UPDATED: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 8
After six years with the Elon University men’s soccer program — and three years as the head coach — Chris Little is moving on, taking the Seattle Sounders FC Academy’s Director of Coaching job.
In an exclusive with ENN, Little acknowledged that the opportunity was too good to pass up.
“I told the players, it was with a heavy heart that I decided to take this opportunity,” Little said. “There was a lot of things that contributed to the decision, but the core of the decision is a family one. After deliberating with my wife, weighing everything — we thought it would be a really good opportunity for our family.”
Little described the interest from the defending Major League Soccer champions as “humbling,” but was quick to discuss how difficult it was to leave Elon and head to the Pacific Northwest.
“There’s sadness to leave Elon,” Little said. “It’s probably been the six best years of my life. It’s been an incredible experience and I’m very fortunate to have achieved some success during that time. To enjoy that and work with the players has been incredible. To end that chapter is very difficult, but it’s an exciting opportunity for my family.”In his three seasons as head coach, Little led the Phoenix to a 30-18-9 record, earning one NCAA Tournament appearance and obtaining the school's first win in an NCAA Tournament match in 2015. Elon won a share of the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) regular season championship in 2015, a season in which the Phoenix reached its highest-ever national ranking, at eighth.
Little stated extreme pride in the team’s ability to transition to the CAA and never be outside the Top-4, battling in the fight for the conference championship each year. While Elon never winning the CAA outright still irks Little, he feels he leaves the program in great shape for the future.
“We have a mantra with the players, and we talk about having an opportunity to leave the jersey in a better place every year,” Little said. “I look back and ask, ‘Was I able to fulfill that in my role as a coach?’ We’ve won five championships in the last seven years, and four NCAA tournament [appearances]. I look at the team now and it’s an incredibly talented team that’s very young and is set up and destined for success in the next couple of years. I feel as though I can hold my head up and say, ‘I’ve given it my best shot and I’m leaving it in a better place.’”
He becomes the second consecutive men's soccer head coach to leave the program for an MLS academy director job after Darren Powell left after 2013 to lead Orlando City SC's Academy. Powell now is the head coach of the United Soccer League's San Antonio FC. Little, who called Powell his best friend and talks with him daily, feels that the two of them leaving for prestigious jobs is a sign of how strong Elon’s program is.
“The foundation of that is the players,” Little said. “Obviously, you’re successful based on the players you have. Darren would say the same, that we’re very fortunate and humble to get an opportunity, but the base for that comes from the extremely talented players that we’ve had the opportunity to work with here and enjoy and share success with them.”
And while Little is using the rest of this week to say goodbye to the Elon community, the Phoenix has already started its coaching search process. As the departing coach, Little sees the job as “absolutely” appealing to top soccer coaches.
“I couldn’t tell you how many messages, texts and phone calls I’ve gotten from well-wishers and from people interested in the job,” Little said. “That shows the weight and magnitude that Elon has. It’s a fantastic school, and it has an incredible reputation. In terms of our soccer program, we’ve been in around the Top 25 for the last five or six years. It’s in an incredibly good position and I think it’s going to get some really good candidates.”
Assistant leaves: One additional factor that could help Elon with its search for a new boss is that assistant coach Tennant McVea left the program to return to Old Dominion University, where he was an assistant from 2013-2015. McVea spent one season with the Phoenix.
In the coaching world, the opening allows for a new head coach to be able to immediately fill an opening with a trusted assistant without having to fire a current coach. With only three assistant coaching spots on the team, having one open is likely to benefit Elon as it looks for a new coach.