Before his surprise inclusion in Jürgen Klinsmann”s 23-man World Cup squad, the Seattle Sounders and United States defender spoke with Eight by Eight“s Miles Kohrman about what it means to be part of a new generation of American footballers.
There is an increasing emphasis on growing talent inside the United States and, as Seattle Sounders’ first homegrown player, you’re often cited as a model of this growth. Can you talk about the experience of rising through the ranks?
It was a pretty interesting ride. Growing up I played for some pretty good teams under some pretty good coaches. I think the thing that eventually sent me to the next level was my time at University of Akron with Caleb [Porter] and with that team. It just gave me a whole new perspective of the game: Thats where I really, really got converted into a right back and learned the position. So after that, it was to Seattle, and I got fortunate a little bit with Adam Johansson— he had a little bit of a knock in preseason—and I just took that opportunity and ran with it. They ended up selling him, and I found my spot as a starter.
It’s been a crazy ride, and everything’s happened so fast. But I’m just trying to keep my feet on the ground and continue to drive and push and do what I do. That’s the main reason I’ve been able to not get too overwhelmed by what’s happening.
We spoke with Clint Dempsey for our World Cup special issue about the development of football in America and he emphasized the importance of giving young players—no matter their socioeconomic backgrounds—the opportunity to play the game at a high level. As a product of the youth system, do you feel that your experience is one that will become more common?
I think that in all situations like mine, there has to be a little luck. Adam Johansson’s injury gave me the opportunity to play with the first team.
But the more the years go, the better the talent gets in the US. I think that people are starting to realize that we really need to start at a young age and, like Clint said, start those academies earlier or just give kids the opportunity to spend more time on the field.
What I have experienced, and where I am now, isn’t impossible to achieve, I think it’s actually very possible. It’s just a matter of how young players can start—and how important the game is to us as a nation.
Major League Soccer has said that you’ve “benefitted from the hype of playing in Seattle.” How do the fans play a role in your development?
Having the fans behind you and having them so into the sport really drives young players, especially up here in the Pacific Northwest and even down in Portland. Playing in front of thousands of people is pretty big motivation: Even in the academy games we’d get 50-100 ECS members out there chanting and singing. For me it really made me want to get my play to the next level.
Do you feel pressure as a youth product in the US, who plays at one of the most supported teams in the MLS, to be a role model to kids around the country—to show that you can succeed, and make money, playing professional football as an American?
I wouldn’t even call it pressure. I would call it a privilege. Any time I can have a chance to have an effect on a kid’s life—maybe even an adult’s life— it’s a blessing and an honor.The expectation is so high but there’s obviously people who are in a lot higher spot than I am like Clint, who’s the face of US Soccer. At this point it’s not pressure. I’m just kind of having fun with it, you know?
You’re 20 years old, coming of age as MLS is gaining traction in the American mainstream. Older players in the league weren”t so fortunate. Do you find that there is a generational gap present between older and younger players, because of this?
The reading that I get is that they’re excited. I was talking about it with my uncle, who played when he was a little bit younger, and he was just saying that the opportunities that I had growing up—the academy, all of these other things—really show the production level of the game today. The nbso online casino reviews American guys on our team, at least, they’re excited for this league to be growing. I mean you have young guys coming out of the US going into big leagues in Europe, so you can really see the game in the US is expanding fast. I’d like to live here—and if you can play here and make the money you’re going to make over in Europe or elsewhere, it’s a great place to be.
Obviously, Clint Dempsey left and did great over in England, but I think you’ll see a trend of more and more young guys not necessarily leaving, but becoming more complete or better players than was achievable ten years ago.
Do you feel that with players of your generation there exists a sense of optimism that football is really starting to take its hold in America, and, more importantly, that this year’s World Cup is a crucial moment for the sport?
I definitely do. I obviously haven’t been around other World Cup teams, but the sense I’ve got from the nation as a whole is we’re kinda going in as the underdog. And even though we may be in the group of death, there still is some expectation for us and I think that that’s something that Jürgen has done well with the fans and the country as a whole.
Speaking of that global stage: The World Cup in Brazil is fast approaching. In January you earned your first call up to the senior men’s team, and your first cap soon after against Mexico. What did that experience mean to you?
It was an eye-opening experience. When I first got to camp I was a little overwhelmed, being with players that I’ve looked up to as a kid and getting in with Jürgen, who’s obviously a legend. It was an experience just to be coached by him and to be seen that highly.
I learned a lot about positioning— even from a guy like Brad [Davis], who doesn’t normally play right back but he’s just one of those guys who naturally knows about every position—and the difference in formation between the national team and the Sounders, as they like their outside backs to go and attack a bit more than we do at Seattle.
Talk about the mentality of Jürgen Klinsmann ahead of the World Cup.
He really believes in young players and in giving them opportunities. He’s also not going to dress our formation or our type of play for anybody—I get the sense from him that we’re going to go out and play our game, and make the other teams adapt to us. I like that because it shows his confidence in us and his confidence in the team.
You love Seattle, and Seattle loves you, but if an offer came in, could you see yourself leaving the United States for a club in Europe?
That’s very hard to say. There’s a lot that goes into that sort of situation: Location, what kind of team is it, does the move make sense? Mostly, does it make sense playing wise? I’m not going to go to a team and just sit on the bench, especially when I’m at an age where I need games. I’m in a pretty good situation right now where I’m starting and I’m playing a great club and I’m at home.
Honestly, right now, unless it’s an unbelievable offer I don’t think I’d leave, just because I’m in a great situation in Seattle.