how to get noticed by college coaches.
“We have role models come out from WKU, so these kids can have a mentor. I do a lot for the club, but they need to see female leaders who have gotten to the level they aspire to,” said Salchli.
After undertaking a seemingly endless journey of serving communities around the country, Salchli has found a home in Bowling Green as he sets his sights for the future with Mighty Kicks and Kentucky Ambassadors. His current plan is to expand and further develop both clubs.
With Mighty Kicks, Salchli is hoping to fortify the program by adding to his coaching staff and creating a consistent curriculum. His influence as a teacher shows as his goal is to develop the program similarly to a school curriculum, so each player will naturally progress through the program.
“We want a clear continuum of growth with skills that build on each other year from year,” Salchli eloquently adds. “We're professionalizing the whole system to ensure that there is continuity of skills taught.”
His plans for the Kentucky Ambassadors Club is far grander than just creating a progression of growth for the players. On the short term, Salchli is developing community partnerships to help build a financial base for his long-term goal. He hopes to end the current system for soccer clubs that have withheld many kids around the country from quality organized soccer.
“Ultimately our goal is to eliminate pay to play and get every kid in Bowling Green and the surrounding communities playing the game at the highest levels,” Salchli explained.
(Nathan Yazdani contributed to this story)