Made Of Stern Stuff

Date Published: 
Trinidad Express

How often does the line, "I have a [fill in the blank: friend, brother cousin] who is really good" turn out to be true?

In the case of Columbus Crew defender Ansil Elcock, he knew what he was talking about.

His younger cousin is Stern John, one of the most dynamic newcomers to hit Major League Soccer in its three seasons. By the end of August, John had already eclipsed US National Team standout Brian McBride's Crew records for goals and points in a season.

Despite the accolades he had received across the league, the 21-year-old Trinidad and Tobago professional keeps it all in perspective. He learned very early in his career how fame ruined fellow national team members.

"Some were better than me," he said. "They got cocky and never amounted to anything. I learned from that. Even though people say I'm doing well in MLS, I stay focused, don't let it go to my head."

He has been around older players all his life. "When I was five I started playing with my uncles and older guys," he said.

The Elcock/John families have a long history of playing soccer. John was never wanting for players for pick-up games.

"After I played with them when I'd go back to my age group I was always better," he said.

By 10 he was playing against those twice his age. He made his first appearance for the national team when he was 17.

"Ever since I was little I was playing against the big guys. Now, I'm playing with the big guys."

And showing them a thing or two. He became the first MLS player to get three hattricks in a season when he found the net three times against Kansas City on August 16. The hattricks were remarkably similar - each came at home in the second half in lightning-quick fashion.

John, the A-League Rookie of the Year last season for New Orleans, got his first three-goal haul in a 16-minute span versus Miami on April 18. It took 18 minutes versus San Jose on May 30. He came off the bench to score three times in 10 minutes against the Wizards. That's nine goals in 44 minutes.

"I guess he was a little ticked off he didn't start," Crew coach Tom Fitzgerald said after the Kansas City match.

Adversity seems to bring out the best in John. Coming off a 21-goal season with the A-League's New Orleans franchise in 1997, he was expected to relieve the pressure on McBride. The work rate and effort were there the first four games. The goals weren't.

"I thought I might be traded," John said he was thinking before a match against the Miami Fusion.

That's what happened in 1997 when he was scoreless in his first five games with the A-League's Carolina franchise.

Perish the thought. His seven-point game against Mimi firmly established him as a go-to player.

His next outburst came in his return after three matches on the sideline due to a dislocated elbow.

He scorched San Jose three times for another of his six game-winners in the Crew's first 24-matches.

"He's a good player capable of scoring spectacular goals," Los Angeles head coach Octavio Zambrano said.

John was named a reserve to the MLS World All-Stars. Before he competed in the August 2 match in Orlando, Fla., he went home for the Shell Cup. Trinidad lost to Jamaica in the title match but it was John who was named the Most Valuable Player for scoring 10 goals in five games.

Columbus defender Todd Yeagley was asked if the team has a nickname for John. "Yeah," Yeagley answered, grinning, "The Man."

Others are equally complimentary.

"You can see that the ball is his friend, not his enemy," said US National Team defender Thomas Dooley, who anchors Columbus's defence.

"He's very good at scoring," said McBride, John's fellow forward. "He's got a nose for the goal and guys are looking for him."

"I know Stern is only going to get better," Elcock said.

Elcock made the move to Columbus easier for his cousin, now his roommate.

"He showed me the ropes, showed me around," John said.

"It's kind of lonely at this age away from my family."

He calls his mother, whose travel is limited by arthritis, at least twice a week but they don't talk much about his football.

"She's just worried about me being away," he said. "The sportswriters down there follow my career so she knows what's going on.

The Crew is fortunate John followed Elcock to Columbus. Fitzgerald knew a Trinidad coach who suggested Elcock to him last season and the defender has proven a valuable addition because of his versatility.

After an excellent Gold Cup tournament for Trinidad in January, John was a non-roster invitee to the Crew's training camp at the Disney Wide World of Sports complex in central Florida. He made an immediate impact with his flair and scoring touch. Fitzgerald said the Crew was the only team to file a discovery claim on John.

"A lot of teams knew about him once he started playing," Fitzgerald said. "A lot of teams were kicking themselves. It speaks well of our organization."

The discovery process also yielded midfielder Andy Williams, who had at least one assist in his first six matches after playing for Jamaica in the World Cup to set an MLS record for consecutive games with assists. It was no coincidence John's goal scoring increased.

"There's a Caribbean style just as there's a European style or South American style," said forward Jeff Cunningham, who was born in Jamaica but moved to the United States when he was 14.

Williams, Cunningham, Elcock and John make up the Caribbean Crew. They joke that the entire Caribbean population in Columbus resides in the locker room.

John is no stranger to the US, though. He played for Mercer Community College in Monmouth, N.J., in 1995. He helped the team to the junior college title match and finished seventh in the nation in scoring.

The best is yet to come. To add muscle to his 6-foot-1, 180-pound frame, John has hit the weights since joining the Crew. He needs the bulk to ward off the defenders, who have not let his scoring exploits go unnoticed or untouched.

"When defenders hit me they bounce off," he joked.

He has also perfected the "Stern Turn." He is a master at receiving a chest pass with his back to the goal, spinning and firing on goal. That's how he beat Los Angeles goalkeeper Kevin Hartman with a rocket from 18 yards on August 29.

"Stern John is a technically-gifted player," Fitzgerald said. "We forget he's only 21 years old.

He's convinced me he's the best frontrunner in MLS. That's a pretty strong statement. What he has to do is convince himself. Once he does that he'll realize he hasn't reached his fullest potential."

John said, "I still need to improve. I need to work on holding the ball some more. I have to be stronger on the ball. They're coming after me now."

His best retort all season has been to put the ball in the goal.