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Posted by Team, 9th April 2018
Every year GIS has thousands of players that participate in our ID camps, tours, and national programs. Most of these players share a common dream of playing in Europe one day. Helping players achieve that dream has always been the ultimate goal of the experiences and opportunities we provide our partners. With that said, it is a challenging road with hundreds of variables that can make or break a career. One such player that has gone through the ups and downs of the journey to play European soccer is Daniel Johnson (DJ).
DJ hails from Duluth, GA and attended Greater Atlanta Christian School (GAC). In middle school, DJ attended GIS’s West Ham United National Camps, so when he heard that GAC would be taking a tour to visit West Ham in London, he could hardly wait!
“I remember thinking that it was just going to be a cool week of training and a great experience,” said DJ. “It turned out to be way more.”
On Day 1, DJ was playing in a match and caught the eye of Paul Heffer (West Ham’s International Academy Director) and Tony Carr (Former Academy Director). Throughout the next week, Paul and Tony continued to scout DJ and at the end of the week they invited him to come back for a proper trial.
“They said, ‘It would be great to get you over here on a more full-time basis. We think you could eventually be a pro for West Ham’. But it’s tough as a twelve-year-old to fully register the kind of opportunity I had. All I saw was an opportunity to play soccer every day, which was the dream.”
Once his parents were convinced of the idea (no easy task), DJ returned to West Ham on trial and received an invitation to train with the Academy full-time. Life as he knew it was about to completely change. His day-to-day was now training and competing to keep his spot at the Academy.
“It’s weird because you’re a kid and want to have fun, but you’re also competing with your teammates to be the next professional for West Ham. There’s pressure coming from everywhere, Tony, back home, the coaches. The status is cool, but the work is hard. Every day wasn’t amazing. There were tons of ups and downs, but you had to keep fighting.”
DJ would go on to play at the Academy from 2009-12. The end game was simple, either earn a professional contract with West Ham or get sent home. Many kids came and went, but in 2012 DJ received the call from West Ham he’d dreamt of.
“I had worked up until that age to where it matters and incredibly West Ham called me and said ‘congratulations, you’re going to be with us for the next several years’ and offered me a professional contract.”
I wish the rest of this feature was about DJ flourishing with West Ham, making the first-team, and playing with the US National Team. However, life rarely takes us on the perfect trajectory. A few weeks later, DJ received word that UEFA denied his FIFA appeal for the work visa needed to become a professional soccer player in England.
“I call it my greatest heartbreak. I went through the hardest four years of my life at the Academy, and for someone at a desk who doesn’t know me and doesn’t know what I sacrificed to simply stamp a ‘no’ is extremely heartbreaking.”
In the span of two months, DJ had gone from earning his first professional contract with a Premier League Club to considering never playing soccer again. Defeated doesn’t even begin to express how low he felt. Moving on was no small task, but a conversation with his youth club director, Tony Annan (now the Academy Director at Atlanta United), got him back on track.
“I credit Tony Annan with keeping me from quitting. He essentially told me, ‘there’s no one path that is set and no template for turning pro’. I realized that if I just focused on the door that closed, I would miss other doors that are opening for me.”
With this new perspective, DJ set out on a more familiar path for Americans, college. He first attended the University of Maryland before transferring to the University of Louisville. But he took with him the habits and mindset he developed at West Ham.
“The number one thing that Paul [Heffer] preached was having awareness and knowing what you’re going to do before you get the ball. Checking my shoulder, head on a swivel, and getting a picture of the field was drilled into me. There’s not a training session where I haven’t used that.”
After a stellar college career, DJ was invited to the MLS Combine and was drafted No. 11 overall by the Chicago Fire in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft. He would go on to appear for the Fire eight times his rookie season. It wasn’t the path he originally envisioned to become a pro, but Tony Annan’s words rung true.
Despite finally getting to live out his dream of being a professional soccer player, the sting still remains from his “greatest heartbreak”. DJ’s hope is that the next generation of kids and their parents can learn from his journey and avoid similar issues.
“People don’t realize that I was one of, if not the first, young American to go early through an academy, get a professional contract, and then run into issues that we weren’t aware of. I was sort of the guinea pig. So it’s important to look into the legal side of things before sending a kid over to chase a dream. Parents need to understand the FIFA Child Protection Act, look into countries that offer citizenship after two years, and figure out if their kid can receive another passport based on the lineage. The legal side is just as important as the soccer side.”
Currently, DJ is focused on his sophomore season with the Fire. He had a good pre-season, but picked up a slight knock and is working his way back into the lineup again. He’s come back from worse circumstances, so there’s no doubt he’ll be back in the fold soon.
Long-term, DJ is working towards being a regular contributor in MLS and getting back into the US National Team conversation. Learning from the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger at the Fire has been a major advantage in the journey. He would also be remiss if he didn’t have aspirations of returning to Europe one day.
“It would be great to get back to Europe and get that experience fully of being a professional there because I had to leave not on my own terms. Getting back over there and experiencing life as a pro in Europe would be incredible and something that I want to do for sure.”
And all of us here at GIS have no doubt you will.
DJ’s story is a relatable one for most; ups and downs, accomplishments and adversity. But every trial and tribulation on his path has led him to where he is today and the lessons learned will aid him as he continues the journey of being a professional athlete.
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” -Maya Angelou
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