On Jan. 18, 2019, James Armstrong was hired to take over the Mississippi State University women’s soccer team, 250 miles from his last job at Auburn University, and 4,300 miles away from his hometown of Yorkshire, England. However, Coach Armstrong said he would not say that he is far from home.
"Starkville is home, for myself and my family. Nothing would make me prouder than producing a team that Mississippi State is proud of," Armstrong said.
The long journey that brought him to his new home in Starkville included a number of stops, as he rose through the coaching ranks. It was a path he chose at the age of 22, while still an equipment manager in the United States Soccer Federation.
"I would say that when I really knew it was when I graduated college, I was an equipment manager for the youth national and the women’s national team," Armstrong said. "So seeing that high level, and seeing how the coaches worked day in and day out. That’s when I knew that I wanted to have a career as a coach, and that’s when I was 22. So, that was the turning point for me."
Armstrong said this realization took him to his first coaching job with the Lonestar Soccer Club in Austin, Texas. He also coached within the United States Olympic Development Program, a job that sent him and his team to matches around the world, before taking a job as an assistant coach at Auburn.
In his six seasons as an assistant and associate head coach with the Tigers, Armstrong helped bring about offensive success the program had not seen since the very early 2000s. Then, he made the decision to take the job at MSU, joining a program on the rise in a transition he says was as smooth as could be.
"Starkville has been everything I could have hoped for and more, for myself and my family," Armstrong said. "The community has been incredible in their outreach, making us feel welcome and being very genuine in their efforts. So, the transition has been unbelievably smooth for me and my wife."
When Armstrong was introduced at MSU, Miranda Carrasco, a sophomore defender from Cyprus, Texas, said the whole locker room had a high level of energy and excitement.
"It’s just been positivity on top of positivity, optimism about him. I’ve always been excited to go to practice, but this time it’s different," Carrasco said. "I’m more excited because I want to get to know him. He seems like a great guy, like I’ve said so many times, but it’s just been super positive. All of the girls are so excited. We’re all just excited as a team and can’t wait to get after it in the spring."
The transition into this new position was just as smooth as the move to a new community, as Armstrong took up the reins after former head coach Tom Anagnost resigned to take another opportunity elsewhere.
"It’s been a lot easier than I could ever have imagined. I think that’s a true testament to the team. They’re a really close-knit group." Armstrong said.
That closeness, he says, is exactly what he wants to see in his teams. The family mentality has been a large part of Mississippi State athletics, but that mentality is something Coach Armstrong takes very seriously.
"In anything you do, if there’s a togetherness and a common goal, a unity and a willingness to fight for each other and do whatever it takes, then that’s going to bring about success," Armstrong said. "It’s a matter of being able to have those honest conversations, but at the end of the day you still love each other. For us, family is where everybody does everything together."
That idea of family, combined with a hardworking, blue-collar attitude, is Armstrong’s recipe for success and one he hopes he can apply to the team’s work rate on and off of the field as his first season starts in August.
"Work great. Work great. Blue-collar attitude. Never get out-worked," Armstrong said. "If we don’t have the ball, we gotta work harder than them to make sure we get it back. If we do have the ball we gotta work harder than them to get ourselves open. That’s the non-negotiable."
That same work ethic is what made Armstrong a great hire for Athletic Director John Cohen, as he said Armstrong fit the bill in every single way at the introductory press conference when Armstrong was first hired.
"We needed somebody to lead our soccer program with passion and we feel like he had that," Cohen said. "Along with passion, obviously, work ethic is everything because a huge portion of what you do as a coach in the best league in America, the Southeastern Conference, is you have to recruit at a very high level. You can only do that with an incredible work ethic."
Tactically, possession and finishing will be keys for Bulldogs on Armstrong’s team. Possession has been a focus in training throughout the spring, something Armstrong says the team had to work at in order adopt the new style of play.
"I am really, really proud of the whole team from a work-ethic standpoint, and embracing that possession style," Armstrong said. "Finishing has been a focus for us in training. We have got a lot of players that are capable of doing that. We talk a lot about finishing being a mentality."
Scoring has not been a struggle for Mississippi State in the spring season. The Bulldogs scored three against The University of Florida and four against University of Southern Mississippi. So far, the Bulldogs are led in scoring by AK Ward, a junior forward from Keller, Texas.
She put up a hat-trick in the Southern Miss game, in what may be just the beginning of a brand new high-scoring offense that Armstrong believes will be fun for fans to watch.
"I truly believe that the fanbase will see a team that is blue-collar, that tries to outwork every single team they play against," Armstrong said. "But (they will) also play an attractive style of soccer that will be fun to watch, but also high-scoring."