At 0-4-4 the Union began the season on a rough note, failing to get a win in the first 8 games. The team was leaking goals and struggling to find the net. After several changes, by the 9th game coach Jim Curtin seemed to find the line-up that held the strongest. In that line-up was surprise rookie center-back Jack Elliott.
The West Virginia defender came in during the 4th round of the MLS draft, and even he thought he might not find a team. “I was watching on a live draft tracker and as the draft picks kept coming through, the picks weren’t in order, and I thought those teams just passed on the pick. It went through to the last pick and I wasn’t drafted. It was a disappointment. But about 10 minutes later my dad texted me saying ‘I see your going to Philadelphia.’ I didn’t believe him, then looked again and sure enough it was there. It was a surreal experience.”
The defender, originally from England, moved to the States to play soccer for West Virginia, “I didn’t know much about West Virginia but playing every day played a big part in my decision to come to the States.”
Playing the game is all Jack was ever after since his arrival to this country. “My goal was to push for minutes, that’s what I wanted when I came here and that’s how it’s panned out. It didn’t matter if it was here or at Bethlehem Steel, I just wanted to play. And play he did. Elliott signed officially with the club on February 24th and in the following weeks got significant time in the Union’s preseason schedule. In the early parts of the regular season, Elliott was on loan to Bethlehem Steel, getting those all important minutes. He was then named to the 18 man Union squad on 2 occasions before making his first substitute appearance against D.C United on April 1st after Richie Marquez picked up an injury. He got his first start soon after in the game against NYCFC on April 14th. The Union didn’t win that game, but Elliott got significant experience against a world great. “David Villa for sure is the toughest opponent I’ve faced. His movement is incredible, whether he is running off your shoulder or coming from the side, he’s difficult to defend. I didn’t expect to be playing against a player of that caliber 4 years ago, against a World Cup winner; but it was a great experience and I’ll never forget it.”
Elliott continued to start week in and week out after that, as the Union embarked on a 7 game unbeaten streak. “Defending as a team is the biggest thing we’ve improved. We haven’t conceded many goals in the last 10 games, and it starts with pressure from the front, then the 3 midfielders, and finally staying compact in the back.” In those 10 games the team is 6-1-3 conceding just 7 goals.
The duo of Elliott and Oguchi Onyewu has been pivotal to the team’s defensive successes, despite Elliott’s claim that the forwards deserve the most credit. “[Onyewu] has the composure and calmness to not let things effect him when things go wrong. When he gets throttled, he doesn’t let it get to him.” The veteran is surely a rock in the back, one that others can lean on and look to in tough times. But Elliott has begun adopting that role as well. The rookie doesn’t look inexperienced despite playing alongside a longtime USMNT star. His composure and calmness have set him apart not only from most other rookies, but also from most other defenders in the league.
His composure on the ball comes from Elliott’s days as a midfielder. “It was my main position growing up, and it helps with my ability to play balls forward out of the back.” Elliott’s ability to play forward passes from deep positions is something that some viewers might overlook. He can create attacking plays out of nothing, as seen from his assist for Roland Alberg in the 85th minute of the USOC game against the Red Bulls. It was just one of many instances of Elliott having the skill and calmness to find forwards from deep positions. Having a defender like this takes a lot of weight of Haris Medunjanin’s shoulders, and gives opponents two players that they must pressure, lest they want the ball penetrating their midfield. But Elliott, despite coming from a midfield background, appears more comfortable in the defense. “Playing from the back gives a little bit more time than you get in the midfield. It’s good for me cause I can still see the things I could in the midfield, but I have that extra bit of time to find a pass in the back. It’s is something I always try to do. I’m not the kind of player who will look to play a pass back to my keeper, I’m looking forward as much as I can.”
The positive play is one of several aspects of his game that has vaulted Elliott into a starting defense that has 5 potential starters. Despite his success on the field, he still trains like he is fighting for his spot with those other 4. “I just keep doing the things I can; defending hard and competing every day. I try to do the simple things a center-back should do.” While he works vigorously and physically on the field, it is perhaps his mental game that Elliott has improved the most. “My positioning has gotten better since the beginning of the season. Figuring out people’s movement is much harder here than college. You need to pay close attention to it during a game.” But Elliott doesn’t seem to miss a beat in this regard. Both on and off the ball he is thinking one step ahead of his opponents. “Usually I start looking for things before the ball gets to me so when it is on my foot I know if I have someone to pass to or a way to get out of trouble. Once it is at my feet I play the pass I saw earlier, or if it is not there, I move the ball so it is never stopped on my foot.”
While his offensive game is remarkable, it is Elliott’s ability to win the ball in unexpected positions stands out. Many times a forward will receive the ball, shielding Elliott from stepping in to win possession. But with his long legs, Elliott has mastered the art of stepping in and winning the ball; and not only how to do it, but when as well. “I look first to see if there is cover behind me. I take into account who is behind me, if I have cover from the right and center-backs. It affects when I try to step in and win a ball in the midfield.”
With his impact on both sides of the ball this season, it is hard to argue against Elliott as a Rookie-of-the-Year candidate. The English-born defender looks at home in Philadelphia, and seems to enjoy every bit of his time here. Well, everything but one. “I didn’t miss the UK weather, but with this heat in the summer, I think I miss the weather the most.” Maybe if the Union can get some overcast days in the future, we will see Elliott take his defending to a whole new level.