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Ex-SJU soccer star gets coaching bug

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Brent Sancho has enjoyed a remarkable soccer career. He won an NCAA championship at St. John’s in 1996 and competed in the FIFA World Cup 10 years later. The Trinidadian-born defender played at the highest level in Scotland and competed in England.

But one thing Sancho never thought about was getting into coaching. After all, the former Red Storm standout was still playing at a high level. Why even acknowledge life after soccer?

But then it happened. Playing for the North East Stars in Trinidad to keep fit last year with the hopes of returning to England, Sancho was thrust into the head coaching job after a rift between the team’s owner and the coach.

“The coach isn’t here today and you’re going to have to take charge of this session,” the owner told Sancho one morning.

Instead, Sancho took over for the rest of the season, leading the North East Stars to a third-place finish in the TT Pro League.

“I really like this. It is not a bad thing,” Sancho said to himself. “The owner said he thought I was a natural.”

That planted the seed for the defender, who is currently serving as a player-assistant coach for the Rochester Rhinos of the United Soccer League’s First Division.

Sancho was told of the opportunity in upstate New York by fellow Trinidadian Leslie Fitzpatrick, who plays for the Rhinos. Soon, Sancho found himself learning on the job under Head Coach Darren Tilley.

“I’ve been really fortunate to be working with a good, up-and-coming manager who is quite meticulous and I’m sponging a lot to learn from him,” Sancho said. “It’s one of those situations where he has taught me a lot and he’s given me a lot of leeway to learn.”

When he was playing for the North East Stars, Sancho was just trying to get in shape for a return to England. The 32-year-old played three seasons apiece at Scottish Premier League squad Dundee United and for English League One side Gillingham.

Sancho figured he had a couple more good years of European soccer left in him, so he wasn’t really too interested in a return to the United States, where he played in the USL-1 for the Portland Timbers in 2001 and 2002 before bolting for Scotland. Sancho was also looking into options to play in Australia.

“It was not even in any chapter of my life at all,” Sancho said. “I didn’t think of it at all. I was thinking of playing with the idea of getting back on the [Trinidad] national team. I was trying to play as much as I could to get back into the fold.”

Plans changed, though, when Sancho got hooked on coaching.

“My agent told me that this is not a bad offer in terms of playing and coaching,” he said of the deal to join Rochester. “It was a win-win situation at the end.”

Sancho’s coaching style and philosophy comes from a myriad of sources, including longtime St. John’s Coach Dave Masur as well as former Trinidad Manager Leo Beenhakker and Dundee’s Jim Duffy.

“When you look at it, you start thinking you need to emulate this one or that, but I’ve fallen into a niche of bringing my own philosophy,” Sancho said. “My former coaches have embedded themselves in my life, they’ve left a print. I’ve had a lot more good than bad fortunately.”

Sancho said he misses the city, but is excited about FC New York joining USL-1 next year. He is adjusting to the slower lifestyle than he’s been used to.

But, Sancho said, Rochester provides the perfect environment to learn his craft.

“It is a small town compared to places I live,” Sancho said. “It’s really given me a chance to sit back and soak up everything. It’s conducive for learning.”

In other words, it’s the perfect place to cultivate what Sancho hopes will be a successful coaching career.

“Now that I’ve got the coaching bug, I’d love to manage professionally, but I would be interested in a college job,” he said. “I’m sure it’s a bit different than coaching professionally. I would look into it.”

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