Meet the Aussie coach emerging in America

Twelve years ago, Daniel Clitnovici was plying his trade as a midfielder for Elche Ilicitano in the Spanish third division. Now he is a rising coaching star in American women’s football with spells in Colorado, New York, Ohio and Villanova under his belt.

After a 10-year-old playing career that included stops on the Gold Coast, as well as in Romania, England, Greece and Spain, Clitnovici relocated to the United States in 2008.

He became assistant coach of the W-League’s Colorado Force, later becoming head coach of the Colorado Rapids’ Under-20s and then head coach of the Colorado Pride.

In the western state, Clitnovici built an impressive reputation, leading the Rapids’ Under-20s to a national championship in 2012 and two years later was named W-League coach of the year.

For the past four years, he has been on the coaching staff of Villanova University, and two years ago he was promoted as associate head coach of the program.

“Villanova is a very special place and I can’t express how blessed I am to be here as a coach but more so as a member of their community,” Clitnovici told SBS The World Game.

“During the pandemic, the university has done a remarkable job in all aspects associated with providing a safe experience for everyone. Like most college soccer programs in the country, there wasn’t much of fall season in 2020 due to the shutdown, but we hope soon to have a spring season and get back started again on January 18th.

“We have a talented roster and we are looking forward to continuing the upward trend we have had in the last four years.”

Born in Greece, Clitnovic grew up in Victoria and then Queensland. With parents from eastern Europe, he was surrounded by football from a young age and fell in love with the beautiful game.

“Early on my father Constantin fell into a team manager’s job with the Frankston Strikers in his early days in Australia – I was always surrounded by that atmosphere,” the 38-year-old explained.

“Football was always in my household as it was in most immigrant’s homes. It wasn’t cartoons on Saturday and Sunday mornings, it was Andy Paschalidis and the great Les Murray who prepped NSL games.

“It’s a fond memory as a kid, waking up to that environment. During those years my dad often got tickets through the footballing community to South Melbourne home games.

“Watching Awaritefe, Trimboli, Taliadoros, Boutsianis, Polak and so many others play for South Melbourne basically made me want to be like them. I appreciated Ange Postecoglou before he was the great Ange Postecoglou.”

Clitnovici started his own fledgling career at Frankston Strikers before moving to the Gold Coast at 15. The forward then trialled overseas for several clubs, and completed a six-month soccer scholarship in America, before signing a professional deal for Romanian club Universitatea Craiova in 2002.

“I met Daniel McBreen here and we were two of the first Aussies to play in Romania,” he said.

“His advice and guidance are things I still appreciate today, he took me under his wing and offered great insight. I had two stints at Universitatea Craiova in 2002 and 2005 both of which had its ups and downs.

“In 2005 I trailed with Queensland Roar and was offered an opportunity to play with the New Zealand Knights in the A-League’s inaugural season but I opted out to return to Romania.

“I had a short stint at Barnsley in 2003 but as the club were in financial administration I came and left faster than I had wanted too, I spent some time in Greece with Apollon Athinon in the third tier of Greek football and then my final stop was Elche in the second tier of Spanish football.

“After a brief stint there I was sent out to their farm team in the third tier with CD Illicitano. I chased a dream and I am very grateful for the experiences I had and the coaches and players I encountered on my way.”

Clitnovici first caught the coaching bug in Europe when helping out with the youth teams of the clubs he was part of. After suffering several injuries, and with a brother based in America, he decided to hang up his boots at the tender age of 26 and move to the United States in 2008.

During a seven-year spell in Colorado, the Australian coached with and against some of the best female players in the world, including Matildas Chloe Logarzo and Michelle Heyman.

“My time in Colorado was special,” he said.

“I met some tremendous people who gave me a chance and helped me along the way. I will be forever grateful to those who believed in my ideology on football and the standards and expectations that I brought with me.

“The chance I was given at 29 to head coach the Colorado Rapids Women and their Under-20 team was nothing short of remarkable and I will forever cherish it. It was a great professional environment.

“Winning the Under-20 North American Championship in 2012 was a major highlight I will never forget. In 2012 the W-League was the highest level of women’s soccer in the United States with the likes of many national team stars playing in the league and more specifically in our Western Conference.

“Coaching with and against some of the best players and coaches in the country was both an intimidating experience but also an absolutely enjoyable time.”

In 2015 he joined the Western New York Flash in the National Women’s Soccer League as an assistant coach and as the director of coaching for the youth academy. The following year he moved to Ohio State University as an assistant coach.

But when the opportunity to join the Wildcats presented itself, reuniting with former Ohio boss Chris McLain, Clitnovici grabbed it.

“Villanova came up as a ‘challenge’ more than anything,” he said.

“I was instantly attracted to the high educational standard that Villanova University offers and the attention it gave is sports on a national scene. For example, Villanova men’s basketball were and still are one of the best teams in the United States.

“On the soccer scene the Villanova women’s soccer program used to be a very good soccer program but it had struggled for over 10 years and needed a complete reboot. I looked at this as a great chance to be part of something great and making it my own.

“Rebuilding a program from scratch and adding a real personal touch to anything adds excitement to anyone. This was and still is a work in progress but so far I’m extremely happy with what we have accomplished and where the program is going.”