Expansion team blues
FOXBORO, Mass. -- It can't be easy for John Ellinger.
As the head coach of the U-17 national team for the past seven years, losing games wasn't something he had to deal with all that often. There was even one 15-month run in 1998 and 1999 that his Landon Donovan-led side didn't drop a single match in 25 games.
Over a 57-match span in 2003, Freddy Adu and the boys only lost 9 times. Compare that with the twelve losses in 21 games (5-12-4 overall) that his Real Salt Lake side has now compiled in their first year of existence and it's clear to see why Ellinger is frustrated.
Let's be frank: He knew his team wouldn't be winning the MLS Cup this year. He knew that even making the playoffs would be a major accomplishment. But there's also a part of him that didn't think it'd be this tough back when he accepted the job last fall.
"Coming into the league, you always hear the standard, 'You gotta win your games at home,' since it's so tough to get points on the road," said the 53-year-old Ellinger while standing outside the visitor's locker room at Gillette Stadium after his team was dealt a 4-1 loss by the New England Revolution. "And we're finding that out. It's really tough to get points on the road. We started the first game of the year and we got one. So I figured it's not that tough. But now we have nine straight losses. No question, it's frustrating.
"Some days it's been a little better. Other days, it seems like we get punished for our mistakes over and over again. It gets old."
Tucked away out of the limelight in the cushy confines of the U.S. Soccer Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla., nothing ever got old. For every Donovan and Beasley that passed through campus, there was always a Bobby Convey, an Eddie Johnson or even a 12-year-old Freddy Adu within the next class of kids. There was an endless supply of talent, and nowhere near the type of pressure to win games and develop players as there is as a professional coach.
In a way, it was the type of job that one never seeks to leave. And for many years, Ellinger turned down other coaching jobs in MLS with that thought in mind. Here he was living on a pristine campus and coaching some of the best young players in the world. He was also getting the proper support he needed from U.S. Soccer with three full-time assistants and mental conditioning coaches to deal with his players on a regular basis to share the load.
Deep within every coach, though, there's always that question: "What if?" What if I move on to the next level? Or, more importantly, what if I don't move on the next level? It's a call of the wild of sorts. Money aside, it's the reason why Steve Spurrier left the University of Florida to try his luck with the Washington Redskins and why Rick Pitino left a good thing at the University of Kentucky in the mid-90s to coach the Boston Celtics.
Despite the struggles his team has endured in 2005, Ellinger still believes he made the right decision to move on to MLS.
"I'm frustrated at times, but I actually enjoy the challenge of it all and the fact that the games are always meaningful," he said. "You ask yourself, 'Is this going to be the day we win an away game? Why not today?'"
Ellinger said that he has enjoyed all the game days and the excitement it brings, particularly at home. That wasn't exactly the case with the U-17s since most of their matches were played in front of a scattering of parents and coaches for the most part. Everything was in preparation for the U-17 World Championships that occur every two years. In MLS, it's rapid fire. When you're going Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday there's not much time to prepare.
"I've found with the two games a week that you can't wear them out," said Ellinger. "The rhythm of training is different, too. The kids I used to coach will run forever. With these guys, they've had to deal with the physical play of the league and they've taken a few knocks. I never had to deal with (national team) call-ups with the 17s, either. There's also the long injuries, suspensions and all sorts of other things I never used to have to deal with."
Not having any sort of depth has been one of the main problems with Real Salt Lake this year. When everyone is healthy, the starting XI isn't all too bad. But no team in the league -- or any league around the world, for that matter -- can survive with 10 or 11 solid players before there's a drop off in talent and experience. Ellinger has had to experience this first-hand since he's been forced to play several matches without veteran defenders Eddie Pope, Rusty Pierce and Brian Dunseth. He's also now in the middle of a three-game stretch where he won't have Clint Mathis available because of a red card from last weekend and additional two-match suspension from an altercation with Chivas USA striker Isaac Romo.
Even though Mathis has not provided RSL with the type of attacking presence that they thought they were getting when he signed with the club over the winter, Ellinger said they missed him out there in the loss to the Revolution. Not having Mathis meant yet another different lineup.
"The veterans, when healthy, are doing what we have asked them to do," he said. "It's unique. I think we've had a different lineup in every game. How tough is it to put 10 or 11 guys in the lineup two games in a row. We don't have the luxury of putting the starters out on the field on Saturday and then making three or four changes for Wednesday. We can't afford to do that."
Through it all, Ellinger hasn't lost any of his hair or changed his demeanor. He's still the same soft-spoken type of guy that will probably always consider himself a teacher first and a coach second.
"It's kind of funny," said midfielder Seth Trembly, who played for Ellinger's U-17s in 1999. "It's a whole different game now for him since people are getting paid and families are involved, yet he still carries the same philosophies he had with us as teenagers. He wants us to possess the ball and defend higher up the field. As a person, he might be even more laid back now. With 17-year-olds, it's easier for him to intimidate. Overall, he's definitely a player's coach, who has good one-on-one relationships with the guys."
Pierce said it's been a bit of a change playing for Ellinger after having Steve Nicol and Paul Mariner in New England.
"Those two are so animated, which is so not John," said the former Revolution defender. "Ellinger is reserved. When he does speak up, people listen because it doesn't happen all that often."
The former physical education teacher and college coach said that he is cognizant of how he reacts to the team after losses since he realizes that it's going to take time for everything to come together. That means biting his lip at times.
"I knew when I took the position that I'd have to step back at times and be patient," he said. "Sometimes it's hard to be. But we'll keep plugging away. It is coming around, too. The young players are doing better and better."
Even with his former players gearing up for the U-17 World Championships in Peru next month, he's not regretting sticking it out in Bradenton until the end of this current cycle.
"The chance to come here was when we were seven or eight months away from qualifying," he said. "If it was going to happen it was then because that was the best timing it's ever been. There is a big part of me still with that group. I was so happy they qualified. The good thing about it is that my daughter (Leigh) has gone to school with all those guys. So with her and Nik (Besagno), there's not anything that goes on with them that I don't know about. I'll definitely be watching when they are in Peru this September, and wish those guys all the best.
"I wouldn't take back my decisions for anything in the world. I want to make this into one of the best programs in the league. I've enjoyed every minute of it. We have a great owner (Dave Checketts), we have a great city, and we have great fans. Checketts has relayed to me that, 'You're the right guy.' That's what you want to hear. But it still doesn't stop you from beating yourself up and taking the blame for the losses. I've never taken the losses too well."
Of course, there never were too many of them with the U-17s.
Despite RSL's shoddy record and not a single road victory to speak of in 11 tries, the playoffs are not out of reach. Ellinger's side only sits five points behind the Colorado Rapids for the fourth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference.
"We'll keep plugging away," he said. "We're just starting to get everyone healthy, so hopefully we can make something happen over the next month or so."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.