Since early February, when Sacramento Republic FC named Simon Elliott as coach, his players have been trying to put more smiles on his face.
"He’ll joke occasionally, but it’s more of us trying to get a smile out of him," Republic FC forward Cameron Iwasa said. "He’s a serious guy. But one of the guys will pull a prank on another and you’ll see him in the corner with a grin on his face.”
Even better than pranks: wins. And it’s hard to argue that the man who has presided over a franchise-best start at 5-1-3 needs to lighten up.
Sacramento will look to improve that record as it hosts rival Reno 1868 FC (2-3-4) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Papa Murphy’s Park.
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Elliott’s playing career was no joke. He was an All-American at Stanford after leaving his native New Zealand. He had 13 goals and 12 assists for the Cardinal and joined the Los Angeles Galaxy in 1999. Elliott, 43, was named the team’s most valuable player in 2000 after scoring five goals and five assists and leading the Galaxy to the CONCACAF Champions' Cup title. In all, Elliott’s professional playing career includes 19 seasons with stops in New Zealand, United States and the English Premier League (Fulham). He also played in the 2010 World Cup for the Kiwis and is a former national team captain.
With that playing pedigree, it’s no wonder that Elliott exudes seriousness and expects nothing less from his Republic FC players.
“He’s had a fantastic professional career and understands what it takes to get where you want to be and have success at the highest levels,” Iwasa said. “The first impression off the bat was very good. We came into preseason working double days and that’s where you’re getting his experience. He’s a no-nonsense guy, but he certainly knows his stuff. And it’s a lot easier to put the work in for a guy who’s been there, who’s done it himself.”
Iwasa and other players said it’s not like Elliott is a stern taskmaster who browbeats his players into submitting to his rule. Far from it, although they’re still working on getting that smile to emerge a little more.
Elliott was the Republic FC Academy head coach of the under 15/16s and under 17 squads for two seasons before getting the big job Feb. 1.
He said having such recent playing experience – he retired in 2011 – has served him well with the players and was certainly a factor in his hiring.
“In general terms, having played can help get you in the door,” Elliott said. “I think after that it’s on you. Just because you played here or there doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good coach. I think players, as a group, are pretty smart and they’ll figure out whether you’re legit, or authentic or whatever, pretty quick. You have to prove you have the chops and know what you’re doing.”
Elliott said as a player he never really gave coaching much thought. He just played. But in reflection, he said he can now see how his playing career helped prep him for his coaching career and as a defensive midfielder for much of his career, seeing the field in front of him gave him an eagle’s eye view of the way the game shapes and shifts.
“I’ve always had an interest in how the game works and trying to break it down, and try to figure out what works and why and what doesn’t and why,” Elliott said. “So, I think that analytical approach has helped. As you get older, if you want to survive as a player, it can’t be just about athleticism or just speed. You do have to think your way through a game and situations and be attuned to that stuff and help organize players.”
Elliott is the first to admit that he’s been blessed to play all over the globe for legendary coaches. While he can’t trace his own coaching philosophy to any one coach for whom he's played, he is quick to credit them for providing pieces to an already-successful puzzle.
“I got fortunate in the coaches I had here in Bobby Clark (Stanford, New Zealand national), who has probably forgotten more than I’ll ever know about football, and Sigi Schmid (LA Galaxy), who was one of the best around in MLS,” Elliott said. “So I was fortunate enough to play in Europe and internationally. You take stuff from everywhere and how it ends up exactly in the forms you’re coaching I’m not sure, but it knits itself into its own thing.”
Elliott said he continues to learn each day on the job. He self-assesses just as much as he assesses his players. The X’s and O’s, the shape he wants Republic FC to play, come easily. But the intangibles of being in charge of a multimillion dollar franchise trying to make it to a level he’s already been a part of are elusive but revealing themselves more every day, he said.
As he expected, the day-to-day responsibilities are much different and greater than when he was with the Republic FC Academy.
“It’s more constant because it’s a good league, and good players, and good coaches and tough games on the road, so you always have to be prepared and always have to be on,” Elliott said. “Just learning when to try and get a little down time with the family, when to get away — you have to sort of build that stuff in but managing that balance I think is important.”
Roberto Hategan is the only Republic FC player to have been coached by Elliott in the academy and now with the top club. He said, like Elliott, that he’s learning and growing every day. Hategan added that Elliott has helped him become a better pro player in the macro sense of being in the right place at the right time during a game, but also in the micro with advice on punctuality, for instance. Hategan said he hasn’t seen a marked difference in Elliott’s demeanor. He’s still even-keeled and serious.
“Whether he’s an academy coach or a professional coach it’s all the same level to him," Hategan said.
That's all part of the job.
“It’s a serious business,” Elliott said. “We shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously, but if you want to commit to your craft for a long time you have to apply yourself in a serious manner. That doesn’t mean that you should never smile, so maybe I should try that more. There are times to laugh, and times to goof off should be part of any team.”
Iwasa and Hategan said Elliott would be a good target for a smile-inducing prank. But, with playing time on the line, any prank had better be well-planned and executed even better.
“Not yet,” Iwasa replied when asked if a prank is in the works. “He’s the boss, so you don’t want to cross any lines, that’s for sure.”
Wins are always the best way to make a coach smile.