John Ross knew it was time to make the transition.
In 2000, the current NIU women’s coach was hanging onto the last thread of his career as a goalkeeper, trying out for the Chicago Sockers of the Premier Development League. Early in the season, coach Brett Hall approached him and told him it was time for him to move onto the next stage of his career.
“Brett nicely asked me if I wanted to be a goalkeeper coach instead of a goalkeeper,” Ross said. “I knew it was over. I was trying to get a couple more games, a couple more practices.”
Becoming a full-time coach had always been a goal of Ross’s, and he had already coached at Triton Junior College and Valparaiso. So Ross took the opportunity to coach with Hall, a former professional player, and Jim Launder, who has since had stints coaching at University of Wisconsin and the Columbus Crew.
Soon, coaching the Sockers became an even more unique opportunity.
A year after he took the post, the Sockers became the Chicago Fire Reserves, a lower-division team affiliated with the Major League soccer squad. That season, current Chicago Fire assistant coach Mike Matkovich, who Ross calls “one of the best coaches in the country,” took over as head coach.
In Chicago Ross coached several future MLS goalkeepers, including Colorado goalkeeper Matt Pickens, who spent four years with the Fire, and he gleaned all he could from his mentors.
“It was just a wealth of knowledge and I was just there soaking it all up,” Ross said. “It was just an unbelievable experience for me.”
In 2003, Ross headed to North Dakota State University, where he was a goalkeeper coach and eventually became associate head coach. He was hired at Northern Illinois last January.
Over the years, he’s stayed in touch with his mentors, and he was able to shadow Matkovich when he was an assistant coach at Chivas USA in 2008, and again when Matkovich became the head coach of the United States U-18 national team the next year.
“He’s got a big upside,” Matkovich said. “John has put his time in as far as getting around better coaches, getting around good environments. He’s been able to do that and learn and pick up things ... A lot of coaching is getting into that environment, and you pick up stuff. I think he’ll do a good job at Northern. He’s a hard worker, he’ll get out and recruit.”
Ross has already begun transforming the NIU program. After winning just two games last season, the Huskies are off to a 4-4 start in 2012.
He knows that any success he has can be traced back to those early years.
“You can look at it from all of those three coaches,” Ross said.
“Brett’s really motivating, [Matkovich] has got a good eye so I can dissect those situations and make adjustments on the fly that can help us. Jim Launder is a coaching education guru, and shows me how to plan practices and how it should look as it’s going through. That’s what you’re going to see out here. It’s going to be a combination of those three guys.”