MONTREAL – Montreal Impact academy goalkeeper coach Jack Stern had ambition, and he had a dream: To play in the English Premier League.
Rising through the ranks at Wimbledon FC – the original Wimbledon, which relocated to Milton Keynes in 2003 – Stern strived to become a first-team goalkeeper. For inspiration, he looked up to another youth product that emerged to wear the captain’s armband: Current Impact midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker.
Shortly before the club moved, Stern was released. He was 16 years old. He returned to his local club, Lewes, in the lower tiers of English soccer. A year playing in America at the University of South Carolina-Upstate followed.
Stern returned to England at age 19. He had tried to make it as a professional player. His inner wisdom told him to refocus.
“I was motivated by trying to reach the top of whatever I wanted to do,” Stern says in an interview with MLSsoccer.com. “If that wasn’t to be as a player, then quite early on, I saw that if I switched to being a coach, I could reach the top of the coaching field. I tried to start that early.”
Stern enrolled in the Sports Coaching Science program at the University of Worcester, which has close ties with Premier League club West Bromwich Albion. Stern landed an internship at West Brom, working part-time – without pay for the first six months – with goalkeepers from the U-7 to U-16 levels. He was 21, still a student.
“It’s where coaches should start,” Stern says. “You have to learn how to communicate. It’s hard to communicate with a seven-year-old who knows nothing about football other than what he feels naturally.”
Stern got his degree in the summer of 2012. Days later, West Brom offered him a full-time job. He’d made it to the Premier League, after all.
His Academy work expanded to the U-21 level and to some first team ‘keepers. The current Baggies No. 1, Ben Foster – formerly of Manchester United – remains a favorite of Stern’s.
Still in his early twenties, Stern was living the dream as a coach, reaping the rewards of his pragmatism. But career-driven though he was, the small matter of balancing professional and personal life remained.
Through his time at West Brom, Stern was living with his fiancée. She hails from Montreal.
“She always felt that she wanted to come back to Montreal at some point,” Stern says. “It was a really difficult situation for us, because if you work at a Premier League football club full-time, there aren’t many other jobs that are going to compete with that.”
But Stern, ever the good fiancé, started looking into the Montreal Impact. While visiting Montreal over Christmas in 2012, he met with the Impact’s current U-14, U-13 and pre-academy goalkeeper coach Owen Braun over drinks, just to share some ideas.
Braun casually told Stern that the U-23 goalkeeper coach job was vacant. Stern, unsure that a move to Montreal would be a professional step forward, had no intention of leaving West Brom. But the wheels were in motion.
The following summer, Stern flew to France to meet three Impact youth coaches that were in Saint-Étienne on business. For the next three days, every training session and discussion convinced Stern that the Impact academy would suit him well. He left West Brom on good terms in December 2013.
“When you work for a club like West Brom, who are 100 years old and have had years of success in England, and the academy has success, you work at a high level, but you’re not creating something new,” Stern says. “Everything was in place. We were set up to succeed. The idea of being able to come here and actually start that, to set something up here, that was very romantic to me.”
Through his new gig, Stern met young ‘keepers just as athletic as those at West Brom, but lacking on the technical and tactical sides of the game. Montreal have since set up their pre-academy from the U-7 level, and Stern is proud to see the youngsters already closing that gap.
Stern’s vision is for a goalkeeper – or three – to make it all the way to the first-team. He will be a brave and aggressive athlete with good feet, a strong mentality and the ability to come up big for the one or two moments that can win you a game.
“We can produce – can produce – world-class goalkeepers here, in Montreal,” Stern says. “That’s what I want to do. That’s what I believe we can do, because we have a system, now, that can compete with the systems in Europe and across the world. We have to be patient. We need time. We’re not going to produce a world-class goalkeeper over one year, two years, maybe even three years. But over the next five-year cycle, we want to start doing that.”
MLS has been the breeding ground for plenty of stellar goalkeepers, and Stern sees some of the league’s current starters feeding his young pupils’ aspirations. The Impact’s own Evan Bush is one, of course, but others like D.C. United’s Bill Hamid – who met Stern during training stints at West Brom – and Chicago’s Sean Johnson are also on the list.
All three did what thousands, including Stern, couldn’t: Emerge from an academy or from the college ranks and have a career as a pro goalkeeper. But Stern, now 27, wouldn't swap jobs with them. He's happy in Montreal, committed to succeed in North America before he returns to work in England – if he ever does.
To this day, Jack Stern has ambition, and he has a dream: That every pupil realizes his own.
“I believe in MLS and what MLS is trying to do to compete, to be one of the bigger leagues in the world,” Stern says. “I believe in this club and what we’re trying to do as an organization, to be one of the best teams in MLS. Being at the top, you think Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, you've got to work for one of those clubs.
“But it’s also about the goalkeepers you produce,” Stern continues. “And whether you’re producing those goalkeepers for Manchester United or for the Montreal Impact, that, for me, is being at the top. To produce goalkeepers that are good enough to play in MLS, to play at the top level, to play for Canada. Doing that here, where I understand how much it means to the city, to the people, to the organization, that, for me, is being at the top.”