This interview was originally split in two parts, with part one first printed in the Cumberland Times-News’ February 2015 edition of the Sports Magazine. The interview in its entirety has been reprinted at Soccer Yanks with permission from my Managing Editor.
As part of being a “soccer journalist,” I’ve always believed in challenging myself to speak with great soccer minds. I use that term loosely, because I don’t consider it a job when it’s this enjoyable.
In addition to writing about the beautiful game, I’m also entering my first year of coaching at the club level with Allegany Soccer Alliance — which requires me to get licensing and things that I’m not going to bore you to death talking about.
My instructor from coaching class, Willie Ibarra, is involved with Soccer Association of Columbia (SAC), and repeatedly told us stories about a man named John Ellinger. As someone who has written about Landon Donovan in the past, I already knew of Ellinger.
For those that aren’t aware, Ellinger is a graduate of Frostburg State University, Class of 1973. In addition to being a student-teacher at Beall High School, Ellinger also played soccer for all four years of his college career.
After graduation, Ellinger went on to coach at Montgomery College and UMBC, before getting involved with U.S. Soccer. After spending years with various teams under U.S. Soccer, Ellinger was appointed as the head coach of the Under-17 National Team in 1997 — a position he held for eight years.
During that time, he led the U-17 squad to a fourth-place finish at the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Championship. The most notable player on the team was Landon Donovan, as well as Kyle Beckerman, Oguchi Onyewu, Bobby Convey and DaMarcus Beasley. Other notable players that Ellinger coached and helped develop were Eddie Johnson, Jonathan Spector and Freddy Adu.
After stepping down in 2005, Ellinger moved on to Major League Soccer, where he became head coach of Real Salt Lake until 2007. Ellinger then moved on to be an assistant coach at FC Dallas. On Nov. 15, 2012, FC Dallas announced Ellinger’s retirement.
Upon retirement, Ellinger went back to SAC to become the technical director, a position he still holds today.
Ellinger sat down with me for a 40-minute Q&A, which turned out to be arguably the most enjoyable 40 minutes of my time as a soccer writer.
Kyle Bennett: Be honest — growing up as a soccer player, how talented were you? Were you one of the best in your class?
John Ellinger: “It’s interesting because I’m old, Kyle, so growing up in Montgomery County, we didn’t start soccer until my junior year of high school. I only played my junior and senior year.”
“I think what helped me the most is that I started training with a men’s team that was playing in the National Soccer League in the D.C. area. So I think I kind of took off that way because I was playing with the older players, and especially the summer before I went to Frostburg, I played in three different tournaments with them, so I felt that that added a lot to my growth and development as a soccer player.”
“So I figure, in high school, I was above average; but in the time from my high school season ended to the time I started at Frostburg, I felt that I had gotten a lot better. That helped me as I went to Frostburg as a freshman, and when I got there, there were five freshman that played a lot. Then Ken Cutler came in as the coach, and it was his first year as well.”
KB: And how did your soccer career at Frostburg go?
JE: “It went well. I was a starter all four years. We made it to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) tournament my sophomore, junior and senior year, and I ended up getting MVP my senior year for the team. So I felt that I had a great time and experience with a great group of guys that that I played with, and I thought we had some really good seasons while I was there.”
“We made it to the playoffs, and we might’ve won the District 18 title, and then we would drop it in the regionals because we were going up against teams like Davis & Elkins back in the day when we really didn’t have Divisions II and III. So you basically had Division I and NAIA, so there were some very talented teams in the NAIA, and we’d play against some D1 schools as well. So I enjoyed my time there. I had a great time.”
KB: What do you remember about the community of Frostburg and surrounding areas?
JE: “One thing that I’ve always remembered is that the streets were very narrow, and you had to park on one side of the street for six months and the other side for six months.”
“My dad actually grew up in Lonaconing, so I was familiar with the area before before I went to school there. But I went (to Frostburg) primarily to play soccer. Back then, I knew I wanted to be a health and physical education teacher, so it was a smart place to go for teacher education back in the early ’70s. It was everything that I was looking for in a school. But I do remember parking on one side of the street.”
KB: Have you been back, or how many times have you been back?
JE: “I’ve went back a couple times to play in alumni events. But just last year, working at the club, we had some teams that made it to the Presidents Cup — which is not the State Cup, it’s a level below that. We had a bunch of teams that had made it through the regional championships over Memorial Day weekend. So my wife had never been to Frostburg, so we stopped on our way up to Pittsburgh, or Slippery Rock actually. But we stopped and I showed her around campus. I showed her the infamous Diehl Hall, where I was in the dorms. It was good seeing the old Hall again.”
KB: Would you ever be interested in coming back to help out with teams? Not necessarily coaching-wise, but in any type of manner, whether it be clinics or anything like that?
JE: “I mean I’m always open to things like that, ya know? I’ve done that before. I do sessions at the NSCAA (National Soccer Coaches Association of America) conventions, I’m going to New York to do some presentations. I still work with U.S. (Soccer) in a capacity as a national schools instructor, so that’s still a consistent thing for me.”
KB: Do you still keep track of the FSU soccer program?
JE: “I do, actually. I go on the website, I think we have a couple of players from the club that are playing up there. A couple of goalkeepers, in fact. So, ya know, I follow it and see how they’re doing.”
“When Jay Hegeman was there, he was one of the freshman that came in with me. So, obviously, I followed it a lot when Jay was there. And then we played Frostburg a couple of times when I started at UMBC, in fact. So yeah, I definitely follow them.”
— Part two of the interview is as follows…
KB: After your career at Frostburg State was over, I read that you were a teacher at Sherwood high (school), is that correct?
JE: “Yeah. My first year of teaching was at White Oak Junior High School. Now it’s an intermediate school, but that was my first job. Then I worked at Sherwood for about 17 years. I finished up being an athletic director and teacher at Richard Montgomery high school. That was my last assignment before I left and went in to U.S. Soccer. And actually, the first gig was Major League Soccer. I went in as an assistant in Columbus in 1996.”
KB: So then you served as an assistant at Montgomery College, correct?
JE: “Yes. So I was coaching at Sherwood, but as a teacher I had the junior varsity soccer team. I left that after a few years, and then went to Montgomery College where I was an assistant when Tom Bichy was the head coach. From there, I went to UMBC.”
KB: Your early days of coaching – before UMBC – what was it like? Because you said you had the jayvee team, and then you were an assistant at Montgomery. So did you jump straight in as the head coach at UMBC in 1981?
JE: “I did. I was doing other things too. For example, in that period of time, I was helping with Olney Soccer Club as their Director of Coaching for a little bit. But I was also working on the adult side, similar to ODP on the youth side. They basically had a state select program, so I coached the Maryland State Select team from then beginning back in around, I want to say, ’81. I think that helped me as well in the early days because then I became a state coach, then a regional coach and then I moved up to the national amateur coach, all while I was coaching at UMBC. So, it’s all kind of tied in. Even though I was at UMBC as the head coach, I was still working in this other capacity, which I felt helped me a great deal.”
KB: And how did you get involved then with U.S. Soccer?
JE: “I had gone through all of the coaching schools, and gotten my licenses and stuff back in the 70s, so I kind of felt like I’d have really liked to have been an instructor. So really, my first step in to U.S. Soccer was as an instructor at the coaching schools, which was in 1989.”
KB: So it looks like in 1990 was when you left UMBC?
JE: “Yeah in 1990 I left, and then came back to SAC. I came to SAC actually to become the Director of Coaching when I left UMBC. But the whole time that I was at UMBC, I was still a teacher. So even though I was a head coach, I was still teaching with Montgomery County Public Schools. That made it interesting.”
KB: So any U.S. Soccer fan knows that you coached the 1999 U-17 team that did so well at the 1999 World Championship. What are your fondest memory with that team and that group of guys?
JE: “Obviously the run at the World Championships. I mean, (in) qualifying we actually finished second in our group in Montego Bay. Watching the Under-20’s just recently on TV, it brought back memories of that event because it’s not an easy place to play (in Montego Bay). It’s not the best grass. If you saw any of the games, you could see how wet and sluggish it was. It was a difficult situation.”
“We ended up finishing second in our group, and then we had to play a home-and-away with El Salvador, which we ended up winning the two games by a total of 10-1 so we qualified. For me, the highlight with that group was obviously the run that we had going in to the World Championships. Before we lost to Ghana, I think we had 27 or 28 international games without a loss, so I was pretty proud of that. Then obviously finishing fourth in the World Championships was a great feeling. The biggest disappointment was obviously losing on penalty kicks in the semifinal.”
KB: Speaking of that team, I can’t just go without asking you this. Every U.S. soccer fan knows who was on the team: Landon Donovan. At that age, could you tell that he had potential to be something special?
JE: “Oh yeah. He was pretty special, and you could see it right away. We were just talking about this at the (NSCAA) Convention. He probably would have been identified earlier, but as he was heading to his first regional camp as an ODP player, he had broken his leg with his club team. I was working with U.S. Soccer full time at the time Landon had came in to camp in Cocoa, Florida, where I had finally gotten to see him play, and he was definitely a standout. After that, I became coach of the Under-17 National Team.”
“Ironically, Landon’s first camp with the National Team was that camp that I was at. You could see right away how special he was. The thing that always stood out the most is, you’ve seen players with speed that pull away from defenders, but I haven’t seen many players do it with the ball – Landon could. His technical speed on-ball was incredible. He had the physical and the technical speed. For a 16-year-old, it was just incredible to see.”
KB: How would you sum up his playing career now that, we think, his playing career is over?
JE: “Disappointing. I enjoyed all of the great memories of watching him play at all of the levels that he played at. I was also the assistant coach in 2000 at the Olympics, and Landon was on that team. So every chance that I got to work with him was a joy.”
“But I’m just disappointed in the fact that he didn’t play in the 2014 World Cup, and I feel like he has always been meant to be a National Team player and meant to play for his country. I’m disappointed in the fact that he went out in the fashion that he went out. It kind of wasn’t to his doing, so that’s where I’m disappointed. I’m happy for him as a player. I went to his last game as a player and was able to chat with him a bit there. I just would’ve liked to have seen him at this last World Cup. I think it would’ve been a different feeling than most of us are feeling right now.”
KB: I personally would agree with that. I feel that, of all the players that made the team, someone like Diskerud barely played. So it just doesn’t make much sense to me why he wasn’t on the team. Even if he wasn’t going to start, you’ve got to think he could’ve made some type of impact off the bench at the very least.
JE: “I think we all feel the same way on that one. In that sense, Jurgen (Klinsmann) didn’t do himself any favors. Most of us were attached to the young man, and just enjoyed watching him play. I was ecstatic that the (Los Angeles) Galaxy were able to go out and win the championship last year.”
KB: If Coach Ibarra’s story from the Class E License (class) is correct, at the NSCAA conference this year in Philadelphia, Landon called four people to the stage that made an impact on his career, and you were one of them. Is that correct?
JE: “That’s correct.”
KB: How does that make you feel? What does that say about you as a coach?
JE: “It was a very humbling experience to say the least. I was very honored that Landon would feel like I was one of those guys that contributed. In fact, I said something during the session that we did together. I said that I probably added a little bit to his punkness, but in a good way. Landon felt that same way, in that his punkness gave him an aura of confidence. It was fun though, being there up on stage and sharing that moment with him at the convention. But again, for me it was a very humbling experience that Landon felt that way. I think Bruce was the other guy that was supposed to be up there, but Bruce had just had his knee replacement, so he was struggling and went back home.”
KB: In your opinion, right now, who are the top three managers in the world?
JE: “Jose (Mourinho) and Pep (Guardiola) for sure. For me, I’m going to put Bruce Arena third. I think Bruce has done a fantastic job.”
KB: I agree to a degree. I think he’s really underrated. Being an American, and what he’s done for U.S. Soccer, it’s pretty incredible.
JE: “Oh yeah. He got us our best (World Cup) finish by getting to the quarterfinals. He’s won, what, five MLS Cups now? So I’d put him up there in my top three. I think Bruce can go anywhere to coach and be successful, and I think he’s a great manager.”
KB: So there’s been a lot of talk recently with Klinsmann and (Don) Garber going back and forth and whatnot. As a former MLS coach, what are your thoughts on the current state of MLS?
JE: “It’s funny because people always ask me if I watch all of the Premier League games and all, but I’m a big MLS fan and I always will be. Once you’re in the league, you know the players, you know the coaches, so I just find myself watching the games every weekend. I’d rather watch those games than any other games. Overall I like it though. Don has done a great job of managing some situations that have come up. Right now they’re in the midst of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens up to the opening day of the season. But I’m a fan of the league, I’ll do anything I can to help the league and I enjoyed my time coaching.”
KB: There’s a crowd out there, not that I necessarily agree with, for promotion and relegation. Do you think it is feasible in the United States?
JE: “No, and the reason I say that is because of the stadiums. If you’re an owner and want to put millions of dollars in to a soccer-specific stadium, you’re not going to do that if the next year you might be in division two or three, so to speak. We’ve basically adopted the style of our other major sports leagues, where you have your bad years and good years. After some bad years, yo get new players, get a new coach and then you’re still in the league and you keep playing. I think the idealist in the soccer world would love to see it, I just don’t think it’s realistic or feasible based on financial restraints.”
KB: And then on top of that, there’s TV contracts. You’ve got to think investors aren’t going to be as willing to throw money in to this if there’s not a guarantee that they’re going to be on ESPN next year.
JE: “Exactly, and that’s how I feel about it as well.”
KB: Last question I have for you: what is your advice for today’s coaches, whether they be professional coaches or, like myself, a coach at the youth level?
JE: “I always stress it here (at SAC) that growth and development is very important for coaches. They have to get comfortable in all facets of coaching, as far as being able to run your training sessions, plan your training sessions, run your team administratively. Be a big part of stuff like where the team plays its games, what tournaments they are going to go to.”
“Basically, as a youth coach for example, you’ve got to run your team. I’ve seen too many coaches who allow their manager or treasurer run the team. I just feel like coaches develop when they do all facets of the team. You learn by your mistakes, and you learn by your successes. You learn what does and doesn’t work – I see it here all the time at our club.”
“There are some individuals that are very strong and directive that try and tell the coach what to do all the time, and it doesn’t work. The coach basically has to be in charge. I also believe in the 24-hour period. At the youth level, 24 hours after a game, there should be a cooling off period between coach and parents because 90 percent of the complaints in youth soccer have to do with playing time. So that would be my advice for coaches at the youth level.”
“When you get to the various different levels above youth soccer, it’s tough. At college, a lot of it depends on what type of program it is – whether it’s D1, D2 or D3, or what kinds of a players you are looking for on those levels. There’s so many mid-level D1 programs that you feel like are competing just to stay alive half of the time, and yet, basically at the D1 level, the rich get richer so to speak.”
“D3 is probably the purest soccer level out there because the players that go there are going there to play, ya know? They’re not going there for money, they’re going there to play, and there are some great programs out there. Tufts had a great run this year, and Messiah has had a few great runs over the years. So it’s fun to see those programs. I think for each individual (player), it all goes down to what you’re looking for. I had a young man come in here today to talk about just D1 schools – didn’t even want to talk about D2 or D3. To each his own in that regard.”
KB: Any other closing remarks, or perhaps things I haven’t touched on?
JE: “I think that, for me, back in my earlier years – in the 80s – I felt that I gained a lot of experience. Back then they had what’s called the Olympic Festival, and I was fortunate enough to be the Region I coach. So that kind of put me out there under the fire a little bit early on in my career. I did this all while I was at UMBC, not that I already was under the fire there, this just threw more wood on to the fire. It was good to put myself in pressure situations like that, though. It really helps in order to make yourself a better coach. You’ve got to go out there and be put under pressure, and it works on your composure a lot. It also helps that I had some good mentors over the years. You always take something away when you work with great people.”