Jack Stern knew it was time to move on as his fourth season with FC Cincinnati was winding to close. The 34-year-old goalkeeper coach was the last holdover remaining after Jaap Stam and two assistants were fired in September, and the club was veering in a new direction under general manager Chris Albright.
Another dream opportunity had presented itself, and it worked out for all parties to end ties amicably. FC Cincinnati announced Stern’s departure Dec. 22, and he is set to begin as Brighton & Hove Albion’s assistant goalkeeping coach Tuesday.
Brighton has been without an assistant goalkeeping coach since October, when Casper Ankergren left to become head of goalkeeping at Danish Superliga side Brondby.
“Toward the end of the season, it kind of felt like it was the best for everybody to move on in different directions in Cincinnati and I knew I had this opportunity,” Stern said in an exclusive interview with Queen City Press on Thursday after Brighton announced his hire. “I wasn’t really looking to move out of MLS or actively looking to leave Cincinnati, but when an opportunity came up like this, it was too good to pass up and one that we knew we had to take, so yeah, I’m just excited to do it now, and it’s a good thing.”
Born in London, Stern grow up a Brighton fan in Sussex having moved to Heathfield at age 8. He was an academy player at Wimbledon and played for Burgess Hill Town and Lewes, before making the decision to focus on a coaching career at the age of 21.
Stern began coaching in West Bromwich Albion’s academy in 2010 and spent five seasons there before moving into a similar role in Major League Soccer with Montreal in 2014, moving up to the first-team staff in 2017. The next year, he joined Alan Koch’s staff with FC Cincinnati ahead of the jump from the United Soccer League to MLS.
The Orange and Blue won a USL regular-season title during a remarkable run in 2018, but have struggled in MLS, finishing last three straight years. Stern knew the team’s plight would come up in any job interview. Fortunately, Brighton saw beyond the record and statistics.
“It’s something that came up in the interview,” Stern said. “I was asked what’s the difference between Jack Stern, the coach who was part of the USL team that won the regular season championship and had a record-breaking season, and the coach that is part of the team that finished bottom of the league three years in a row. Brighton are a club that do a huge amount of due diligence. They do a lot of scouting, whether that’s on their coaches or their players. So yeah, it’s something I had to answer in difficult and long interviews.”
“You don’t go from the bottom team in MLS to the team sitting ninth in the Premier League easily. But I was confident that I was able to sell myself and able to showcase what I’ve been able to do in the past, but also what I’m able to do in the future with Brighton.”
Stern already had previous connections with Brighton technical director Dan Ashworth, with whom he worked at West Brom, and head of goalkeeping Ben Roberts, with whom he did some of his UEFA qualifications about 11 years ago. He often visited the club during holidays and breaks to watch and learn about how the Seagulls operated.
But, even with those relationships, he still had to convince them he was the best person for the job out more than 100 candidates – many who were not coming from last-place teams.
Stern said he told his new bosses that he’s the same coach now as he was in 2018. He prides himself on consistency, staying positive and loving the game, no matter how things are going, and always striving to be better. In securing the job, Stern feels a sense of accomplishment.
“I always want to be humble and respectful of situations, but definitely, for me, it’s a nice sort of vindication of, yeah, the results haven’t been great here and the goalkeepers’ performances at times haven’t been great as well, but there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes,” Stern said. “And it’s a team sport and everyone is in it together and everyone’s accountable together, so, definitely, you know, this for me is a nice sort of sign, a nice sort of proof that the work that I’m doing and the way that I’m working and the way that I work with the goalkeepers is high-level and the right way to work. And so yeah, this is nice vindication of that. It’s nice to have those sort of talents rewarded and recognized by a Premier League club. And now I’m just excited to go and continue to develop.
“It’s brilliant to have this opportunity, and it’s very flattering. But now I just want to get to work. I’m all about being on the field and working with the goalkeepers and that day-to-day stuff is the reason that I do the job above anything else. So, I’m excited for that. It’s an exciting step up for me.”
Anyone that watches Stern work can see how much he enjoys what he does. A hard-working individual, he was known for his smile as much as his knowledge for the position, and the goalkeepers he has worked with over the years have all noted the strong relationship he took time to cultivate with them.
Stern said he looks back fondly on his time with FCC, despite the difficulties. He worked with five different head coaches, including two interim coaches on three different occasions, during his four seasons in Cincinnati and went through two general manager changes. But, that only made him stronger, he said.
“I learned a huge amount,” Stern said. “I learned how to be adaptable and to work with lots of different staff members because in the four years that I’ve been here, I’ve seen a lot of faces come in and a lot of faces come out. So definitely adaptability, learning to be adaptable to working with different people, to working with different philosophies and ideas — and that’s changed a couple of times since I’ve been at the club — and dealing with adversity of course. I mean, that’s not just the results. Obviously, we had some difficult situations with head coaches leaving and sometimes not under the best circumstances, so it’s been a lot for me not just as a coach, but just as a person and a human being and how you deal with those situations, how you treat people when things are really difficult.
“But ultimately, I look at the past four years, and there’s not a lot that I feel I could have done massively differently. There’s no regrets that I have. I’ve really, really loved every minute of the four years and made a lot of good friends professionally and personally at the club, and I’m leaving with my head held high and also leaving with my best wishes towards the club. I really hope that things are going to pick up in the next few years.”
Stern believes the club is headed in the right direction from what he can tell with the goalkeeping unit. After parting ways with three-year player Przemyslaw Tyton and oft-loaned Ben Lundt, FCC signed Alec Kann, who had been backing up Brad Guzan in Atlanta, last month in free agency. He joins homegrown signee Beckham Sunderland as promising up-and-comers.
Kenneth Vermeer, who arrived last May at the decision of Stam and former general manager Gerard Nijkamp, is under contract another year, but Stern said he isn’t aware of plans for him.
“This is nothing against any of the international goalkeepers that we’ve had, but probably being a little bit more domestic based in terms of that position, there’s enough good goalkeepers in the United States to have a real solid performer in that position,” Stern said. “I like the signing of Alec Kann. He is a very, very solid MLS goalkeeper, a really nice guy, a good influence in the locker room. And so, I think that’s a good addition. I’m massively keen on Beckham. Obviously, I’ve worked with him really closely the last few years, we have a really good relationship. I think he’s got a massive future in MLS for sure. And maybe who knows if he stays on the right path, I think he has a really high ceiling. So they’ve got a really talented young goalkeeper there as well.
“It’ll be interesting to see if they bring someone else in to compete with Alec and Becks and I know that Kenneth is still there as well. So I don’t know what the situation is there but they’ve got some of the right pieces there. I think they’re moving in the right direction. If I was still there, I think we’d been moving in that direction as well. You want to have maybe a slightly younger group and a slightly more domestic based group going forward.”
Stern said he didn’t have a role in Kann’s signing, but his name had come up before as a goalkeeper to watch and he’s got definite starting potential if that is the plan.
It’s unclear on the outside if Vermeer is expected to compete with Kann or if another goalkeeper will be brought in to push him, but after being the preferred starter under Stam, he quickly was pushed to the bench in the switch to interim coach Tyrone Marshall, who took over a week before Albright was announced as GM.
Stern acknowledged his goalkeeper unit’s struggles the past three years and said everyone is accountable, but speaking specifically about Vermeer, he noted the veteran Dutchman still brings some good things to the table.
“He was a really positive influence,” Stern said. “He’s a great pro. He’s got incredible experience playing for some of the biggest teams in Holland, so he was valuable in terms of that presence and that day to day influence on Beckham and the other goalkeepers. And, one thing I really liked about Kenny is he really loves goalkeeping. I think he’d be a really good coach one day actually because he’s passionate about goalkeeping and cares about the position and can have really good conversations about the position and about situations.”
Vermeer and Tyton both had their highlights and lowlights. The lows were more prevalent during a four-win season. Vermeer showed to be athletic and good with his feet but struggled to hold onto the ball. Tyton had great reach but lacked positioning and response time in certain moments and his reliance on playing the ball long often led to lost aerial duels in the midfield.
FCC conceded 74 goals, one fewer than its 2019 record-most in league history.
When asked if goalkeeping mistakes were more physical or mental, Stern said it was a little bit of both.
“Some goals we conceded where the goalkeepers could have questionably done better, as one where you look at it and think, ‘Well, it’s not really his fault, it’s not a big mistake, but maybe he could have done better,’” Stern said. “There were some goals that went in, and I think it’s fair to say, ‘Listen, that’s the goalkeeper’s fault there. He’s cost us a goal.’ And there were some goals where just it’s either a fantastic goal or there’s been maybe a breakdown further up the field that’s led to the goal so there’s lots of different types of goals we conceded.
“Regardless of how the goal goes in, every goalkeeper is going to struggle mentally when they concede so many goals. We were giving up a lot of goals, we were also losing games regularly, a lot of early goals. So I do think that mentally it was very tough and that’s not just for the goalkeepers, it’s for the whole team really. It takes a toll.”
Things were looking more positive going into 2021 after the club signed some quality players last offseason, so to experience a third losing season was especially difficult for Tyton, Stern noted.
Stern tried to keep things positive and continue setting little goals for his players to hit, hoping small, attainable targets would help provide some motivation to finish strong. The changes with the staff and philosophies added another challenge, and the Orange and Blue ultimately ended on a 12-game losing streak.
FCC also had Cody Cropper in 2021, but he gave up five goals in an emergency start at New York City FC when Tyton scratched with an injured in warmups. After the 5-0 loss, he never made another appearance. Vermeer was signed shortly after that, and Cropper eventually was sent on loan to Memphis and later waived.
The club continued to lean on Vermeer and Tyton despite the goals coming in bunches. Sunderland has yet to make his MLS debut but might have gotten an opportunity late in the season had it not been for a concussion. Lundt, despite being the USL Goalkeeper of the Year with Louisville while on loan in 2020, never got an opportunity to get in a game either, and the club declined his 2022 option.
Lundt had spent the 2019 and 2020 seasons with Louisville and went on loan with Phoenix Rising after getting some first-team training to begin the year. He was recalled at the end of August, but only got on the bench twice when Vermeer was out because of COVID protocols.
“He just needs the opportunity,” Stern said. “You know, I think it was a tough situation for Ben because he was coming in and out of loan a lot. He was at Phoenix and playing and we brought him back because we wanted to have another look at him. And I think Ben probably looks at himself and maybe feels that he could have he could have performed better at times in training, but I also think for Ben, that’s difficult because you go from USL to MLS to USL to MLS, you’re working with different coaches, you’re not really settled in one place. So he had a lot of difficulties with that as well. That’s not an easy situation to be put in. And on top of that, the amount of managerial changes and technical director or GM changes that we’ve had. That’s tough for the players as well, because obviously, you know, they’re trying to make a good impression and every time someone moves on, you’ve got to do that again. So I think Ben was in a tough situation.
“I think he’s also mature enough and self-aware enough to know that when he gets opportunities, he’s got to take them. I’m still in contact with Ben. I don’t know where he’s going to end up next. But, whoever picks him up is going to have a talented goalkeeper and one that’s got a bit of a chip on his shoulder at this point and wants to prove himself and wants the opportunity. … I think it was not an easy situation for the club or for Ben and unfortunately it didn’t work out. But definitely, he’s got a future in the game. And I wouldn’t be surprised if we see him in the future.”
Stern believes the goalkeepers will be in good hands with Paul Rogers, who Queen City Press and multiple outlets now have reported to have been hired as Stern’s replacement. Rogers spent the last seven seasons with the Houston Dynamo but is from Brighton as well, and Stern has gotten to know him over the years in meet-ups before games and scouting events like the MLS Combine before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rogers will “bring something different to the goalkeepers,” Stern said, and “hopefully help the club move forward.”
As for himself, Stern is looking forward to being a part of a historic season for Brighton under Graham Potter. He will be coaching the likes of starter Robert Sanchez, who plays for the Spanish national team and is considered one of the top young goalkeepers in the world.
“I’m really excited to work with him, and they’ve got some really good other young goalkeepers coming through, so it’s an exciting group to work with,” Stern said. “Brighton’s done a pretty good job of being self-sufficient. Rob Sanchez, like I said he’s Spanish, but he came through the academy at Brighton, so they produce a lot of good young players and that’s something I’m excited to be involved in. And also, Brighton play really good football. The way that Graham wants the team to play, they use the goalkeeper a lot. So they use them a lot in the build-up. They use them a lot to keep possession and start attacks, so the goalkeepers are a really important role within that team. To be involved in that type of setup is something that I think is going to really help sort of develop my career, that I’m excited to be involved in.
“I think a big part of this move too is to be challenged and to be pushed in the best league in the world is something that I’m really excited about for my career and excited to learn, excited to share my ideas and to implement some of my ideas as well. So it’s a really good situation for me in terms of developing as a goalkeeper coach and working with some really, really talented staff and players.”
And Stern is also thrilled at the idea of his young son attending games like he did growing up. Arthur will be watching his dad at work soon enough.
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