Peter McDonnell’s family is synonymous with the foundation of Killala FC in North Mayo, but he is quickly forging his own coaching path in the distant surrounds of Minnesota. He told his story to Paul O’Malley.
The word, or rather the abbreviation, ‘DNA’ is thrown around a lot these days when talking about football.
“X player has Barcelona DNA,” “Winning trophies is in the club’s DNA,” and so on. If you want to talk about real footballing DNA however, meet Peter McDonnell. Or Peter McDonnell Junior, if you will. Peter works with Major League Soccer (MLS) club Minnesota United as a MLS NEXT Academy Head Coach for their U15 team and is involved as an assistant for the U17s and U19s.
If you are familiar with the words ‘McDonnell’, ‘Killala’ and ‘football’, it would not come as a surprise to you that young Peter has risen through the coaching ranks of the game to now be in this incredible role. After all, he is the heir to a north Mayo footballing dynasty. His father and grandfather, along with some like-minded individuals, formed Killala FC in 1975 and the apple has fallen not far from the tree.
From the outside looking in, the United States might seem as though it still has a strained relationship with soccer but the MLS continues to grow into one of the biggest leagues in the world and is televised in 190 countries. The country’s national team is no joke either, with stars such as Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic and Barcelona’s Sergino Dest, and the England national team will not look forward to facing them at the Qatar World Cup later this year.
As the MLS develops, the stars of its future are revealing themselves in the eyes of coaches like Peter McDonnell through the MLS NEXT Academies. But it is a long way from Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes, to Killala, the coastal north Mayo village which enjoys just the one lake if you count Meelick. Peter’s journey from north Mayo to – as the Minnesota state motto goes – ‘L’Étoile du Nord’ (the Star of the North) began in his back garden when he was old enough to kick a ball, he told the
“We were definitely a football family. My dad and my grandfather were part of the group who came together to form Killala FC in 1975 and so my dad was always very involved with the club as a player and then as a coach. I did play a bit of Gaelic Football around the town, but I was very much into the soccer straight away,” he said.
“I played all the way through with Killala and was involved with the Mayo U13 panel as well along the way and then I got into coaching myself when I was 15 or 16 with the Coca-Cola camps.” The coaching bug had bitten Peter and his passion for the role began to grow.
“I still don’t really see coaching as a career because I’m very lucky to be able to do what I’m doing. I love what the game has given me as a player and I really enjoyed the summer work in summer camps, I thought I had a good energy for coaching.
“When I decided to take the plunge on it as something I wanted to pursue professionally, I was 25 and had just finished a degree in Commerce in Galway. There was a job going in Boston that involved some management along with coaching and I took that job. That was 2010 and that was when I took this as something I wanted to build a life on. The rest is history after that, I started to progress through different licensing courses.”
Peter spent some time in Boston, and it inspired him to come back to Ireland to do his UEFA B licence course in 2012. During this time, he worked with Paul Byrne at the Emerging Talent Centre in Castlebar. In 2014, he completed his UEFA B and decided to return Stateside. He got a job as Boys Technical Director with FC Copa Academy in New Jersey, coaching three or four teams.
His next stop brought him to Seacoast United in Maine, where he spent four and half years and got his Masters in Exercise Science at the University of Maine. He also coached the University’s soccer team and established his own performance company, working with athletes one-on-one.
This brought Peter up to January 2021 and his move to Minnesota United. The move was a big step up for Peter in terms of responsibility as he got to grips with the move from a localized setup to a team on the national stage in the United States.
“With Seacoast United, it was more local. Kind of like a Killala or a Castlebar Celtic, we would play the teams around us. Now with Minnesota, it is a national team playing in the MLS, so we were all over the country for the league starting in Autumn 2021, even at the height of Covid. We were in Texas a few times, Michigan, Columbus, Los Angeles to name a few,” he said.
“We try to get out and get the lads around the cities but a lot of these schedules and itineraries are really tight. All of our away games are flights, and you can imagine what it would be like getting a flight to every away game.
“Getting to the airport, getting away from the airport, getting to the hotel. We have pretty strict diets and regiments for the lads, their rest and sleep are important because we might be playing the next morning and flying out again the next evening.
“We do try to get to look at some of the cities if we’re there for an extended time. For example, we were in LA for a tournament for eight days. We went down to Laguna Beach, that was an experience for me and for the players.”
Back at base camp in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a sprawling city itself with over 300,000 inhabitants, the days are busy for Peter and his fellow coaches.
“The coaches of the U17 and U19 team get in around 11 o’clock with me and review the day before. How the session went based on where we are in our weekly plan and our monthly plan.
“We talk about individual players. I am the U15 coach but there are no real ‘teams’ within the group. If lads are playing well at U15 and need to move up to U17 or U19, we have those conversations. It is very much planning time between 11 and 12.
“We plan the day ahead in the afternoon, what layout the session is going to be and if the opposition needs to be manipulated in any way. If it is an attacking drill, I will ask the assistant coach to work with the defensive players.
“At 3pm, the U19s start to train. We were training in a dome for the winter, not unlike the Connacht GAA facility in Bekan. There is a bit of an overlap when the U15s and U17s come in while the U19s are in the middle of their training and that is by design. The U19 is the top team and we want the lads to aspire to get on that team, no matter what age they are.” In response to the question about whether he is more of a Jose Mourinho or a Ted Lasso when it comes to man-management, Peter admits he is probably the only person in the United States yet to have watched the Apple TV hit. He said that honesty is really the best policy with young players.
“Us Mayo lads tell it like it is sometimes, we don’t sugar-coat things. Young lads appreciate honesty and directness, especially at this level. They don’t want to be brought down a road of fluff. They want to know straight away if there is something they are not doing good enough or if it is something they need to be better with, they want to know so they can fix it and no one can take their place. I strive towards that.
“Someone like Mourinho is pretty no-nonsense but is also quite rigid in his playing philosophy. I am quite liberal in my philosophy towards playing and that is needed at U15 level. The job isn’t to have a playstyle or a winning team, my job is to make sure that players are adaptable to play for any first team manager in any system.
“I would say I’m adaptable. We have an idea of a formation to play the odd time, sometimes switching between two but there’s no harm telling the lads how to sit deep and have the Jackie Charlton philosophy too,” offered Peter.
But the formula to create the coach that Peter McDonnell has become does not contain a dash of Mourinho or a spoonful of Lasso. Instead, his career has been shaped by those around him back home in Ireland.
“The most influential person in my career and my life is my father, he continues to be. Coaching can be an isolating career and my father would always be there to look at things rationally and kick on,” he said.
“Niall Harrison is very much a role model for me in the coaching world, he is very cool, calm and collected and detailed. Niall would still be a distant mentor of mine and someone I still touch base with and get coaching and career advice off.
“There has been a number of influential people who’ve kept me going in my career around Mayo. Eric O’Reilly from Erris was someone whose passion inspired me. Me and him would have had a few U14 games against each other where we would have sparred. Seeing Eric passing was a tough moment for me but it inspired me to keep going because I think he was a very passionate man about his football.”
Saint Paul, Minnesota does not have the same thriving Irish community that would be present in other parts of America but Peter keeps an eye out for them and keeps in touch with them.
“I met two lads from north Tipp for a pint and some grub the other night. There are not many Irish people in the Twin Cities area compared to Boston or New Jersey. It can be difficult at times because the craic is different. Like my coaching philosophy, I’m quite adaptable. You have to adapt yourself to American crew as well.
“If there’s Irish lads around, I like to keep in touch with them. There’s a Mayo lad here, Kieran Folliard, who has been doing well with Irish Whiskey and I’ve met with him a few times. We Irish are always around the place and it’s nice to go for a pint with them.
“But it’s also nice to be able to adapt and do things like ice fishing with the locals and get into the culture of the local area. It helps with the coaching as well to learn about the area and its people.”
The job of a coach is about mentoring and being able to give something to athletes, whether that be advice, mentoring or often, experiences they won’t forget. Peter said the biggest moment of his career did not come during his time in America but rather during his stint coaching the youths up in Killala.
“In 2013, dad, myself, Aidan Sweeney and a number of Killala coaches and club officials brought the U13 and U15 team to Barcelona. It was a great trip, lasting five days. Those are important moments for young lads to go through. For me, those are the occasions that stick out,” he said.
“A lot of young lads in the town would still talk to me about that when I go home so it clearly sticks out in their memory too.
“Bringing young lads away on trips and seeing them become responsible young men around other people, seeing how they represent their country and their club. That is massive for me to be able to give them that experience.”
He has enjoyed quite an astounding coaching career thus far but what does the future hold for Peter McDonnell? He didn’t quite rule anything out.
“I’ve always aspired for better and better and better. As I’m getting older, I’m trying to understand my own qualities a bit better. I’m currently doing an Academy Director course with US Soccer so that’s training me to manage a staff of coaches while I’m still in the trenches coaching players and teams with Minnesota.
“If you asked me in the morning to step in and train the first team or the reserves I would, 100 percent. I’d love that opportunity, but I also enjoy working with people, especially younger coaches. On this course, we have the opportunity to mentor younger coaches and that brings me back to my time learning from the likes of my dad, Niall Harrison, Paul Byrne and Leo Tierney.
“This Academy Director course is something I really want to pursue. Helping a team of coaches in a team structure like the one at Minnesota United, that is something that excites me.
“As for first team stuff, senior stuff? Possibly back home in Ireland? It is something I would seriously think about. Being involved in the game, being involved with people day in, day out is not something I can walk away from anytime soon.”
Whatever the case, he had a very exciting chance to test his coaching mettle this weekend as Killala’s own Peter McDonnell went toe-to-toe with Manchester United in Texas on Saturday, April 9. His Minnesota United U15 team got drawn in the same group as the Red Devils in the Generation Adidas Cup, which features 80 world-class academies from clubs all over the globe. And in what represents as a major feather in the cap for young McDonnell, Prince Massaquoi scored a late equaliser to secure a 1-1 draw for Minnesota against the English giants before going on to win on penalties.