After moving across the world, assistant coach Ali Hanif has built on years of experience with a Premier League club to help ASU’s goalkeepers improve in nearly every metric this season.
Like most kids in Manchester, England, Hanif grew up playing soccer and cheering for Manchester United F.C., one of the city’s two Premier League clubs. After high school, Hanif was able to stay on the pitch by playing goalkeeper for Loreto College in Manchester.
However, after a series of injuries cut his playing career short, Hanif entered a Manchester United pilot program meant to build community involvement through soccer. After joining as a volunteer, Hanif worked his way up to become a paid coach with the Red Devils for nearly 10 years and eventually became a goalkeeping expert.
"I actually didn't get into goalkeeper coach until about two years after I got into coaching," Hanif said. "I built most of my coaching and playing really just because I got into it."
When the opportunity came knocking, Hanif took his coaching career across the pond to Kansas City, Kansas. There, he helped build youth soccer programs while coaching for a string of youth and collegiate teams. Far from home, Hanif said he grew to love his new city and even met his wife while in Kansas.
"The people were amazing," Hanif said. "I made family, I made friends, and people I called when I said I got engaged. There’s a lot of important people in the United States."
After years of living in Kansas, Hanif took on coaching positions with Illinois State University and California State University, Bakersfield. In the 2022 season, he worked as a goalkeeper coach for CSUB before being named the program’s interim head coach in May 2023.
Then, Hanif's career trajectory would change after the NCAA allowed teams to hire an extra full-time coach in the 2023 season. Many programs, including ASU, never employed a goalkeeping specialist before the change due to restrictions and instead relied on volunteers.
Seeing an opportunity for his team to improve, ASU soccer coach Graham Winkworth started a nationwide search for a goalkeeping coach. After Hanif put his hat in the ring, Winkworth said he was impressed by his experience and, most importantly, his personality.
"For me, that's the number one thing we look for," Winkworth said. "We look for somebody that we can trust, somebody that is a good person and good character. That's even before any of the goalkeeping piece or any of the coaching piece with any of the assistant coaches."
After only a few months in Tempe, Hanif has helped ASU's goalkeepers build on their skills and feel valued on the team. So far this season, his addition to the staff seems to be paying off as the Sun Devils have recorded a mere 0.50 goals against average after posting a 1.50 GAA last season.
Reflecting on her coach's influence, sophomore goalkeeper Pauline Nelles partially credits her success to Hanif's work in between games. Prior to each match, Hanif breaks down the opponents' play styles and analyzes their offensive press to help Nelles make better decisions between the woodwork.
After already posting seven shutouts this season, Nelles said her work with Hanif and their similar techniques to goalkeeping has helped her improve her play.
"You want to play build, not just playing long balls," Nelles said. "That's also his mentality or style of play, so it's pretty similar."
Despite the apparent success of his short tenure, Hanif said his work wouldn’t matter without ASU's goalkeepers buying into the team’s mission. Hanif said his goalkeepers are trusting the process and will continue to refine their performance throughout the season.
Working with goalkeepers day in and day out, Hanif loves the chance to make a living out of his passion. However, while he loves being around the pitch, his favorite part of coaching is the human element. By helping others succeed, Hanif said he values the connections he builds with players and coaches above all else.
"I'm very lucky that I get to work with some extraordinary and slightly weird individuals sometimes when it comes to goalkeepers," Hanif said. "I mean building relationships, I'm very proud of that because that's what keeps you going in the long run."
Edited by Alfred Smith III, Sadie Buggle and Caera Learmonth.