A graduate of U.S. Soccer's Pro Coach License course in 2022, Khano Smith has been an integral part of Birmingham Legion FC's success as an assistant coach over the past four years. | Photo courtesy Birmingham Legion FC
In recent years, the USL Championship has become an incubator for young coaches to achieve their goals.
The past two Coach of the Year award-winners – the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ Neill Collins in 2021 and current Charleston Battery Head Coach Ben Pirmann in 2022 – were both under the age of 40.
Going into the 2023 season, more than half the league’s coaches will fit that description. Among them are new appointments Stephen Hogan (37) at Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, Brian Clarhaut (36) at El Paso Locomotive FC, Nate Miller (36) at San Diego Loyal SC, Isidro Sanchez (35) at Las Vegas Lights FC, and Blair Gavin at FC Tulsa (34).
Current Birmingham Legion FC assistant coach Khano Smith doesn’t, not quite.
The 41-year-old former Bermuda international has interviewed for head coaching roles in the USL Championship. He hasn’t yet received his opportunity to take the next step in his coaching career.
While that might be the case, the focus for Smith is trained on the journey, not the destination.
“I think you just have to go into it with the mindset that it’s a journey,” Smith said recently. “Obviously, as human beings we have to remind ourselves not always to focus on the destination. It’s just never going to be smooth sailing, there’s always going to be bumps in the road, and you just have to remember the reasons why you’re in it and why you do it, because I’m passionate about the game, passionate about helping people get better and passionate about getting better myself.”
Certainly, Smith appears ready. One of two Championship coaches to receive his U.S. Soccer Pro License in the graduating class of 2022 alongside SD Loyal’s Miller, he has seven years of experience as an assistant in both the National Women’s Soccer League and the USL Championship.
As part of Head Coach Tom Soehn’s staff in Birmingham, Smith has helped Legion FC achieve success. The club has advanced to the USL Championship Playoffs in each of its four seasons and ranks sixth in regular-season victories (54), the most of any club that was part of the league’s 2019 expansion class.
He’s also been part of a staff that has helped players grow, and progress. This offseason, the club has seen Jonny Dean move from Legion FC to Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire, and Marlon to Israeli Premier League club Ironi Kiryat Shmona, continuing its success in offering a pathway to bigger opportunities.
On paper, it’s a strong resume.
As he works, and waits, Smith remains undaunted in his ambition, believing each experience is going to prepare him for whatever his coaching future might hold.
In four seasons as an assistant coach at Birmingham Legion FC alongside Head Coach Tom Soehn (right), Khano Smith has helped the club reach the playoffs in every campaign and move players on to higher levels. | Photo courtesy Birmingham Legion FC
“I’m really happy in my club,” said Smith. “I’m at a good club. We’ve been relatively successful. The club supports me and wants me to grow and develop and they push me to do that. That’s kind of been the plan from day one, to prepare me for whatever’s next, but I think there are multiple ways my career can go to continue to grow and develop. Obviously being a Head Coach is one of those steps.
“I think I’ve done enough to grow and progress, but I’m honestly just really not focused on that. If I got disappointed by every time that I had an interview with someone and didn’t get the opportunity, I think I would be in it for the wrong reasons.”
As Smith has helped others progress, upon his arrival in Birmingham he was motivated to achieve the same for himself.
While an assistant coach at the NWSL’s Orlando Pride in the three prior years under Tom Sermanni, there had been ups and downs. The club’s second season in 2017 brought a place in the postseason, but after the side missed the playoffs in 2018, Smith was on the lookout for a new opportunity.
He reached out to Soehn, inquiring whether the club had hired an assistant coach.
“He said [they hadn’t],” said Smith. “I came in for a visit. We spent a couple of days together and that was that. They offered me the job after the visit was over and here I am.”
It’s proven an ideal fit. Soehn’s experience and Smith’s drive to learn, coupled with the talent acquired by Legion FC President and GM Jay Heaps – whom Smith was a teammate with at the New England Revolution in the mid-2000s – has seen Legion FC become a force to be reckoned with in the Championship.
Birmingham Legion FC Khano Smith and President Jay Heaps with fans at one of the club's World Cup Watch Parties late last year. | Photo courtesy Birmingham Legion FC
It’s also seen Smith strike the balance of success and progression for himself and the club’s players he believes mirrors the growth the USL is achieving.
“As individuals and as players it needs to be their journey,” said Smith. “They need to own it and it needs to be what they want to improve and get better at. I think, obviously, as coaches you’re here to help and give suggestions and you’re there to help the individual because, yes, the individual is important, but the team is also important. So, it’s finding that common balance of bringing the individual goals and aligning them with the team goals and pushing people on.
“I think that’s what USL is doing, and doing a really good job at, is developing people and moving [them on]. Whether it’s staff or players, moving people on to achieve the things that they want to achieve.”
With seven years of experience as an assistant coach in the NWSL and USL Championship and his newly-aquired USSF Pro License, Khano Smith appears ready for his first chance at a head coaching role. | Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC
As the new season approaches, he’s focused on what it will take to help Legion FC continue its success in the league. The experience and knowledge he gained as part of the USSF Pro Course is one he believes will be invaluable moving forward.
As important? The relationships the coaches within the class developed. Working alongside the likes of current Columbus Crew SC Head Coach Wilfried Nancy, United States U-20s Head Coach Mikey Varas and others, Smith has a growing network he can call on within the larger coaching community.
“I think all of us became really close,” said Smith. “It was a really, really good group of people. Some intelligent coaches, some really high-level coaches in in this country, and I built great relationships with each person. There was no one person on the course that I will say is my favorite. I have a great relationship with every single person, and I think all of us will have group chats and all of that [which will allow us to] continue to stay in touch over the course of our careers, which is really cool.”
Even if Smith gets an opportunity to join his fellow graduates leading his own squad, he won’t consider his journey complete.
“I think mostly what I learned about myself is that I’ve obviously done really well to get where I’m at in my career, but there's so much more for me to grow and develop,” he said. “I think having the right mindset and continuing to want to grow and develop is key.
“Learning never stops.”