Jack Elliott blazes an unlikely trail to the Philadelphia Union
Jack Elliott takes on fellow Englishman Wayne Rooney on the fields of MLS. (Photo by Patrick McDermott, Getty Images.)
Once upon a time in America, millions of boys dreamed of growing up to be the centerfielder for their favorite Major League Baseball team. These days, there are a growing number of boys (and girls) dreaming about playing center back for a Major League Soccer team. And as parents wonder what the best route is to help make their child’s dream come true—getting into an academy, skipping college to turn pro as a teenager— the real-life story of how a young man from London became a professional soccer player in the United States may be more relevant than ever before.
As a boy, Jack Elliott never imagined himself putting on a Philadelphia Union uniform as an adult. Playing soccer with his brother in the family garden outside of his house in London, Elliott’s aspirations were more local. When he was 12, he was invited to try out for Fulham’s academy, where he spent a year-and-a-half training for his goal. But after that time, Fulham released him, interrupting his dream before it had a chance to blossom. “It wasn’t such a huge blow,” Elliott remembers. “But it did affect me emotionally to be let go at that young an age. But I never quit. I could still play on the playground with my friends. I could still play at school.”
Outside of the rigorous structure of academy life, Elliott began to see the game in a different way. “Structured coaching definitely has its benefits,” Elliott says. “But kicking the ball around at the playground with my friends helped me develop a different view of the game. You begin to learn how people move, even if they aren’t the best players. You learn the way a game moves and how to defend against certain opposition. When you play by yourself, you see a free-flowing game. You learn to solve problems by yourself, because no one is telling you how to solve it.”
Elliott’s love of the game was never extinguished. He never missed an opportunity to play—club teams, school team, local amateur teams. If there was a ball and a chance to compete, he was ready. In the year prior to attending university, Elliott was playing for the Old Wilsonians, an amateur team competing in the Surrey Premier Cup. Across the field, London-born Dan Stratford, who was then an assistant coach for West Virginia’s Division I soccer program was competing with a rival team. After a few games, Stratford went back to West Virginia, then reached out to Elliott to gauge his interest in coming to America to play collegiate soccer on a scholarship. “When they asked me, I didn’t think twice about it,” Elliott says. “I had a chance of getting a heavily paid-for college experience while continuing my football career.”
Soon thereafter, Elliott crossed the Atlantic Ocean and began his college career at West Virginia. He was getting an education both at school and on the American style of play at the collegiate level. “The game wasn’t as technical here in the United States,” Elliott says. “There was much more of an emphasis on fitness and strength. I had to adapt in the first few weeks. The first year, I put on 10 pounds, though you would hardly notice because of how skinny I am (laughs). I never prided myself on being stronger than anyone else. But in England, at an early age, I had always played against kids who were older. I had learned when to get into physical confrontations with bigger players and when not to. I adjusted fairly quickly.”
Thanks to a standout four-year collegiate career with the Mountaineers, Elliott earned a spot at the MLS Combine. “I knew I would be able to perform well there and catch the eye of someone,” he says. When Elliott headed back to campus, the draft would be held, and he would learn his fate.
“I watched the draft on my computer at school,” he says. “The first two rounds went by and I didn’t get selected. As I was watching the live tracker, it was a bit strange. It went for from the 50th pick to the 58th pick. I just assumed teams were passing and not using their picks, When I saw the last name go on the board, and I didn’t see my name, I just shut the computer. I was devastated. About five minutes later, my dad called me and said, ‘I see your going to Philly.’ I said, ‘What?’ When I went back online, I finally saw my name. I was actually taken in the fourth round by Philadelphia. I went from the most devastated person to the happiest person in about 10 minutes.”
Though Elliott had been drafted, there was still no guarantee that a fourth-round pick would be offered a contract, let alone make it to the first team. “I had a few weeks to prove myself: what kind of player I was, and what kind of person I was,” he says. “I played well enough for the team to take me along for preseason. It wasn’t about being a number in the draft, it was about what I did when I got there.”
Elliott’s preseason performance earned him a spot with the Philadelphia Union’s first team. Then, on April 1, 2017, the Union visited R.F.K. Stadium to battle D.C. United. During the first half, Union center back Richie Marquez sustained a head injury and was unable to continue. “At halftime, they told me to warm up,” Elliott remembers. “Ten minutes later I was on the field. I think it was for the best, because I didn’t have any time to think about any of the negative things you can think about in that situation. It was all about warming up and being ready.”
Since then, Elliott has been a mainstay at center back in the starting 11 for Philadelphia. His performance throughout the 2017 season made him a finalist for MLS Rookie of the Year. Union fans took quickly to his reliable presence on the Union’s back line. In 2018, he became the first Philadelphia defender to score two goals in a game. This year, he has even higher ambitions. “The goal, of course, is always to win the MLS Cup,” he says. “We’ve improved steadily each year, and I think we’ll be even better this season.”
Thanks to Elliott, there are quite a few more Union fans in London these days. Family and friends will stay up late in England to watch his games, though the mid-week evening games and west coast trips can be harder for them to see because of the time difference. But they are all rooting for the kid that loved to play soccer, the kid who got rejected by the local academy, the kid who ended up playing collegiate soccer abroad while American kids are trying to turn pro as teenagers. Because each week, Elliott puts on his pro team’s uniform and gets paid to do what he loves, and he did it his own way. “I’ve enjoyed playing more than anything else,” Elliott says. “It brought me to where I am now. I never gave up and never stopped believing it was over.” For Jack Elliott, it’s only the beginning.