When BJ Callaghan looks back over his coaching career and his rise to where he is now as an assistant national team coach, he hasn't forgotten for a minute the experiences he had growing and learning as a coach at the club and ODP level in Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer.
“I’m proud to have cut my teeth in Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer, across different colleges, different levels, different clubs, different levels, different levels through the ODP program,” Callaghan said in a conversation with Technical Director Gary Stephenson during an online meeting with current Eastern Pennsylvania ODP coaches on Thursday night. “I appreciate everything and appreciate you guys welcoming me back and thinking about me, not forgetting.”
A Ventnor, N.J. native, Callaghan first came to Pennsylvania to play college soccer at Ursinus College with intentions of pursuing a career in business or finance but as he was approaching graduation his coach Tom Quintois, former ODP coach, talked him into considering a career path in coaching. Callaghan joined the staff at Ursinus under a different head coach - Wayne McKinney - the summer after graduation.
“I always say it was probably one of the hardest coaching jobs I ever had,” Callaghan said of his transition from player to coach. “Because I was literally hanging out my senior year with all my teammates and friends on the soccer team in May and then I show up in August and now I’m their coach.”
From his alma mater, Callaghan moved to the women’s game as an assistant at Saint Joseph’s University under Jess (Reynolds) Mannella and then moved to coaching men and women at Villanova. He was also coaching with the ODP program, working toward his licenses and getting experience on the club side working at Harleysville SC, FC Bucks and Montgomery United.
“I tell people some of the greatest learning experiences for me were when I got to coach at Harleysville SC, FC Bucks and Montgomery United,” Callaghan said. “I was always an assistant at the colleges where I worked but even if I was working with 12-year-olds at Harleysville it was an opportunity to interact with parents, to design my own training sessions, to make in-game coaching decisions.”
Callaghan said the coaches he worked under and his instructors in the coaching education courses mentored and taught him how to coach and the support he gained from coaching in the ODP program was invaluable in his pursuit of coaching at a higher level.
“ODP gave you the ability to go work with people outside your daily day-to-day,” Callaghan said. “So it was really an opportunity I thought to grow.”
BJ’s initial entry into the Philadelphia Union organization was through the academy - one of his proudest moments in his tenure with the Union was seeing the first group of students at YSC Academy graduate - and it was a fellow former Villanova assistant Jim Curtin who gave him his first job at the professiona level.
“I’m not where I am today without Jim,” Callaghan said. “I have a ton of respect for him and I would start as a person first and foremost, as a friend and then as a coach.”
After five seasons as a Union assistant, Callaghan got a phone call from Earnie Stewart, a former Union executive who was the general manager of the USMNT at the time, about joining the technical staff.
“I was pretty shocked to be quite honest,” Callaghan said of the offer. “I didn't play high level soccer, wasn't a pro soccer player and you know I told you guys I was coaching on the fields at Harleysville Soccer Club as one of my first jobs in soccer and now this opportunity is here.”
That opportunity would of course lead to Callaghan getting to experience the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in 2022 and last summer making his head coaching debut as the interim USMNT head coach against Mexico in the Concacaf Nations League semifinal in Las Vegas.
“I told you before that time playing in the World Cup was the most anxiety I probably felt as a coach,” Callaghan said. “Well, now I had a new one and it was playing in that game against Mexico. It was special but also nerve-wracking at the same time. It’s a feeling we all have as coaches, you put in the work and the team looked great in training but until the whistle blows you don’t actually know what kind of performance you’re going to get.”
The U.S. won that game and went on to capture the Nations League crown with a win over Canada but came up short in the semifinal of the Concacaf Gold Cup in a penalty shootout with Panama three weeks later. Callaghan finished his stint as interim unbeaten in 7 games (4 wins, 3 draws) and a 57 percent win percentage.
“I wasn't ever going to be named as a national team head coach,” Callaghan said. “So it was a true caretaker (position) and that's why I think that word is so important because we had built for four years - I had been there from day one - and now it almost became personal to really protect what we had built.”
Since Gregg Berhalter’s return as head coach, Callaghan has returned to his role as an assistant on the staff but has also taken on a larger role of on-boarding staff.
“I guess the best way to be is the culture glue guy,” Callaghan said in a nod to his time at St. Joseph’s, where he says he learned valuable lessons about building culture from Jess Mannella that he still applies to coaching now.
Callaghan noted that he is in a great spot at U.S. Soccer with so many international competitions from Copa America and the 2026 FIFA World Cup to the Olympics and a possible 2027 FIFA Women’s World Cup on the docket.
“Anyone that's involved in soccer should be pretty excited,” Callaghan said. “It’s a 48-team World Cup which has never happened before so it’s literally going to be the largest sporting event to ever occur in the world and it’s right here.”
ODP coaches on the call also had a chance to ask questions and Callaghan expressed gratitude for the chance to be back at an ODP meeting reminiscing. Callaghan was forthcoming discussing both his ups and downs in coaching and personable throughout the hour-long conversation.
“It was great to spend some time talking with BJ,” Stephenson said. “It’s so refreshing to talk to somebody who has pride in what they do. He truly is the hardest working coach in soccer. The word homegrown is overused but he really is one of our own.”
The USMNT has a friendly against Slovenia slated for January 20 and will be back in the Concacaf Nations League in March with a semifinal match against Jamaica in Texas.