Russell Payne said he never gave much thought to where his soccer career, as a goalkeeper and later as a coach, would lead. The much-traveled Payne, who grew up in Howard County before playing and coaching at Maryland, is neither totally surprised nor completely satisfied with where he wound up.
"To be honest, I just kept working," Payne said. "I tried to do the best job I could and sometimes you're fortunate that people take notice and feel that you can help their program."
After helping the Baltimore Spirit win the 1994 national under-19 club championship and the Terps win the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament for the first time as a player in 1996, Payne returned to College Park as an assistant to Sasho Cirovski in 2005 before becoming the head coach at Army in 2010.
Cirovski said Payne got by as a goalkeeper more on his athleticism than his technique coming out of Glenelg High, but became more of a student of the game during his four years as a player in College Park. It didn't come as a shock to Cirovski.
"He was a great student, he came to Maryland on an academic scholarship. He had great character and great intellect," Cirovski recalled Wednesday. "He got better every year to the point where when he was a senior, he was one of the top goalkeepers in college soccer."
When Payne returned to Maryland as an assistant in 2005, following a playing career that eventually ended in Europe, Cirovski said, "I really saw potential in him as a future coach. His interpersonal skills are phenomenal. His parents were both principals. It comes very natural to him to teach and to serve."
Payne, who turned 40 on Monday, is revisiting his roots this week as the goalkeeper coach for the U.S. men's national team, which will play in the Gold Cup quarterfinals Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium.
"Ambition-wise, I always wanted to coach at the highest level possible," Payne said. "I was fortunate to have a playing career and get into coaching at the University of Maryland under Sasho and I learned a lot there. I got a lot of experience there and we won two national championships in five years."
Payne's work with the U-20 national team the past three years led to his invitation to work with the men's national team at a training camp in February. When Chris Woods left to join West Ham United in the English Premier League, Payne was hired for the Gold Cup.
Having led the Black Knights to their first postseason appearance in more than 40 years when the team reached the Patriot League tournament in 2013, Payne expects to continue at West Point in the fall. But he concedes he might have to reevaluate at some point, depending on how he does in his new role.
"You keep all your options open," he said. "To have a chance to work with the best players at the highest level in our country and work with the best coaches, you don't want to close off any of your options. I'm happy where I am at West Point, but I don't know what the future holds. I'm not going to shut any doors at all."
Asked to compare working with veterans such as Brad Guzan and Nick Rimando on the men's national team to what it's like working with players at Army and on the U-20 team — including former Maryland star Zack Steffen — Payne said, "I think I've been very fortunate.
"I've had a pretty good transition every year I've been coaching. I've worked with a great group at West Point and at the same time worked with the best kids in our country, talentwise, at the U-20 level. You learn at every minute you're there."
Seeing familiar faces on the men's team such as defender Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi — both of whom played at Maryland while Payne was coaching in College Park — helped make the adjustment easier.
"It wasn't as abrupt," Payne said. "I've been lucky that way."
Payne's job with the national team is different, given the experience level of both Guzan and Rimando.
"I think first and foremost you don't want to overcomplicate things," Guzan said of Payne's role. "We've been fortunate to have a good group of goalkeepers with the national teams and guys like Nick who have been around the block, you just want to slide in kind of effortlessly in terms of just making the trainings kind of check over and make sure guys are sharp and ready for games."
Said Cirovski, "He has great communication skills, which are vital to a coach. Every goalkeeper he's worked with from the youth teams to the U-20 teams, they love Russell. He's a great person and he's also flexible and adaptable in his coaching philosophy. He's a goalkeeper's dream. He'll push them but he'll also listen."
Considering that his playing career never quite took off in the U.S. after being one of the top goalkeepers in the country at Maryland — he made just two appearances in Major League Soccer before playing three years in Ireland and one year in Germany — Payne is thankful for the opportunity he has received in coaching.
"We're lucky in this country to have professional realm for coaching, college realm for coaching, then the national team," he said. "They're all very rewarding."