No Better Place to Start

After a record-shattering four-year career as the face of the Northeastern women’s soccer program, Paige Burnett decided to follow in the footsteps of one of her mentors, current women’s soccer head coach Ashley Phillips, and take her talents to the world of professional soccer. Upon her graduation in 2015, she joined the Boston Breakers of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), where she spent a year rotating between the club’s full and reserve teams before hanging up the cleats for good.

The past four years have seen Burnett train the goalkeepers at the Boston-area schools of Simmons College and Harvard University, the latter of which attributes much of its successful 2016 Ivy League Championship season and impressive conference play records to Burnett’s mentorship. However, when given the opportunity to return as goalkeeper coach to her alma mater, she knew she couldn’t refuse the opportunity.

“It was a no-brainer,” she explained. “When the opportunity arose, I sought it out wholeheartedly to come back and be back at, in my opinion, a wonderful university.” Once more, Burnett and Phillips would be reunited, this time with the both of them leading from the sidelines.

Phillips had nothing but kind words about the return of her star keeper, noting that Burnett would be taking over as primary coach for the goalkeepers.

“I’ve had to stop coaching the goalkeepers… and I’ve left that responsibility to her. I think it’s going to do tremendous things,” said Phillips. “When players have someone to look to that did it better than them, it’s really easy for them to take the advice from them, especially in the female game.”

As for the player-coach dynamic, both Phillips and Burnett commented on how previous experience working with each other has contributed to an almost seamless reintegration of Burnett into the program.

“She balances me out really well,” explained Phillips. “She knows me so she can tell me when I need to slow down, back off. She played for me and knows maybe when I’m too much or maybe when I’m not enough, and she gives me that advice as a coach how to manage the players.”

When asked if their previous relationship has translated well into a strong working relationship, Burnett’s immediate response was one word: “Absolutely.”

“I obviously have respected her since day one,” she added. “I respect her even more now, and I really am happy being back and getting to work with her.”

Burnett is not the only former Husky to return to Phillips’ program in a coaching capacity. Fifth-year student and former star forward Hannah Rosenblatt joined Burnett and Phillips as a volunteer coach in August. After a prolific record-setting career of her own highlighted by a CAA championship, in which she was awarded the Championship’s Most Outstanding Player award, and ensuing berth in the NCAA tournament, Rosenblatt hung up her cleats for a clipboard and a role in Phillips’ staff.

Only one year removed from her career in the red and black, Rosenblatt is now tasked with the responsibility of supervising the very players she called teammates just a season ago. While others may struggle with making such a distinction, Rosey embraced her role as the liaison between player and coach.

When I do coach them, It’s coming from a place of being a friend, whereas the rest of the coaches can coach and be really hard on them,” she laughed. “I kinda bring that more constructive, nicer approach to it.”

Phillips confirmed just this, noting that Rosenblatt’s demeanor “makes it easy for the kids to listen to her advice.”

“I think it was definitely an easy transition for her,” she asserted. “You certainly see them seeking her knowledge and asking her questions. It’s a little more friend-to friend and not so much like a coach telling you what you’re not doing well.”

In discussing the strengths of both Burnett and Rosenblatt, Coach Phillips highlighted the ability of each to draw upon their experiences as a player in bringing something to the table that the rest of the staff cannot. The head coach of the men’s soccer program, Chris Gbandi, had a similar idea when bringing former midfielder Charlton Muhlauri onto his staff two seasons ago. 

Muhlauri, whose dad played professional soccer in Zimbabwe, has always had a passion for the game from an early age. Soccer was so important, in fact, that he decided that he couldn’t leave the game after graduating from the program.

I always wanted to do something with soccer after I finished my four years,” he recalled. “There’s no better place to start than where you are and working with the people whom you’ve worked with before.”

Two years removed from his own playing career, Muhlauri reflected briefly on the progression in relationships that he’s noticed since becoming a coach for some of his former teammates.

Last year was a little bit tougher because a lot of the guys, the seniors, a lot of them were redshirt seniors so they were actually my class,” he discussed. “It was tough being a friend and a coach at the same time, but I think they see it two years later, guys really see me as a coach and less of a friend.”

Gbandi has noticed the same transition in Charlton that Charlton has seen in himself, noting that Muhlauri has come into his own as a member of the coaching staff in a way he wasn’t fully able to as a member of the team.

I didn’t ‘coach’ Charlton,” he explained. “We (the coaching staff) all knew him as super quiet as a player, around me at least. I know around the guys he was a little more outgoing and a good locker room presence, but I think once he became a coach and understood the backroom staff and what we do here, I think he certainly has an appreciation for it.”

Muhlauri’s appreciation for the game, his professionalism, and his ability to learn quickly has Gbandi envisioning a bright future for his second-year assistant.

“Hopefully one day he can even have his own program,” Gbandi lauded. “A lot of kids respect him and understand how hard he works on a daily basis, and that level of admiration goes a long way.”

Though each has taken a different pathway to get here, each of these three young coaches have two things in common: a love for the game, and a love for this university. Despite their careers in the red and black having ended, the trio just could not find a way to say goodbye to the game and the university they’ve grown to love so much.

photo by Christian Gomez