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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Former Gonzaga standout Vito Higgins relishes opportunity as Spokane Velocity goalkeeper coach

Vito Higgins had just watched Spokane Velocity FC lose to Central Valley Fuego FC after a stoppage time goal sent the match to penalties, which ultimately went Fuego FC’s way.

It was the kind of result that keeps coaches up at night and forces them to have a short memory.

Higgins, Spokane’s goalkeeper coach, was rightfully frustrated as the team dropped points, but for him, that frustration melted away as he turned toward the west side of ONE Spokane Stadium to find his daughter, Kamiya.

His 6-year-old was attending her first game to see her dad on the sideline, living out his postplaying career dream.

Velocity FC co-owner Ryan Harnetiaux helped lift Kamiya over the railing before she ran over to meet her dad, donning a smile that melted away any negative thoughts about the result.

“It immediately put it into perspective that here’s this human being that I brought into this world and here, these players that I’m helping, they were in those shoes, so it really ties it all together in terms of why I’m doing, what I’m doing and who I’m doing it for,” Higgins said. “That moment was pretty, pretty monumental.”

Higgins fought back some emotions when talking about his daughter from that specific instant last month.

The former Gonzaga Bulldogs soccer star

hung up his goalkeeper gloves and changed his direction after a tryout stint with Major League Soccer’s LA Galaxy.

That one brief moment with his daughter – who didn’t care about the loss and just wanted to hug her dad – showed him how innocent sports can be, even when unexpected losses occur.

It also was a moment of finality for Higgins, whose personal and family sacrifices tested his resolve over the past four years, but in the end, were worth it.

“Here we are, reaping the rewards of that risk,” Higgins said.

•••Higgins grew up in Kailua, Hawaii, not known as a soccer haven.

But his uncle was a high school soccer coach and played at the University of San Diego, so soccer was Higgins’ foundation as he grew up.

“My uncle was massively a big role model in soccer for me,” Higgins said.

Higgins spent the weekends driving around Oahu with his uncle, spectating – and eventually playing – in men’s leagues around the island.

As he grew into his body type, Higgins was one of the few players who enjoyed playing goalie on the less-than maintained fields across the island.

“Some kids really didn’t like diving and hitting the ground and I just remember I was ferocious, but I had zero technique,” Higgins said. “My style was very blue collar.”

That came with Higgins being a massive fan of hockey, another rarity for a Hawaii-born kid.

His toughness along with advancing skills gave him a chance to play Division I soccer as a goalkeeper.

Higgins heard of Gonzaga through the school’s tendency to recruit from the islands – something former GU’s men’s head coach Einar Thorarinsson did – but also because for 10 consecutive years, a Kailua keeper started for the Zags.

The others were Kailua natives Josh Fouts and Mike McCarthy.

When Fouts was at GU, he sent Higgins’ uncle a T-shirt from a Bulldogs-sponsored marathon. It became Higgins’ favorite shirt.

“I remember being so proud of the shirt. Spike the Bulldog was on it, and that essentially confirmed for me, ‘That’s it. I want to go to Gonzaga, I want to be a part of that,’ ” he said.

After he graduated, Higgins was second all time for the Zags in saves (305) and clean sheets (14) and third in goals-against average (1.34). Fouts was first in those categories.

He was not selected in the MLS draft, but he signed on a tryout basis with the Galaxy. A broken foot bone derailed his career and sent him toward coaching.

GU’s athletic department opened up a second assistant spot for the men’s soccer team, specifically for a goalkeeper coach.

Thorarinsson, his former coach, hired him.

Over the next five years, he coached while trying to catch on somewhere, but he slowly drifted away from his playing career.

“I owe everything to Gonzaga and Spokane because as I look back on it, here I am a kid coming out of Hawaii, they don’t know much about me, and they took a gamble on me as a player and it worked out well,” he said. “They then, in turn, gambled on a young kid with not with much coaching experience.”

Higgins spent more than a decade total coaching at Gonzaga and at North Idaho College – along with some local club teams – but he decided to make a leap that altered his ascension in the coaching world.

A few years leading up to the announcement of professional soccer coming to Spokane, rumors spread of expansion materializing in Boise, Portland or maybe even Spokane.

Higgins knew that if he wanted to get back to the Pacific Northwest in a coaching capacity, he needed experience.

That’s when he uprooted himself from his second home of Spokane to move to Tucson, Arizona, for his first professional coaching stop, stepping away from being a full-time dad to Kamiya.

“Tucson offered a perfect opportunity,” Higgins said. “It was challenging because I had a daughter still living here in Spokane.”

Spokane Velocity goalkeeper coach Vito Higgins.  (Campea Photography)
Spokane Velocity goalkeeper coach Vito Higgins. (Campea Photography)

His trek back to Spokane wasn’t without a few trying moments as he wondered if this path was the proper route for him.

It took a lot of grounding and soul-searching to recenter his path, to reaffirm that hard work would equal the outcome he wanted.

“It really speaks to what I am, who I want to be, how I want to raise my daughter and show her what can be done and what you have to work through,” Higgins said. “I want to really show her that it requires patience, it requires working through adversity, it requires hard work to really get to what you want.

“Sometime sacrifices have to be made.”

Higgins never felt as if he had to drop this dream of coaching.

“There was always this feeling of like, ‘No, you’re not done yet,’ ” Higgins said. “And so, then it really came to, ‘OK , what does it look like?’ ”

Higgins spent two years in Tucson as the assistant coach of the first team and the inaugural head coach of its pro academy. It was a pro-level job and one that came with direct access to young talent looking to make a mark.

“I don’t ever want to feel like I’ve arrived and I’m done. This is only a step in this process,” Higgins said.

Throughout , Higgins kept in loose contact with the Harnetiauxes, the new Spokane soccer team’s owners.

In December, Ryan Harnetiaux offered Higgins a temporary spot to help locate the new players and organize tryouts.

When head coach Leigh Veidman was hired, Higgins attached himself to the new coach, helping with the team’s trials to find more talent.

Veidman was looking for a goalkeeper coach who sees the game the same way as he did, especially since the training sessions with goalies are so isolated. Rarely are the goalies training directly with the team as they work on their technique for most of their time.

Obviously, Veidman said, the person also had to fit the culture and enhance the energy Veidman was trying to cultivate.

After a few chats with Higgins, Veidman confirmed both of those attributes.

Those chats happened because Higgins placed himself inside the organization from the start, finding the spot he’d wanted since he left the Galaxy.

“It was in our second trial, the one in Spokane, where (Veidman) pulled me aside and offered me the job right there on the field,” Higgins said.

“Here’s something that I’ve been pouring my heart and soul into for the better part of four years.”

As the roster grew, Higgins’ choice of Carlos Merancio as Spokane’s starting keeper was an easy choice.

The two have history before they ended up in Spokane. They spent a year at FC Tucson in 2022, so their relationship has spanned a few years.

“He’s a very good coach, but better person,” Merancio said. “He supported me. He’s very open to help wherever the goalkeepers need.”

Both had their Spokane jobs confirmed in December. Higgins said he knew Merancio would fit in well with the Velocity and bring stability to the position group.

Merancio is tied for third with two clean sheets this league season and is coming off one of the best games of his career on May 25 in a USL Jägermeister Cup game. Merancio had seven saves and held a clean sheet in that game before Spokane fell in penalty kicks.

“And then along with him, we had Peter Swinkels come in, he retired, and then comes Brooks Thompson, and he’s outstanding, he’s been great,” Higgins said.

The Velocity have said they want to make an impact on the community off the pitch. Higgins strongly supports that goal.

But first, his availability as a father and his determination to make an impact in Kamiya’s life has been his sole focus since returning to Spokane.

“First and foremost, I want to be the best dad that I can be, the best coach I can be, the best employee I can be to the USL organization, the best family I can be to the Harnetiauxes and the best ambassador to the sport and to Spokane,” Higgins said. “To be given this opportunity to represent this city, especially in an opening of an organization is pretty, pretty special.

“It’s special to be back in Spokane, to be a part of this program and being right down the street from what I consider to be my home.”