Q&A: Josh McKinney

By Doug Williams | Aug. 31, 2012, 8:36 p.m. (ET)

Josh McKinney is the all-time leader on the U.S. Men's Paralympic Soccer Team (seven-a-side) with 77 goals scored and 106 caps.

And, at age 33, he’s been a member of the team more years than he hasn’t, first playing for the team at the age of 16. The midfielder has played in two previous Paralympic Games, in Atlanta in 1996 — where he scored five goals — and in Athens in 2004, and he is now captain of the U.S. team that opens against Ukraine on Saturday at 1 p.m. local/8 a.m. EDT.

The United States was drawn into Group B at the Paralympic Games along with Ukraine, Great Britain and Brazil. The United States opens against Ukraine, followed by matches against Brazil on Sept. 3 (9 a.m. local/4 a.m. ET) and host nation Great Britain on Sept. 5 (4:15 p.m. local/11:15 a.m. ET). All matches will be played at Riverbank Arena in London.

McKinney, who lives in Cary, N.C., was born with cerebral palsy that affected the muscles on the right side of his body. His mother, who played soccer in high school, thought the sport would be good for his development, so he began kicking the ball around at the age of 4. Soccer became a passion not only for Josh, but for two younger brothers, who played the game in college and helped hone his game in family scrimmages in the backyard.

McKinney, who plays midfield for the U.S. seven-a-side team, has never won a Paralympic medal, but the U.S. team has hit some high notes since he first put on the U.S. jersey as a teenager. At Atlanta, Team USA reached the bronze-medal game, only to lose, 2-1, to Spain. And in October 2010, McKinney scored two goals as the United States beat Venezuela, 5-0, to take second place in the Copa America in Buenos Aires.

Still, McKinney remains hungry for that first Paralympic medal. He took time out recently before leaving for London to talk about this year’s team, his long career in the national program, his expectations for London and what it’s like being the oldest member of a team where the average age is 24.

You’ve been to two previous Paralympic Games. How does this team compare to those teams?

In Atlanta we didn’t spend very much time together. We started training just the summer before Atlanta. Athens was pretty much the same players, with a couple new guys, but they were a lot older. This team’s probably the best team I’ve played on actually. A lot of young guys in their early 20s that have played soccer all their lives, so it’s pretty exciting to play with players like this.

So do you have higher expectations for this team?

Well, you always want to win gold. My expectations are a little bit higher because we’ve done better than those previous teams and the guys are a little more experienced international-wise.

You’re the team veteran at 33. You’ve been around this team since you were about 16. What is like to be the grand old man on the team?

It’s kind of funny. When I first started I was the youngest on the team and now I’m the oldest.

How does that feel?

All right (laughs). Some of the guys kid around, but I know my experience is going to help my team in the long run. So I know what to expect and how to get ready for the games.

You’ve been captain since 2005. As captain, what’s your role?

I’m not much of a vocal person on or off the field, so I guess my role is to show the young guys through my play. You know, play the right way, work hard. My experience, teach them certain things when they’re on the field … I’ve been on the team so long, and especially since seven a side’s a little different than 11-on-11, so my experience in teaching them different things on the field is part of the role, I guess.

What’s this year been like in terms of preparation? Have you had a lot of tournaments and time at the Chula Vista (U.S. Olympic Training Center) camp?

Yeah, we actually just got back. I’ve been home for about a week. We’ve been at the training center I guess seven out of the last nine weeks, and before that we were in Manchester (in England) for a tournament and Ukraine for a tournament and … we actually played Canada and Great Britain. The coaching staff got us a few games here and there, so we’ve played a lot more than we’ve played in the past.

Do you believe this team is much more in sync then?

Yeah, I mean we have to. Unfortunately, we’re so spread out that we need to get together as much as possible and a lot of the better teams in the world, they’re closer together, they live in the same city or you know, like Russia and Ukraine and Brazil, they have leagues that they play in, so those teams are together year round. We need to get together as much as possible to stay with them.

You mentioned Ukraine and Brazil. Your group in the Paralympic Games has Ukraine, Great Britain and Brazil. That’s a very strong group, isn’t it?

Yeah, very strong. But when you get to this point, there’s only eight to go, they’re all very strong and competitive. Brazil’s probably going to be the toughest. But Ukraine, England, are going to be tough as well. But if we play our best we might sneak in a couple of games.

What do you count among the high points of your long career?

Of course the Paralympics are the big highlights. In Atlanta, I scored five goals, and making it to the medal round was a big highlight. And then actually the last Pan Ams, or what they call the Copa America, was a pretty big highlight because we ended up finishing second and finishing better than Argentina in Argentina, which was a first for us.

At age 33, how long can you keep going?

If I can stay with these young guys, maybe to Rio (in four years). I probably won’t play after 2016. That would be my for-sure limit. I’m at the point where I’ve been fortunate enough to do this for this long and have a couple of sponsors, but as you get older it gets harder, physically and financially (laughs).

What do you do in Cary?

The past couple years, after Home Depot dropped the whole job program (Home Depot’s Olympic Jobs Opportunities Program ended in 2009), I’ve been working for the town of Cary, for a couple of the parks. There’s a big soccer park here in Cary that sometimes hosts the Final Four, and they have the Carolina RailHawks (of the North American Soccer League), so I work over there. I also do some stuff in the finance department. They let me go when I need to go with the team on trips.

Are you looking forward to seeing much of Great Britain and the sights in London?

I am. The first week I’m there I think we’re going to get a chance to go out and see some stuff, but once the Games start, we need to get down to business. My parents are actually coming over, and they haven’t seen me play in almost 10 years, so I’ll spend a couple days with them before the Games start, and go see some sights, and then get ready.

Will all your games be in London?

We’re playing at the Riverbank Arena, and that’s actually where the field hockey played in the Olympics. So we play on (artificial) turf, which is unfortunate. I guess the field hockey and seven-a-side soccer field are around the same size. To me it’s unfortunate that we have to play there because we’re in London and there are so many great soccer teams (and venues) in London. But it’s still great to play in London.

They’ve sold more tickets to these Games than any other Paralympic Games, so the atmosphere and crowds should be great, right?

Actually, I have a former high school teammate that lives over there and he said for the soccer games, they might be sold out, so he’s been having trouble trying to get tickets. That’s a good thing.

So much of your life has been spent playing soccer. What kinds of things do you like to do away from the sport?

I do like to take a lot of naps (laughs). I guess I get that from my grandfather. I do like to go to movies every once in a while, just sit and enjoy a good movie. And then, I like to hang out with my brothers. I don’t get to see them much, so when I am in town I go hang out with them as much as possible.

Did you get a chance to watch much of the just-completed Olympic Games?

Yeah, we were out at the (Chula Vista) training center, so they had every TV on, so we were either training or watching the Olympics. I saw quite a bit of the Games.

Did you participate in the Opening Ceremony?

Yes, those were the 29th, and our first game is Sept. 1, so we had time to do the Opening Ceremony. It’s an awesome experience. I’ve been fortunate enough that our games in the previous Games were the same, two days after the Opening Ceremony, so it’s a great experience for the younger guys to go through, to walk through the stadium.

What does it feel like to be part of such a ceremony?

It’s great. You’ve got the pride, you know, representing your country, just walking through with your colors on and your flag. It’s a great experience and an amazing feeling.

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Doug Williams is a freelance contributor for USParalympics.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.