An Interview With Rhode Island FC Head Coach Khano Smith
Smith discussed his desired playing style, goals for RIFC, and the role of fans
Rhode Island FC named Khano Smith their first Head Coach on March 8th, 2023. An accomplished player at the club and national level, and an up-and-coming coaching prospect, I spoke with him about what the appointment means to him, what he wants to achieve, and what mark he intends to leave on the team and our state.
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Stephen: Hi Khano, my name is Stephen Gadbois, I’m a contributor for The Blazing Musket for Rhode Island FC, and I’m so excited to have the opportunity to talk to you. Thank you so much for your time.
Coach Khano Smith: I appreciate you having me, I know you guys from my time with the Revs, and I’m looking forward to talking.
Stephen: Coming to Rhode Island FC, what excites you most about being part of this project?
Smith: We’re excited to bring a team that they (Rhode Islander’s) can be proud of, that’s their own, professional sports to an area that doesn’t have much. It’s a game that unites the world, millions of people love this game, and it excites me to bring it here. And from a personal perspective, to be part of a project, building it from the ground up, and putting my own stamp on it, I think it’s a cool and unique experience and opportunity. I was part of that at Birmingham, and now to bring my own ideas to RIFC is something I’m grateful for.
Stephen: I know you had a significant amount of success at Birmingham and Southern New Hampshire University, so what’s your philosophy in terms of soccer, in an ideal world, what kind of soccer would RIFC play?
Smith: It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot, and I want my team to be entertaining, it’s what we’re here to do, which is to entertain people watching and the players and staff. It has to be fun for all of them. The essence of the game is creating chances and scoring goals. No one grows up wanting to sit back and play defensive soccer and let the opposition have the ball. I would love to have possession of the ball the entire game, but I’m not naive, and I know that’s not gonna happen. The opposition has excellent players and excellent coaches and we need to be prepared to play with and without the ball. I look at teams around the world that I admire, like Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, Diego Simeone, Erik Ten Hag, Xavi, and I wanna steal bits and pieces from their games. That’s what coaching is to me, taking their tactics and evolving the game. I want to dominate the game with and without the ball. So when we don’t have the ball, we need to be organized and structured and prevent them from creating chances, and when we have the ball we need to create and take our chances. You’re not always gonna score, you’re gonna have days where players miss quality chances, but a good performance means creating those opportunities and stopping the opponents from creating theirs. But if the opposition has the ball for 70% of the game and creates zero quality chances, and we create four quality chances, I’m happy with that. There’s good coaches in USL, Charleston, for example, and in MLS like Bruce Arena. From a global perspective, we’re trying to help the game grow. In this country, the game is still young and taking off and I think there’s gonna be a boom in the next couple of years.
Stephen: You mentioned Bruce Arena, the New England Revolution head coach, we have Gillette Stadium right up the road, but you also have Tab Ramos and Hartford Athletic close by in the USL. Are you looking forward to the rivalry with Hartford and hopefully in the Open Cup with the Revolution?
Smith: Yeah, I think Tab’s done a really good job, improved the team and the organization. He’s experienced and was an excellent player. The rivalry needs to be healthy, it boils down to the people involved and there’s a place for hate but it needs to be healthy. It starts with the coaches and the players, and we need to be respectful and also take it to the next level, and compete, and the fans, too. We make each other better and we make the league better. It’s 90 minutes down the road so it’s certainly going to be a good rivalry. As far as the Revolution, we’d love to test ourselves against them with the logistics of the Open Cup, I think that will be a cool and fun experience. I look forward to competing against Shalrie (Joseph), who’s with the Revs and one of my closest friends. We haven’t had a lot of opportunities for that so it’ll be nice to test ourselves there. But we can’t control how we face the Revs as we will Hartford, who we’ll be seeing twice a year.
Stephen: You mentioned the role of fans in the rivalry. How important is connecting with fans and supporter groups to you, and how do you plan on engaging with them?
Smith: I know it’s a bit of a cliche, but what is any sport without the fans? I think the barometer for me is when COVID hit, and I was watching the Premier League, and I found I didn’t like watching, I felt like something was missing, and it was the fans within the stadiums. I think players’ connection with the fans is immense. The fans need effort, and we’re not gonna win every game, but we’re always gonna give 100% effort and fight for the club, and hopefully the fans will fight for us when we need energy or a goal. For me, it’s important. Connecting with the fans and engaging is important to me. Once we get going and the team starts playing I’m not gonna have as much time to do that, but once I get settled in the area that’s gonna be a focus for me. There’s gonna be peaks and valleys but the non-negotiable is working hard for the fans and putting a product on the field that excites them and brings them joy.
Stephen: Obviously the fans are most concerned with wins and trophies, but outside of that, how will you measure success at RIFC?
Smith: What I want to create, and my idea of a good organization, is building a high-performance environment. Obviously, there’s gonna be losses, wins, ties. Hopefully, we win more than the others, but when you look at the key performance indicators, creating goal-scoring opportunities, stopping the opposition from doing so, making them take their shots from 35 yards, that’s the sign of a good performance for me. If we have tons of possession and chances inside the box, that’s enough for me, because sometimes luck interferes. Dominating the game, dictating the game to the opponent, that’s the sign of success. Obviously Manchester City, Real Madrid, Ipswich Town, our cousin in England (author’s note: Ipswich Town, which is part-owned by RIFC co-owner Brett Johnson, secured promotion after this interview, during the writing of this article), they’re dominating League One in terms of all the stats I really value. It’s that identity, imposing your will on your opponent. In the USL, that means getting to the playoffs.
Stephen: A big part of the success that the teams you mentioned have had is their youth development, does Rhode Island FC plan to build a youth academy, what will local talent development look like?
Smith: From a personal perspective, I’m coaching because I want to develop people, especially young people. I’m a big believer in youth development. I love working with young players because I think they bring certain elements, they have no fear, they wanna grow, they have drive and passion that some older players can lack. As far as the community, we’re looking to build out our youth development and build relationships with the local clubs, have local tryouts, probably in the Fall, and that’s for everyone from youth to senior players, so that’s what that looks like.
Stephen: The front office has been good at communicating with fans, but I wanted to know what your relationship with them is like.
Smith: It’s unbelievable. There are so many intelligent people on the board and in the front office, full of experienced people who’ve built teams and leagues. I feel fortunate to have the support I have from them, to know we’ll have the resources we need to be successful. Obviously Brett Luy, the President, his experience in the USL has been unbelievable. I feel really fortunate to be apart of this, it’s special and a good group of people.
Stephen: How are you liking Rhode Island?
Smith: I’m looking forward to finally moving up there full time, I think it’s important for me to live there. I can’t wait to explore it, it’s an interesting community with a chip on its shoulder, and I feel like I do too. I think it’s a good fit, and I know it has great and diverse food and great and diverse people, and I can’t wait to get there and get going.
Stephen: Is there anything else you want readers to know?
Smith: It’s just a really good opportunity and I’m excited to be somewhere where I have connections to the area, and to people here. I’ve had other interviews, and disappointments, and letdowns, and you keep going and progressing. I have a friend here I go to for advice, and he says that there’s a reason for those disappointments and he’s right, it’s led me to a really good organization, where I can work hard and plug away and make good things happen.