For Ellinger, a Rocky Road Home

John Ellinger
John Ellinger has been one of the most prominent figures in local soccer over the years but he now coaches Real Salt Lake. (Douglas C. Pizac - AP)
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 31, 2005

It would be easy to understand Coach John Ellinger's apprehension about going on the road these days with his MLS expansion team, Real Salt Lake. Ten straight losses and ghastly score lines have offset the club's reasonable performances in Utah and marred an otherwise well-received inaugural season.

But for once, as his club prepares to play D.C. United tonight at RFK Stadium, Ellinger is feeling a little more at home on the road, thanks to his deep roots in the Washington area.

"We know eventually we're going to win an away game, we just don't know when," he said. "Every time we step on the field away, we say, 'Today's the day.' It would be nice to have it happen here."

Ellinger, 53, grew up in Rockville, graduated from the old Peary High School and later lived in Silver Spring, Ellicott City and Laurel. He oversaw the youth soccer programs in Olney and Columbia, was an assistant at Sherwood High and Montgomery College-Rockville and was the boss at Maryland-Baltimore County for 10 years.

He worked with regional select teams, was a high school athletic director and, all along, taught health and physical education in the Montgomery County school system for 23 years. Ellinger also had a brief coaching experience with an RFK-based team -- the reincarnated Washington Diplomats of the American Professional Soccer League in 1990.

Perhaps his most significant contribution to D.C. soccer -- and, for that matter, American soccer -- was mentoring United's Freddy Adu in the youth residency program in Bradenton, Fla., and on the U.S. under-17 national team. Adu, now 16, spent two years with Ellinger before signing with MLS and joining United before the 2004 season.

"He knows me, so he'll probably know what I'm up to, but I've matured a lot since I went pro," Adu said in anticipation of his first official game against an Ellinger-coached team.

Reflecting on his time with Ellinger, he added: "He knows how to bring the best out of a player. He has you for a week and he knows exactly how to handle you. He just gave me guidelines. I went out there and he let me play and figure things out for myself."

Ellinger, eager to face his former pupil, said with a laugh, "I'm ready to get the bugger. I can't allow him to have bragging rights because he won't shut up about it. It will be good to see him. Obviously I follow all the guys I had [in the under-17 program], but Freddy was one of the special ones."

Fond memories aside, Adu hopes to add to Real's road woes. The club has not earned an away point since opening the season with a scoreless tie at New York/New Jersey and has been outscored 28-6. At home, Real is 5-4-3 and averaging 19,020 fans -- second best in the 12-team league.

Ellinger and General Manager Steve Pastorino built the roster with a blend of unproven young players and well-known veterans, such as Clint Mathis, Jason Kreis and Eddie Pope. Kreis is among the league leaders with nine goals, but the enigmatic Mathis has been a disappointment after returning from Germany and Pope has missed nine games. Rookie Jay Nolly recently supplanted D.J. Countess as the starting goalkeeper.

The only team with a worse record than Real (5-14-4) is fellow expansion club Chivas USA (3-17-5), which has shown signs of life after adding new Mexican talent two weeks ago. Real trails Colorado by nine points for the final playoff berth in the Western Conference, but for practical purposes, the margin is much wider.

"The challenge has been great," said Ellinger, a Frostburg State graduate. "You would think that working with youth for as long as I did that I would have a lot of patience. But I found that when I moved to MLS, I wasn't very patient in some areas regarding intensity and effort. That's one of the things that really opened my eyes -- trying to get the players to perform well on a consistent basis.

"We feel -- and probably Chivas feels the same way too -- you definitely get punished for your mistakes. Good teams make the ball bounce their way and sometimes we get frustrated with it not happening for us. We've had a couple games where we've said, 'Nothing bad is going to happen, we're going to make our own breaks,' but to actually say that and then play that way, it doesn't always work out."

United Notes: Leandro Becerra, a 21-year-old left-side midfielder from Argentina, has begun a tryout. He was in Boca Juniors' youth program before playing two years in Mexico's second division. . . . Tonight's game was originally scheduled for July 28 but moved when United finalized a deal to play English champion Chelsea on that day. Tickets stamped with the original date will be honored.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company