Meet the Head Coach of Rhode Island’s Newest Soccer Club
Khano Smith, a former New England Revolution player and Bermuda native, heads to Pawtucket this month to take the top coaching gig with Rhode Island FC.
Rhode Island FC, the brand new soccer team set to launch in Pawtucket in 2024, is inching closer to its first season. Club officials broke ground on the new stadium at Tidewater Landing last August, and last week, they announced Khano Smith as the team’s inaugural head coach and general manager. Smith is a Bermuda native who previously played for the New England Revolution. He currently serves as first assistant head coach with Birmingham Legion FC in Birmingham, Alabama. Smith spoke with Rhode Island Monthly by phone from Birmingham on Monday to share his expectations for the new team and how he plans to tackle his first head coaching role.
Congratulations. This is exciting news for you.
I appreciate it. It’s really exciting. A really good opportunity. I’m just so pumped to get started.
How did this position with Rhode Island FC come about?
Honestly, I’ve spoken to a couple USL [United Soccer League] teams now at different stages of interviews and obviously hadn’t been successful. When the team got launched and I heard the news, I saw [Rhode Island FC co-founder and Cranston native] Mike Parkhurst was involved, so I sent him my resume. I don’t know exactly how long ago that was now, but we’ve stayed in touch and then we gradually got ourselves to this stage. I started out with a couple phone calls and Zoom calls with him, and then he added in other people and it progressed to me going to visit and them offering me the job.
You and Mike played together for the New England Revolution, correct?
Yeah, that’s where we played together.
What is it like for you to be heading back to New England just a few miles down the road from where you played for the Revolution?
It’s really exciting. I still have a lot of friends in the area and have just been overwhelmed and bombarded with messages from people saying they can’t wait to have me back and can’t wait to come watch me coach and come to the games. Definitely a lot of support from just really good people and friends that I’ve met over the years, so it’s going to be really good to connect with them and get time to spend with those people again. I’m really looking forward to it. That was obviously a really key piece in my life and development as a man and as a professional, so I’m just really excited to get back and connect with those people again and hopefully continue to grow.
You’ve been all over New England — playing at Champlain College in Vermont, coaching at Southern New Hampshire University. You’ve touched a lot of different places in New England.
When I move to Rhode Island, I will have lived in five out of the six states in New England. Just one more to go in Connecticut, but I think I’ll be happy with these five for now.
What was your experience [playing at Maine Central Institute] in Maine?
Maine, in the beginning, was not a good experience. I was fourteen years old, a young man, and my mom was like, ‘I’ve had enough of you not doing your schoolwork in Bermuda, so you’re going to a boarding school in Maine.’ I was like, ‘OK.’ Went when I was fourteen. Hated it for the first year. As you can imagine, the weather was a change for me, and being away from my family and away from my friends, so it was probably a really difficult thing for me at that time. But at the time, it was the best decision my mom could have made for me in my life. It definitely helped to get me to this point.
It was certainly a challenge to begin with, but by the end of it, I loved it, had some really good friends. I actually have one I’m going to connect with at the end of this week — a good friend of mine who was a fantastic NBA basketball player, DerMarr Johnson. We went to school together, and he now coaches at the University of West Virginia and they’re actually playing in Birmingham on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament, so I’m really excited to get to see him.
When are you making the move to Rhode Island to start working with the team?
My first official start date is March 18. I’m going to make a trip there and come and look for a place, and I’m going to meet with some college coaches and hopefully some youth clubs in the area.
I will be going to a tournament at the beginning of April in order to do some scouting. I’m hitting the ground running, that’s for sure.
What’s your first priority with this new team?
With all organizations, obviously we need people, and we need good people. And that’s staffing, and that’s players. I want to build a roster that’s going to be competitive and challenging at the elite level in the league right from the beginning. I think we have the ability to do that. I think with how I’m going to recruit and my recruitment strategy and the people and the players that I want to bring in, we can be a successful club right from the start. It’s getting those people in the building, and obviously it’s challenging because we don’t play until 2024, but that doesn’t stop us from hiring staff and hiring players fairly soon.
You mentioned meeting with some college coaches and youth coaches in the area. Do you think it’s likely we’ll see some local players on the roster?
I definitely think that’s possible. With any organization and especially a team, I think it’s key to have players on the team that the fans and supporters and everybody connected to the club can identify with. That’s just going to build a stronger bond between the team and the community. So certainly, people that understand what it’s like to be from Rhode Island and the bigger area of New England, that’s going to be key, because it is a unique part of the country and unique state within that region. I definitely think we would love to have some local players on the roster.
I really and truly believe in developing young players. I think young players bring something different to the group to have enthusiasm. They have the ability to learn and the desire to get better. They’re like little sponges. I want people like that around me. That’s part of my job is to develop players and to develop people. The good young players in Rhode Island will certainly get a chance at our club.
We’ve already had discussions internally with the club to have a local open tryout that will probably be some time in the fall.
That’s great to hear, because there’s just been so much excitement around this team locally. I would expect you’re going to have a lot of young players who are looking for that opportunity.
As they rightfully should. It’s a growing league, and our club’s coming in at a really good time. With the Women’s World Cup this summer, I think soccer’s about to explode again in the country, so it’s definitely an exciting time. I’m glad to see that people are excited about it.
This is your first head coaching position. You’re coming in to a completely new team, new staff, new stadium, building everything from the ground up. What is that like for you?
Honestly, it’s just really exciting. I’m prepared and ready for this opportunity. I feel like every decision and relationship I’ve had in my life has led me to this point. I’ve had some really good mentors and people that I trust and people that have developed me as a human and as a coach. I feel like I’m ready. The experiences here in Birmingham, I think, will also help because again, four years ago, we started a team in Birmingham and I helped build that from scratch. So I think with a lot of the experiences that we went through and I went through and some of the challenges and successes that we had, I think I have a pretty good idea of what it takes to build a team from the ground up in this league.
This team sold 2,500 season ticket deposits within the first week of them going on sale last fall, breaking a league record. What do you say to the fans who are just waiting on the edge of their seats for that first season?
I think everyone’s just as excited as they are. Myself and obviously the other people in the organization – they’re excited, and it’s going to come fast. Those supporters, I’m grateful for them. This is their team, and we definitely want to build a team that excites them and that they’ll come watch and they can fall in love with. And a team that represents them on and off the field. You’ll hear me say it a million times, but I honestly believe that we need good people in the organization and good players, and players that are invested and go out into the community. They should be a beacon for the community that people look up to, adults and children. They should be setting an example in the community, and that starts with us in the senior position in the organization. Building that bond within the community, because soccer is the world’s game, and it is a beautiful game, and you can see examples all over the world of where it brings people together. It’s just an exciting experience for all of those who are connected. I can’t wait to get up there and build relationships with people who support the club, and that includes all the fans who have already signed up for tickets and the ones that will continue to do so in the future.
Is there anything else you want to share about your experience heading into this new team?
I’m really excited about being able to go around and look around the region, look around the country and watch our league and outside of our league, whether that’s MLS Next Pro, USL One, MLS, just to be able to watch a lot of soccer and learn. I’m going to take this time to continue to develop myself. I have to build a good team, but I think as an individual and as a coach I need to continue to grow, and I think I made some really good steps doing that last year with the coaching course that I took. I really try to have a growth mindset, and I want people around me to have a growth mindset. I’m going to go and spend time with other coaches and mentors and people that I’ve built relationships with over the past couple of years. Somebody that I really admire is Robin Fraser, he’s the head coach of the Colorado Rapids. I have a good relationship with him. There are just so many people that I can go and learn from and continue to steal little bits and pieces to develop myself and make the club better and make the team better while going around searching for the players that are going to fit what we want to do on the field and what we want to do off the field. We want leaders, and we want good people for the community, and also good soccer players who are going to help us win soccer games.
It sounds like you have a busy year ahead of you.
Yeah, but it’s good. I’m so excited. My last game here in Birmingham, it’s Friday, but then the next day I’m going to hit the ground running. I’m just really excited. It’s a unique experience. It’s not often as a coach that you get in a position where you can do things like this. Where I can just go around. I think that’s where you learn the best is by watching other people who are top coaches in our industry. I think you learn so much by watching other people but also building a roster and going around looking for players. I enjoy building teams and I enjoy building rosters. For me it’s work, but it’s fun, and honestly it’s just a really unique opportunity that I can’t wait to start.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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