Sixteen years ago, he cruised the streets near John Carroll and what was then Loyola College in a Nissan Sentra, a fresh and eager youth who was ready to play, ready to compete. Back then he was known as "The Hornet," not because of his hulking, quarterback-worthy 6-foot-2 stature, but because his prized Sentra was brown — a reference to the Brown Hornet superhero from the Fat Albert cartoons.
After being named Major League Soccer Goalkeeper of the Year twice, an MLS All-Star six times and MLS Comeback Player of the Year, Zach Thornton has returned home to Loyola University as a men's volunteer assistant coach.
With the nickname alongside him.
There's more mileage on him now. The 39-year-old Edgewood native gained his first soccer acclaim at John Carroll, played at Essex Community College and at Loyola, and he followed that with Olympic training in California and eventually a spot with the New York MetroStars of MLS in 1996. But it was Thornton's nine-year run with the Chicago Fire where he really made a name for himself.
"That was the best team I've played on. It was the true definition of a team — good group of guys who trained hard, pushed each other and hung out off the field," he said. "Best locker room I've ever been in."
He has been in many during a career that detoured briefly to Benfica in Portugal and included eight caps with the U.S. national team and MLS stops with the Colorado Rapids and New York Red Bulls before concluding with the last of four seasons with Chivas USA in 2011.
"There was a little grieving period, but I have no complaints and I had a great career. I've been to places who knows if I ever would have gone, made some great friends along the way. Soccer has been great to me, and I want to give back to the game," Thornton said.
Chivas' loss has been Loyola's gain. Returning home to Maryland after his 19-year senior career, Thornton was looking to give back to the sport that had been so good to him. After Thornton occasionally volunteered his coaching skills last spring, he and head coach Mark Mettrick developed a plan for the fall season.
"Loyola was such a huge influence on me and my development. I hadn't been home for any substantial period of time since I started playing 16 years ago, and my parents are getting up there in age, so it worked out for me to come home."
But transitions are rarely easy and for the first time, Thornton is experiencing what it's like to stand on the sideline instead of in the goalkeeper's box. Sometimes, he realizes, it's frustrating.
"When you're playing, you can control more. You can control what you're doing and control the players. You definitely have to be patient as a coach and relinquish some of the control," Thornton said.
"I'm still trying to figure out my coaching style. I'm new — I haven't gotten that far yet."
It helps that he's finding his voice in a place whose familial atmosphere has not changed in nearly two decades. It's a nostalgic experience.
"I still remember my first practice," he said. "I knew a couple guys from the team from club soccer, and for the first week they weren't talking to me because I was a freshman. You've got to pay your dues.
"But it's great to be back. The facility is amazing, everyone is still excited and wants to be here. It's still like a family."
And Loyola is still a strong program, as it was in 1993 and 1994, when Thornton helped it win Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament championships. This season, the Greyhounds are 12-5-1 overall with a 7-1-0 MAAC record, and they've qualified for the conference tournament, which starts Nov. 8.
Thornton, who works primarily with the goalies and defenders, is a big reason for the current success.
"He's the hardest coach I've ever played for, but that also makes him the best. With every training session, it seems as if I discover a whole new perspective in the game and the position," freshman goalkeeper Jordan DiLapo said.
Added junior keeper Thurman Van Riper: "He demands a high level of performance from his goalies. He encourages us to not accept mediocrity."
Thornton's competitive nature becomes evident during games.
"If he doesn't like [a call], he'll come out," Mettrick said. "He barks, and he turns heads when he barks."
But that intensity is masked by a charismatic presence and composed demeanor.
"He's a quiet gentleman and extremely polite," Mettrick said. "He'll come in every day and shake your hand."
Said Greyhounds senior keeper Zach Kane: "He's extremely humble for someone who has done so much in his life and knows when to joke around and have a good time. He'll be the last person to talk about himself, and if anything, he avoids the compliments. I'd hope I could take that lesson away for myself."
Off the field, Thornton is transitioning from his playing career to retirement by cooking, golfing and continuing his work with the Smart Guy Movement, an initiative he pursued back in his Chivas days with his longtime friend and former Greyhound and United Soccer Leagues Second Division defender, J.T. Dorsey. The organization aims to inspire at-risk and less-fortunate youth through soccer and to work with kids on building lifestyles around sport, education and health.
Most importantly, though, Thornton is finally getting the opportunity to spend more time with his parents, which was a major factor prompting his return to the Maryland area. They are his motivation and inspiration.
"They are the two most amazing people to me, and I always want to make them proud," he said.