I didn’t know then, though, that embracing challenges would be a theme I’d revisit repeatedly throughout my playing and managing career.
Challenges are a constant to be leaned into and never feared. Change of role, team, culture – whatever the challenge may be, embrace it and use it as an opportunity to grow.
I feel lucky that my road less travelled started in a little-known place on the US soccer map. In the early 1980s, Northern New Jersey was one of those pockets of the country where the ‘world’s game’ had taken root and stayed strong, even in the years between the NASL folding and Major League Soccer arriving.
As a kid, I was just about old enough to be excited by the NASL. As I got older, I watched live games of Serie A, and saw the passion and engagement of the people around me as they reacted to them.
“When I talk to players now, I stress the importance of leaving their comfort zone to be challenged”
I was watching the perfect AC Milan teams of Gullit, Van Basten, Rijkaard, Maldini, Baresi. Other Jersey kids might have pretended to be the New York Giants quarterback when they played. I wanted to be the Juventus and Italy defender Antonio Cabrini. I loved the way he played, pioneering the attacking full-back role.
It was an environment that made an ambition to play in Europe seem possible, even if the path there wasn’t obvious.
I was in a region that produced players like Peter Vermes, John Harkes, Tony Meola, Tab Ramos and many other local legends. You could watch these guys and hear stories about them. Even though MLS wasn’t around yet, you could look up to these players.
As for how I eventually got on that flight to the Netherlands, I went to college in North Carolina. I had a German coach there, Elmar Bolowich, who arranged for me to do some training with Schalke. I also went to Wiesbaden and trained, and then I went to Holland with the USA Under-21 team.