After making almost 140 regular-season appearances in the Championship for the Charleston Battery, Zach Prince set out on a coaching path that brought him in 2019 to New Mexico United. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico United
As the 2016 USL Championship Playoffs kicked off, the final final whistle of Zach Prince’s playing career drew near.
After all, at that point he knew that any of the upcoming contests could mark his last as a professional player.
“I knew that I wanted to be a coach, and I knew it was a good time for me to go ahead and get started, start going through my licensing, really start to dig into what it means to be a coach every day,” said Prince, now an assistant coach for New Mexico United, recently. “I would challenge myself while I was playing to definitely try to think like a coach, but I wanted to live it every day, so that definitely weighed heavily on my decision to retire a little earlier than maybe some do.”
Not that it took away anything from Prince on the field. In fact, his last goal for the Battery was a notable one, providing the game-winner in Charleston’s 2-1 upset of FC Cincinnati in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals that season.
But after the postseason ended the following weekend at the hands of Louisville City FC, it was time for Prince – at the age of 28 years old – to dive full-time into the next chapter of his soccer journey. It took him to the opposite corner of the country in Portland, Oregon, where he became a staff coach for United PDX, a United States Soccer Development Academy program.
“There were some opportunities to coach in Charleston,” said Prince. “They wanted me to keep playing, and I was really set on it being time for me to coach. I got an opportunity to work with a Development Academy up in Portland and my now-wife had moved up to Portland as well, and she moved before I moved out there, before the end of our season, so that was obviously factored into the decision as well. When I got the opportunity to become a full-time coach, I took it.”
Prince’s path is one that is becoming a familiar one for players in the Championship, remaining connected with the sport in their post-playing days. For longtime followers of the league, familiar names from previous seasons are now appearing among the technical staffs being assembled across the league. The connections made during a playing career – and the extended network it provides – has meant as the league has grown, the more opportunities have become available for young coaches looking to take the step into the professional ranks.
That was the case for Prince, whose connection to current New Mexico Head Coach Troy Lesesne goes back to his days as a player at the College of Charleston.
New Mexico United's Zach Prince and Head Coach Troy Lesesne celebrate after the side clinched a place in the 2019 USL Championship Playoffs by defeating Las Vegas Lights FC in its final game of the regular season. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico U
“My four years we worked together,” said Prince. “Then in 2014 at the Battery we had an affiliation with the Vancouver Whitecaps, and Vancouver hired Troy on to become an assistant for the Battery and really work with the whole group, but focus on those Vancouver players as well.
“We’d … really created a pretty special relationship. Once he left and went to Charlotte [Independence], we stayed in touch, and then when I moved to Portland, our relationship really grew even more because I was leaning on him for some coaching ideas. I would have a ton of ideas and be sending him stuff and he would send me feedback. We were always talking about when he gets the opportunity for a pro job that he would want me on staff, so I went through the process with him about what jobs he was going after, and then getting this job with New Mexico United was a perfect fit.”
But while he’s now Lesesne’s first assistant, Prince is definitely appreciative of the experience he gained in the Academy ranks. Having first led a Boys U-16 side during his final two years in Charleston before diving in full-time at United PDX, the grounding in what being a full-time coach required was an important step in his education.
“I have relationships with those kids – now young men – forever,” Prince said of his team in Charleston. “I still get texts from them today, and they taught me so much more than I taught them in those two seasons. Then going out in Portland and becoming a full-time coach, my whole perspective on things changed about what preparation looks like for a training session, and a whole season of what I’m trying to accomplish as a coach. It was really eye-opening for me to do that for two years before I started professionally for New Mexico United.”
Now Prince’s focus is doing everything he can to allow NMU’s players to maximize their ability on the field week-in and week-out. A player who was always prepared to do the little things on the field to help his side succeed – and chip in with a goal or assist as well – the work ethic he brought to the playing field has translated into his new position. Checking every detail – from style of play in key situations or the way players communicate to allow clarity in the heat of the action – is key.
“I think the biggest thing for me is being able to communicate clearly to players, to help them be as prepared as possible,” said Prince. “That’s the most important thing for me, just being able to clarify that message for them has been the most challenging thing, but also the most rewarding when you can help them achieve a win or a goal throughout the season.”
New Mexico United assistant coach Zach Prince talks with forward Devon Sandoval after the club's victory against the Colorado Rapids in the 2019 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico United
As his experience and knowledge in New Mexico expands, so will Prince’s horizons, which means there will likely come a point where he looks to take on the top job elsewhere. When that day will arrive, only time will tell, but Prince is staying in the moment as he works toward making United the best team – and the best club – he can.
“I know my biggest goal right now is helping New Mexico United,” said Prince “I know that might be a cliché answer, but I truthfully believe in taking it one day at a time and being extremely prepared, making sure I’m doing my job to the best of my abilities and opportunities, if they end up coming my way, I’ll assess that when they come.”