While professional opportunities in the United States have exploded in the past decade, every year capable pros remain overlooked.
Whether it’s college players finished with school looking to keep the dream alive or promising youth talent looking to go pro sooner, there are more hopeful professionals than available jobs.
Twenty-eight-year-old former pro Joe Funicello experienced this firsthand in the mid-2000s. Skipping the college route, Funicello first started training with the MetroStars/Red Bulls after a standout high school career. When that fell through, he started bouncing around different pro combines in the United States before trying his luck in Europe. He booked a one-way ticket to England, working the graveyard shift at a Gap, hoping to breakthrough. After returning to the States and spending a season in USL, he eventually carved out a career in Finland and Iceland, which ended in 2013.
That year, he funneled that experience into SoccerViza, a Connecticut-based combines company whose aim is to provide opportunities for aspiring U.S.-based players with clubs abroad. His desire was simple.
“We want to give everyone a chance,” Funicello told TopDrawerSoccer.com.
In the past two years, SoccerViza has helped more than 50 players open doors to trials with various clubs in Europe. It might not be the bright lights of Champions League soccer, but it’s a foot in the door, a chance to play professionally and live abroad.
Armed with the experience of his playing days, competing at USL and Infosport combines, Funicello set up his own company with the aim of providing what he felt was the best exposure possible in a short combine window. He never felt like he got a quality look during his own domestic experiences, and leveraged those lessons into SoccerViza.
The company’s combines are three days, and limited to just 60 players, with the level of play a significant priority – they want European clubs to return. Players have to send in a resume and application in order to get a combine spot. Training sessions are held on the first day, with a motivational speech after where Funicello shares his story to those in attendance. The next two days feature 11-v-11 full field scrimmages, held one at a time, giving the coaches only one game at a time to focus on. It also includes a career development seminar, teaching players how to market themselves, speak to agents, clubs, how to network, how to get their name out.
Funicello and the rest of the coaches running the combine provide feedback to the attendees during and after the process. In the company’s eight combines previously held, clubs such as Benfica, Queretaro, Portland Timbers, Sporting KC, KuPS (Finland), Valur (Iceland), Vikingur Reykjavik (Iceland), VPS, KTP (Finland), Aegir (Iceland), Leiknir Faskrudsfjordur (Iceland) have sent scouts.
“We’ve grown to have contacts all over the world at different levels because soccer’s a game of opinions,” Funicello said. “You might think some player’s good, I might think he’s not that good, but it really comes down to opinions, so with all these contacts it gives players more of an opportunity.”
Many of the success stories have been players to come through the college ranks at smaller programs. Sean Reynolds played at West Florida, working at a Home Depot and ready to go into coaching. A SoccerViza combine opened a door for a contract with FH in Iceland, and Reynolds returned to play for USL Pro Louisville City FC earlier this year.
Former UMBC goalkeeper Phil Saunders went through SoccerViza to sign a deal at BI in Iceland in 2014, where he’s joined by four other combine alumni: Joey Spivack, Aaron Walker, Calvin Crooks and Junior Prevalus.
One of the more recent successes was Uche Onyeador. The former D.C. United Academy player didn’t have the career he wanted in four years at Georgetown, wrapping up at the end of 2011. After two years battling and playing in the soccer wilderness while working a full-time job, he made three appearances at SoccerViza combines in 2014. Eventually, he got a call from Joe about a trial in Iceland with Aegir, a third-division club.
“A lot of the combines I went to in the past were huge numbers, couple hundred people, the coaches aren’t able to see you that well, but with SoccerViza there is a lower amount of players it means you have a better opportunity to be seen by coaches,” Onyeador said. “Just the structure of the SoccerViza combine is much better than anything I’ve ever been to.”
Getting a trial is just half the battle, of course, as it’s then up to the players to earn a spot on the team in Europe. Working with European clubs over the past few years, Funicello has gleaned what clubs abroad perceive about American players.
“They said they’re hard-working and wear their heart on their sleeve, but they really don’t know the game tactically that well – where they should be off the ball, stuff like that,” he said. “They lack that game awareness, they lack reading the game as well as a European player like. Their academies are developing players to read the game, understand the game, whereas here it starts with parents coaching players.”
The company continues to grow and make inroads with clubs abroad, sending a steady stream of players on trial. California Baptist midfielder Josue Soto earned a trial with Queretaro’s Under 20 team in Mexico.
This week, former Creighton midfielder Zach Barnes is traveling to Portugal for a trial with Vitoria Setubal after his recent performance at a 2015 combine in Dallas. Barnes has been on a similar roundabout journey since being drafted in 2014 by D.C. United. He was released in preseason but a Facebook message from a friend alerted him to the opportunity, and it helped him to earn the opportunity in Portugal.
Getting instant feedback during the combine was a big plus for Barnes, who’s had his share of tryouts in the U.S.
“When you go to tryouts with USL teams, mainly it’s a two or three day tryout then you come home and find out a few days later, a week later, you find out what their decision is,” Barnes said. “But with the SoccerViza combine what I thought was really great was that Joe and the guys are super involved in the sessions, trying to give you pointers and help you out, if they see something or hear something they pull you off to the side and let you know what’s going on, on the spot. That way you know what’s happening, what people’s interests are, stuff like that.”
The SoccerViza schedule is packed with plenty more for 2015. Two more combines are on the docket in California and Connecticut and Fucinello is hoping to take a smaller group of players for showcase games in Europe.
And while making inroads with MLS, NASL or USL teams is something he’s open to, the opportunities in Europe are more bountiful.
“There are not really a lot of pro teams in America and with all the college players that come through the system, it’s hard,” he said. “So of course I’d love to work with U.S. teams, but I think the European teams gives these U.S. players more of an opportunity.”