Union

From England to West Virginia to possible Union starter, rookie Jack Elliott forged unique path

Jack Elliott didn't expect to come to the United States to play college soccer. He didn't expect to get drafted into MLS. Few people likely would have predicted that he'd make the Union coming out of the preseason and even fewer probably believed he'd find his way onto the field just four games into the rookie season.

But there he was last week, having climbed up the depth chart due to surprisingly steady play and a couple of injuries, entering the Union's game vs. D.C. United at RFK Stadium in a daunting spot at halftime. 

And now, with Richie Marquez undergoing concussion protocol and questionable for Saturday's game against the Portland Timbers at Talen Energy Stadium (7 p.m., TCN), the England-born Elliott may very well get the start in Philly's second home contest of the 2017 season.

"At first, there were a bit of nerves," Elliott admitted of his earlier-than-expected MLS debut. "But I didn't really have too much time to think about it and be nervous about it."

Indeed, Union head coach Jim Curtin didn't even get a chance to talk to Elliott at halftime when Marquez exited the match with concussion-like symptoms. Instead, it was performance director Garrison Draper who told Elliott to get on the field and warm up with Curtin relaying a message to the rookie through Oguchi Onyewu.

According to Elliott, Onyewu then told him, "I trust you. Just play your football." And the new center back pairing teamed up nicely to help keep D.C. United in check as the Union sliced their two-goal halftime deficit in half before eventually dropping a 2-1 decision.

Although the loss adds significantly more pressure to the Union's upcoming three-game homestand, with the club winless in its first four games, the play of Elliott was certainly a bright spot as Curtin praised the rookie's passing and positioning.

"I'm confident in Jack that he can play in MLS,” Curtin said. "I believe he has the size, the feet, the passing ability to play in the league. And he showed that, to his credit, against D.C. United."

More than 3,500 miles away, Elliott's parents enjoyed the game from their home in Norbury, a town just outside London. They stayed up until 2 a.m. to watch, unaware that their son would get in. When he did, they proudly texted him, which he saw as soon as he returned to the RFK visiting locker room.

In many ways, it was the culmination of an interesting journey that was set in motion a few years ago when a West Virginia University assistant coach who hailed from his area in England scouted him and offered him a scholarship.

Elliott -- who played so much soccer as a kid in soccer-mad England that the grass in his backyard eventually disappeared -- was planning to go to a university in his home country, but he immediately jumped at the new opportunity to cross the Atlantic.

"It wasn't a huge deliberation for me," Elliott said. "As soon as he told me, I told my mom I really wanted to do it."

Elliott admits that going from London to Morgantown, West Virginia, was a little bit of a culture shock at first, as was the speed and physicality of soccer in the U.S. But his teammates welcomed him in with open arms and he grew into a dominant and reliable player for the Mountaineers, missing only one match in four years and anchoring a backline that recorded eight shutouts during his senior season.

Because of his success in the college ranks, Elliott was invited to the MLS Combine in January, where he thought he played well enough to get drafted -- though he admitted it was never "an expectation." The Union picked him in the fourth and final round with the 77th pick, ahead of only seven other players, with Curtin calling him to congratulate him and telling him he expected "big things."

But the truth is, many players who get selected in the third and fourth rounds of the draft don't get offered an MLS contract with some instead signing with a lower-division affiliate or pursuing professional opportunities elsewhere. In the past, the Union even have had cut late-round draft picks in the first week or two of the preseason.

Having already made it that far, however, Elliott wasn't worried.

"I didn't really think too much about the statistics of all that," he said. "I just played the way I played football -- connecting passes, showing my passing range. I got the height and I've been trying to improve and show what I've got."

Elliott's 6-foot-5 frame is certainly one big reason why he looks like an MLS player, which he showed with a pair of impressive preseason performances before getting rewarded with a rookie contract in late February. With Onyewu providing sound advice, he then quickly passed Ken Tribbett -- last season's surprise rookie starter -- as the top center back reserve behind Onyewu and Marquez, at least until Joshua Yaro returns from a shoulder injury.

"It starts with the preseason," Curtin said. "He came in really fit, really confident and showed his ability to pass out of the back. He got to play in preseason games and we started to see that against some good forwards that he belonged. And his evolution in training each and every day when he goes against our forwards, he does a good job as well. He's progressed very quickly.

"You always have to be ready for your opportunity," the Union coach added of his debut. "That's how it starts. That's how it started for Richie Marquez. That's how it started for Josh Yaro. And now Jack Elliott would be another guy who had that debut moment and rose to the occasion. We really believe in our young guys. It won't be the last time a young guy steps up in a big spot. I'm happy for Jack to get his debut and now we want more."

Whether or not "more" comes Saturday is up in the air. Curtin said he believe Marquez should pass the league's concussion protocol but even then, he'll have a "tough decision" since Marquez has missed some practice time.

Whoever plays will certainly have his work cut out for him against a dynamic Portland attack that features two of the league's premier players in midfielder Diego Valeri and striker Fanendo Adi, who have combined for nine goals this year already. 

But if the call comes, Elliott will be ready for it.

"Coming out of that tunnel," he said, "would be an amazing feeling."