Head Coach John Smith on Cornell Soccer
Last March, the Cornell Men’s Soccer team saw a change in leadership, as they welcomed new head coach, John Smith. He comes to Cornell off the back of an NCAA title win, as Stanford’s associate head coach, and previously had successful stints with Division II powerhouse Incarnate Word and CSU Bakersfield. Smith cited the unique mix of academics and athletics at Cornell as the primary reason for joining the Big Red. When he got the opportunity to lead a team of “extremely good student athletes on a campus where amazing things are happening,” he couldn’t pass it up.
Originally from England, Smith also had a productive spell as a professional player, featuring for both Wigan and Oldham — teams that have enjoyed runs in the country’s top division and cup competitions in recent years. He explained that the life of a footballer in England is very different because they often turn professional at the cost of completing their education. Meanwhile, the environment in the U.S. is unique, as collegiate players get to strike a balance between education and their professional sports careers. The collegiate system also poses a unique problem for coaches since, every year, about a quarter of the squad graduates, leaving gaping holes in the team.
Smith states that instead of trying to guarantee success, he believes in “establishing the right culture” within the team, as traditions are less prone to being lost with a subset of the players graduating. Establishing this very culture has been the aim since his arrival because, if the right environment is implemented properly, the “soccer stuff will ultimately take care of itself.”
One of Smith’s known strengths from his time at Stanford is his eye for talent. He brought the sixth-best recruiting class of the nation to the Cardinal in 2014 and the eleventh-best in 2013 and 2015.
“Recruiting is everything,” Smith elaborated. “I look for a player’s mentality, work ethic, and if he’s made of the right stuff. I prioritize personality above everything else, and below that, if he can play.”
During his time with Stanford, Smith also oversaw the development of Jordan Morris — a striker around whom there’s been a lot of hype, especially about his future role in the U.S. Men’s National Team. Morris, still only 21 years old, turned professional earlier this year and signed for the Seattle Sounders of the MLS, where he’s notched 10 goals so far in his rookie season.
“Jordan is a phenomenal young player,” Smith praised. “He’s extremely athletic and just breathtaking to watch. He started believing what people were saying about him, and, until you truly believe it, you’re not going to play that way. He’s very humble and grounded and has an amazing future ahead of him. He’s a wonderful young man to be around, and I was fortunate to spend three and a half years with him at Stanford.”
Although he was surprisingly left off the USMNT roster for Copa America, Morris has already picked up nine goals for his national team, and is widely expected to lead the line for the team in the near future. Morris is just one product of the greatly improved development of soccer players in the U.S. In fact, Smith has seen a drastic change in the sport since the first time he landed in America 22 years ago.
“Soccer has started to become important,” Smith described. “The youth level is well-established, and the MLS is growing. The changes over the last six to eight years are phenomenal — it’s a different world.”
Smith, a native of Manchester, also explained his own soccer allegiance in England. “My dad supports Everton, as does my grandad, so I grew up as an Everton fan,” Smith said. “I’m hoping Leicester wins the Premier League title. To think that they just avoided relegation, it’s an incredible accomplishment. They barely have any money — look at how much that whole squad costs.”
Indeed, Leicester City went on to write their name in the history books in May, from near relegation one year to being the champions of England the next. Hopefully Coach Smith can help the Big Red reach Leicester-like heights, as the future of Cornell Soccer looks promising.