You transferred out of Northern Illinois to Coastal Carolina after one semester. What about Carolina interested you and why leave Illinois so early? Would you change anything if you could do it again?
The main reason why I wanted to transfer from Northern Illinois was because I knew I was better than their starting goalkeeper but I could tell that no matter what happened they were not going to make a change at the goalkeeper position. The starting goalkeeper at the time was only a Junior so I didn’t want to sit and watch him play for two seasons before I got my chance to start.
I had a club teammate that was recruited to Coastal Carolina and we talked periodically throughout the 2007 Fall season. He told me that he really enjoyed the school, the warm weather, the close proximity to the beach, and the girls weren’t half bad either. *laughs* I had also received goalkeeper training while I was in high school from a goalkeeper who played for Coastal Carolina when they made it to the Elite Eight in 2003. And I was also hooked by the tradition of the program.
Looking back, this was the smartest decision I ever made. I honestly don’t think I would be where I am today if I had stayed at Northern Illinois.
With the general preference of young players playing overseas over college in mind, what is the most beneficial aspect that you received from playing collegiate soccer?
Probably the biggest thing that I gained from going to college and playing soccer was maturity. I learned how to live on my own and not be dependent on my parents on a daily basis. Most people go to a college or university that is in-state and they go to school with all of their friends so they are in a relatively good comfort zone. I went to college by myself, had to make new friends, and had to adapt to living in a brand new part of the country. If I got a little homesick I just had to suck it up. I couldn’t go home on the weekend, have my mom do my laundry, and get a few home cooked meals. It doesn’t sound like a big deal but at 18 years old, a trip home to regroup and de-stress is a nice thing to be able to do. I never got to do that. I would leave for college in mid-July and wouldn’t be back home until mid-December, then leave again early-January and come back mid-May. I learned how to manage my time between school, soccer, and having a social life. I learned first hand that sacrifices had to be made, mainly in my social life, so that I could be successful in the classroom and especially on the field.
You’re undrafted out of college. Did you still think you could play MLS-level after this?
I was a little upset when I went undrafted but I wasn’t discouraged at all. I knew plenty of players that went undrafted but were still invited to preseason with an MLS team and were able to earn a contract. I learned very quickly in preseason with Sporting Kansas City that being drafted did not mean anything at all. If you were a SuperDraft pick, you still had to prove to the coaches that you were better than the guy that came in to preseason undrafted.
You ended up being a MLS Pool Keeper that first year. What was that life like? What were the biggest pros and cons of not having one team you’re tied for season?
I was signed by Sporting Kansas City for one month before the league contacted me and informed me that I would be used as a league pool goalkeeper for the remainder of the 2012 season. I had no idea what this meant so it took some researching to find out exactly what my new role would be. Before I could even get home to Google my new job title, I received a phone call from Tucker Walther, the team manager for the Columbus Crew, asking me if I was available to fly to Philadelphia and meet up with the team for their Wednesday night game against the Union.
It was all new to me, I was excited, nervous, anxious, and confused as to what exactly I would be doing. But, for me, this was an absolutely incredible experience. I got to be the backup goalkeeper in MLS games, just one injury or play away from actually being in goal, and I got to experience different clubs and organizations as I went on to spend time with Real Salt Lake and the Portland Timbers during the rest of the 2012 season. I viewed these trips as “mini trials”. It was my chance to get seen by other MLS coaches and to hopefully earn a contract for next season. The downfall was that these trips were so short. I was literally on Real Salt Lake’s reserve roster for about 26 hours. I didn’t even get a chance to train with them. With Portland and Columbus I was able to train a few times, but still, not enough to earn a contract.
In 2013, you dropped to Des Moines Menace after a year in the MLS Pool. What was the most notable difference between the leagues?
Unfortunately, in 2013 I kind of fell through the cracks. I was offered a preseason spot with Sporting Kansas City before the 2012 season was even over with. I received an offer to go to preseason from Real Salt Lake after the 2012 season had ended, but I politely declined out of respect to Sporting Kansas City’s earlier offer to me. I appreciated that they took the chance on me to offer me a contract with them, and then ultimately helped me to get the job as an MLS pool goalkeeper. So I did not want to turn my back on them just because I had received an offer from another team. However, when I reported for physicals with Sporting KC, I was not on the list for preseason players. I was then told that they were bringing in another goalkeeper for preseason and that my time with Sporting KC was over.
After this happened, I found it very difficult to land on a team since every team was absolutely set on goalkeepers. I then went on a few trials but nothing stuck because teams decided to stay with their previous starting goalkeeper. My agent informed me of an opportunity with the Des Moines Menace, and I’ll be honest, I did not want to go there. I wanted to continue to play professionally and stay at a high level. But I did not have a choice and I knew that getting games, no matter what level, was the most important thing. It was a serious gut check having to drop down to the PDL from the MLS. I focused all of my negative energy towards my training sessions and I used this set back as fuel in my work outs. I made a promise to myself that season that I would never stop working hard. I know that the hard work I have already put in and the hard work I am going to put in in the future will lead me back to where I want to be.
But to answer your question, there are way too many differences between the MLS and the PDL to even begin to describe. It’s professional versus amateur, job versus hobby, in the truest definition of each word. The experience, knowledge, understanding of the game, work ethic, technical ability… It all has to be there in order to be a professional. In the PDL, players can get away with only having technical ability. The focus and work ethic from most, not all, PDL players just isn’t there. And that is not a blast on amateur or college athletes because it is not always their fault. They just have never been in a professional environment before so they don’t know what it takes to truly be successful.
What about MLS v. Kakkonen?
The difference between the MLS and the Finnish Kakkonen was not quite as far apart. I would say that the Kakkonen is the equivalent level of USL. The players in this level are professionals and they approach training sessions and games more seriously. Success means everything at this level because, if you are successful, then you have a chance to help your team promote to a higher division or you can get picked up by a team in a higher division. Each team in the Kakkonen is different but the top teams are run very professionally.
How invested was the club in the US Open Cup? MLS teams often send their second team for the early round games. Does this dampen the competition? Is the team less motivated? Or is the US Open the biggest game of the year for lower teams?
For a PDL team, the US Open Cup is the absolute high point of the season. Most, if not all, players on a PDL team are still in college so this is their chance to prove themselves against the professionals in US Soccer. USL and NASL sides will usually put out their best lineups, barring any injuries or player rest for an important upcoming league match. When I was with the Menace we played against, beat (and shut out), a full strength Minnesota United side.
When we came up against Sporting Kansas City, they fielded a line up of mostly starters with the exception of a few fringe players. It was exciting to play against my former team and, Peter [Vermes] might not own up to it, but I saw it as a sign of respect when he chose to play Kei Kamara, CJ Sapong, Benny Feilhaber, and Claudio Bieler against me.
Next year you moved to Finland to play for Sporting Kristina. What’s it like moving to a club you, I assume, have never heard of? How much Wikipedia-ing did you do? And was moving abroad always a part of the plan?
Ever since I was little I had always dreamed of playing in Europe. I have always loved to travel, see new places, meet new people, and experience different cultures. I thought, “What better way to do that than to play professional soccer over in Europe?”
When my agent contacted me this past February and told me that there was interest from a team in Finland, I was ready to go. I was definitely a little nervous since I had never been to Europe but I was excited about the opportunity to do something that not too many American soccer players ever get the chance to do. I really had no previous knowledge of the soccer in Finland or even the country of Finland, for that matter. I quickly became really good at Googling teams, towns, and winter weather forecasts.
Is there something you feel that US fans don’t think about with players playing abroad? The perception I hear is that players should go overseas because it’ll automatically make you successful.
The biggest thing that people in the United States should realize about playing overseas is the dedication that it takes. It is easy to hear that someone is overseas and then you think to yourself, “Oh, that’s cool”, but then you don’t really give it any more thought. I spoke earlier about how in college I could not go home when I got a little homesick, I had to wait a few months to do that. Well this is a little more serious than that. I was living halfway across the world, in a completely new country to me, surrounded by people who aren’t speaking English and like to jump into the frozen sea, through holes that are cut in the ice. *laughs*
The point is that it isn’t just about soccer anymore. It’s about learning to fit into a new culture. Learning to fit in with a locker room full of guys that could just ignore you, shun you for being an outsider, or speak a different language so you can’t understand what they’re saying. All these factors, as well as a hard work ethic, allow for players that play overseas to come back to the United States and be successful. The people in the United States only know about your success on the field, what they don’t know is all of the other factors that go into creating that success.
What’s it like being one of the few Americans in a largely Finnish locker room?
I had the unique opportunity of being on two teams in my first season abroad. I went from the last place team in the entire forty team league, to one of the top four teams in the league. The locker rooms for each club could not have been more different. For starters, Sporting Kristina was mainly a Swedish speaking-team with the exception of a couple players, while Vasa IFK was a mix of Finnish and Swedish speaking. So between both clubs I had to learn a little Swedish and a little Finnish. The guys on Sporting Kristina were more reserved, with the exception of a few players that went out of their way to befriend me and help me adjust to my new life in Finland. Vasa IFK felt much more like a typical American locker room. Guys were joking around, outgoing, and just enjoyed being at training and at the stadium much more.
When you left Sporting for Vasa, was there some urgency on your part to not get relegated? Did you have to do much convincing that just because Sporting was in last place didn’t mean you couldn’t start for Vasa?
There’s some embarrassment that goes along with getting relegated, so of course I did not want to be a part of that, but that isn’t why the move to Vasa IFK happened. I knew after we started the season with a 1-8 record, that we were probably going to get relegated. The town that Sporting Kristina is located in only has about 6,000-7,000 people so they just don’t have the financial ability or enough local talent to compete with other teams in our league that are in cities five to ten times bigger than Kristinestad.
After the slow start to the season, I knew that I just needed to focus on my performances and basically use every game as a tryout for the other teams in our division, as well as any other scouts or coaches watching. Even though we were losing games, I felt like I was putting in good performances so I was ecstatic when I heard that Vasa IFK was interested in me during the summer transfer window. They brought me in as their starting goalkeeper but unfortunately I was only able to play one game for them before suffering a shoulder injury to end my season.
So are you staying with Vasa next year or are you looking elsewhere?
Even while I was still with Vasa IFK we were beginning talks for next season. I would love to go back and play for Vasa IFK because I feel like they have a strong and dedicated team with a lot of young talent. However, I definitely want to move up and play in higher divisions, whether it is in Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, or even back in the United States.
I think it is incredibly important to have players on a team that are motivated to achieve more than what they already have and to want to challenge themselves. So I would be cheating myself personally and professionally if I was not open to other options. So, at this moment, it is important for me and my agent to decide which option is the best for my career going forward.
You’ve been a part of a lot of organizations. Do you have a different perspective on being “professional” versus a player who has been with a club for multiple years?
I have only been a professional soccer player for roughly 2 years but I feel like I have already been with more clubs than most guys will in their entire career. It has been a blessing and a curse. I was so happy when Sporting Kansas City offered me a contract back in 2012. Not many players can say they have signed a professional contract with their hometown team so that was very special to me. My goal was to prove to the coaches at Sporting KC that I belong there and one day I will be in the starting lineup for them. Obviously, things don’t work out quite the way you want them to, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I was able to spend time with the Columbus Crew, Real Salt Lake, and the Portland Timbers which were all incredible and unique experiences in their own way.
I got to go play for the Des Moines Menace and see the amazing support that the city has for that team. The Menace mean so much to that community so it was an awesome experience being able to give back to the community while I was there. After the Menace I signed a short contract with the New York Cosmos and was the back up for a game down in Ft. Lauderdale against the Strikers. I now get to say that I played on the same team that Pele played for. I mean, how cool is that? And, with that, I also got to be a part of one of the oldest rivalries in American soccer.
Then finally, I landed in Finland this season. It was such an amazing experience living and playing in a different country. I can’t say whether my career so far has been better or worse than someone with just one club but I can say one thing, it has been a journey.