The path between European football and Major League Soccer has become a well-trodden one in recent years, with Steven Gerrard, David Beckham, David Villa, Thierry Henry, Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard and Kaka among those who have crossed the Atlantic in the latter stages of their career.
It isn’t just high-profile stars in their 30s who have made the move stateside, though. Philadelphia Union centre-back Jack Elliott was born in London but has only ever played professional football in the US, having been scouted while representing an amateur team in his hometown. It’s safe to say the switch from Sunday League to MLS, via the West Virginia University team, has been a surreal one for the 22-year-old.
“It was a crazy experience playing against them,” Elliott tells The Set Pieces, referring to opponents such as David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, all of whom the centre-back locked horns with in his debut campaign of 2017.
“Luckily I started off easy playing my first start at home against David Villa! But it was amazing. He’s one of the toughest strikers I’ve played against. His movement and speed are still world class, making him a difficult opponent to play against.”
Trying to keep a World Cup winner quiet is a very different challenge to marking a hungover centre-forward on a mud-caked pitch in south London, but Elliott owes plenty to his experiences in the English capital’s amateur divisions.
“I played for Fulham academy for a year when I was 12, but I got released and then mainly just played Sunday league and school football. As I got older I moved into men’s football, where I was spotted by a coach [Dan Stratford] from West Virginia University – he was playing against me in a Surrey Premier Cup game, Old Wilsonians vs Walton Casuals. He asked me if I wanted to go and play over there, and I had no second thoughts about it.”
It was an incredibly exciting proposition for a football-mad teenager who had long dreamt of a professional career, but the prospect of suddenly moving more than 3500 miles from home must have been daunting too. Thankfully for Elliott, he arrived in West Virginia to find a terrific setup both on and off the pitch.
“You train as a professional almost every day, working around a regular university life, and it’s surprisingly professional: the facilities are top-class, the pitches are good and you’re well looked after with gear and equipment,” the defender says of his experience in the US college system, which allows promising young athletes to combine sport and education. Does he think such an arrangement could work in Europe?
“I’m not sure it’s better in terms of producing top quality players, but it helps to catch the ones who may have slipped through the cracks of the top academies,” says Elliott, who received an academic scholarship to study Management Information Systems in the US.
“Going through the college system allows you to get a degree, which was one of the reasons I had no questions about it, but the quality of football, facilities and fans are something I might not have experienced had I stayed at home.”
The 6ft 5in stopper played 68 games for the West Virginia Mountaineers between 2013 and 2016, before being selected by Philadelphia Union in the fourth round of the 2017 SuperDraft, an annual event in which MLS clubs snap up players who have either graduated from college or been signed by the league.
“It was one of the best days of my life,” Elliott recalls. “Philadelphia was a place I’d been many times before and really enjoyed, plus it wasn’t too far from West Virginia.”
The young defender, described by Union sporting director Earnie Stewart as a “good passer who reads the game well”, was an unused substitute for early-season meetings with Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto and Orlando City, before making his MLS bow from the bench in a 2-1 loss to D.C. United. Elliott performed well despite the disappointing result, and he soon became a regular part of manager Jim Curtin’s starting XI.
“It all happened very quickly. The second game of the season I was in the 18 [matchday squad] for the first team, and then I played 45 minutes at D.C.,” he told the club’s YouTube channel.
“It allowed the coaches to see I could handle the pressure of the league. And then the next week I was starting. It all came very quickly and I’m very thankful for it.
“When I got subbed in, I had 15 minutes to think about it. It’s not a lot of time; I was just warming up. It was good that I didn’t have time to think about it. I just went out there and played the way I play.”
It can be particularly tough for young centre-backs to establish themselves in the first team, with many managers unwilling to risk inexperienced players in such a key position. Yet by the end of the 2017 season, Elliott had made 30 appearances in MLS and racked up more minutes than all but two of his Union team-mates.
The quality of his performances caught the eye even more than the quantity. The Londoner played with a maturity which belied his tender years, as the Union finished eighth in the Eastern Conference. Elliott’s displays were so consistently impressive that he was nominated for the MLS Rookie of the Year Award, which was ultimately won by Atlanta United midfielder Julian Gressel.
“I didn’t expect to play as much [as I did], no,” he admits. “But from my first few weeks there I could see it was a place where I could belong.
“It was a good feeling,” he adds when talk turns to his third-place finish in the newcomer vote. “I’d never have expected to be there at the start of the year, so it was nice to get that sort of recognition at the end of it.”
Compatriot Aaron Jones departed the Talen Energy Stadium in November, but Elliott isn’t the only Brit in the Union squad for the 2018 campaign, which has begun with a 2-0 victory over New England Revolution and a goalless draw with Columbus Crew. Former Arsenal and Hull forward Jay Simpson is also in his second year in MLS, having moved to Philadelphia from Leyton Orient a few weeks before Elliott signed on the dotted line.
“Football in the US is still growing so obviously it isn’t as big as it is in the UK,” Elliott says of the differences between the two countries. “As kids they don’t play it every day in school and they don’t see it as much on TV. I feel kids here don’t get to play enough unstructured football, which in some ways can help to develop a player in different ways than structured coaching does.”
It’s an interesting point and one which the powers that be at the US Soccer Federation would be wise to consider as the national team attempts to bounce back from its failure to qualify for this summer’s World Cup. Elliott cannot afford to dwell on such big-picture issues for too long, though, with his focus now firmly on his second season with the Union.
“Individually I’d like to build on what I did last year and improve as a player,” he says of his hopes for the campaign ahead. “And as a team our ambition is to get to the play-offs and make a run there.”
If Elliott can replicate last season’s performances this time around, Philadelphia Union will fancy their chances of achieving that goal.
Main image credit: Philadelphia Union