Interview by Kendra Lee
You were born in Canada, but left for the Netherlands at a very early age and grew up in Holland.
I was 4 when I left so I don’t really remember anything. In Holland everything is small, it was just a little village. There are cities as well, but it can’t compare with Ottawa. But it was nice growing up.
What got you interested in playing soccer?
I don’t know. In Holland, and Europe, soccer’s the number one sport. Here’s it’s hockey, baseball, basketball or whatever and then soccer. So I grew up playing soccer, all my friends did, so it was kind of normal. You go to school and then after school you play soccer outside so it’s just normal for people in Holland. When I was 8 or 9 I already started playing, not professional league soccer, but I just went to a pro team, PSV Eindhoven in the youth academy. And there was already training, it was everyday so I had to go to school, then when I came back at 3 o’clock, my dad was already there to pick me up to go to training and then we’d come back around 7 o’clock at night. So it was really busy and I didn’t really have an average childhood.
When did you realize that this was something you could do professionally?
Yeah, well at PSV I was never really…well I was okay, but I was the guy on the team that was good, but nothing special, but not below average. I was just an average player. And there was always these players on the team when I grew up, and they were really good and they got special treatment, but I was never one of those guys. And when I was 17 they told me, “There’s no more future for you. You have to go, you have to leave. Thank you for everything, but that’s it.” So I was sad about that of course, but then I went to a second league team. In Holland they will put you on the reserve team. So when they sent me away I was like, “That’s it, it’s over, you know. My dream is over.” But then I still had the chance to play on a second league team, Helmond Sport, with their reserve team and it was like, “Yeah, ok why not? Let’s give it a shot.” Then from there, maybe four months later, I was playing on the first team so that was huge for me. And then ever since, I had the belief that I could do it.
How did that opportunity come to you?
Where I started, PSV Eindhoven, is a pretty big club and when you play there or in the youth, there’s always someone who’s better. There’s better players that play there so the lesser players play with the second league professional teams’ youth systems. So then there’s always a chance to be pro with one of those clubs. So I was in the second league youth system with Helmond Sport, I mean the reserve team. So then a couple of months later I was already playing in the first team.
What was the biggest thing you learned as a player at that time?
Of course I learned a lot, soccer wise and all, but like I said before I was never really the hot shot. I was just one of the guys. And there were guys that were so much more talented than me. So what I learned, what I always tell when I talk to kids, is it doesn’t matter if you have more talent than the other guy, it doesn’t mean you’ll get as far as somebody else with less talent. That’s what I picked up from that. And that’s pretty big. You can have all the talent in the world, if your mentality is not good then there’s no chance of making it. So maybe I got lucky, or maybe it’s my attitude, but some of the guys with all the talent didn’t make it, and me with the less talent made it.
You started to play with the Canadian National Team on the U-17 squad. How did you decide to play for Canada?
Well, it’s a funny story. When I played at PSV, I also played on the Dutch Team’s Under-11, under 12, 13, 14. Then at one point my mom actually called or sent an email to the Canadian Federation saying “there’s this guy who plays in Holland, and he has a Canadian passport.” I never knew about it, she told me about this a couple of years later. So she sent an email and they responded and they did their homework and checked me out. And Stephen Hart, at that time he was the under 17 coach, he flew over to Holland and watched me play a game at PSV and had dinner at our house. And we just met and it was pretty cool! And so ever since I started playing for Canada. But when I was 20, I also got an invitation for the Holland under 21s. So I was like, “What am I going to do?” I played there for a couple of games and tried it out. But before you’re 21 you have to make a choice between Holland or Canada, and in my mind I was just like “ah, let’s go for Canada.”
Just like that!
Yeah, my first cap with Canada was in a stadium in Mexico, Guadalajara, I was like “Wow! Where am I? It’s unbelievable!” I was a 16 year old guy and I was like “Yeah, I like this!” There’s always nice trips and nice people. I always have fun going with the National Team.
You got your first professional contract when you were pretty young. How did you find the transition from youth to pro?
My first contract was when I was 18, that’s when I made my debut. And in Holland there’s a rule that when you play 5 games in the professional league, they have to give you some sort of contract. So I just got a small contract, nothing special. I was just happy that I could pay for my gas! But the transition…I just kind of switched. PSV sent me away, and I went to a club called Helmond Sport, and from there, 4 months later, I was on the first team. It went so fast; it was crazy. Luckily there was one or two other guys who also made that transition so it was a little easier for me. It just went so fast! I played just six months and then the season was over. Then four months later in the next season, we had a cup game against a first league team, Roda JC, and apparently I did well and they said they wanted me so that was kind of cool, after only a season and a half with a club in the second league! They paid $250, 000 for the transfer fee, and I was the biggest signing so that feeling was pretty cool. I don’t know if it is still, I don’t think so, but at that time it was the highest transfer and I was 18 or 19 years old.
You played in the first league for a while, and things went really well for you, so the next step was Germany.
Yeah, I played one and a half seasons in the second league, four years in the first league and then to Germany for four and a-half years. Roda JC plays in Kerkrade in Holland, which is right at the boarder with Germany and at the time there was a Dutch coach in Augsburg and he called me one time and said, “I want you”, I said, “OK”. I’d never heard of that team because they were in the second league in Germany at that time. I was like “Ok, I have to check it out.” So I went there and spoke with the coach. And this was when I was in season with the other team, so I had to go a little bit on the down low! Nobody could find out that I went there or traveled so I had to do it a little bit incognito! So I went there with my wife [then girlfriend] and watched the game, spoke with the coach and met with their technical director. They told me about the club and the history and their plans. I thought it was kind of cool and it was a nice city and we had a good feeling and that’s why I signed there. That was a nice chapter of our lives.
What differences did you see in the leagues between Holland and Germany?
Augsburg played in the second league, but already the stadiums were much bigger than stadiums in Holland. There were more fans. It was just a bigger country, a bigger soccer country and it was impressive. We had a really good season. I played almost every game and that year we finished second, one or two points behind the number one, so we got promoted to the first league. It was their first time ever in history. So we were called the “Aufstiegshelden” it’s like “Promotion Heroes”, that’s what they called us. It was pretty cool. That was a big difference, but soccer in general is much bigger than anywhere.
From the second to the first division in Germany, there must have been an increase in intensity.
Yeah, that was really hard. From guys who I never really remembered their names in the second league, to playing against guys like [Arjen] Robben on Bayern Munich and [Franck] Ribery, and at Borussia Dortmond we played in front of 80,000 fans there. It’s crazy! You can’t even hear each other on the field! It’s just so impressive. A couple of years before, you know you can see your family in the stands and wave at them, but there, you don’t even know where they are! You feel so alone. It’s just a different level. It’s an experience that I will never forget.
And the team stayed up in the Bundesliga.
Yeah, and that was even a bigger accomplishment than getting promoted to the first league. And they’re still in there.
What was your favourite memory from being in the Bundesliga?
That first year when we won the last game. We went up to the first league and there was a big celebration. All the fans, I don’t know how many thousands of fans, were on the streets, cheering and took us through the city. I think that was one of the best feelings! And the year after when we stayed in the league. I had good years there. Yeah, it was amazing! Such a nice town; I got married there, my child was born there, so it will always be a part of my life.
So then you made the jump to North America and went to Sporting KC in the MLS. That is a huge difference!
Yeah, a huge difference. The last two years in Germany we had a new coach and he didn’t really like me, or maybe I didn’t really like him, I don’t know. But I had to live with it. It was unlucky because they bought a new player in my position and he ended up going to Chelsea for, I don’t know, they sold him for like $20 million. Baba, he plays now for Chelsea, this guy was playing in my position. So that was unlucky, but good for him! So then I was like “Ok, I’m done. On to something new.” But the transfer window was closed almost everywhere so there weren’t lots of options for where the window was still open except in North America. So we found Sporting Kansas City, which at the beginning was really nice. We liked it there; I liked the soccer. The stadium is really good and the fans are nice. At the beginning it was all good, but then after awhile, I had one or two bad games in a row and then the coach didn’t play me for awhile. So that was kind of weird. And then he played me again, and I scored and then he played me for another three games after that and that was it. So that was kind of weird. That was not the year that I had planned. So then it was like “thank you very much but you have to go.”
What are the main differences between European and North American soccer?
I think in general when I was in Kansas it was all about the Royals and the Chiefs, and the soccer came third. So that’s one of the big things. And like I said, stadiums. You can play in stadiums with 7, 8, 9 thousand fans, but in Germany you can go to the third league and you have 7, 8, 9 thousand fans there. And the mentality is different, a lot different. When you go for away games, for example, you have to stay in a hotel and you have team dinners. But in MLS, you can basically do whatever you want. Just be there at the meeting. You have breakfast on your own, lunch on your own, so that’s different. But that’s what they know here. I like it, but it’s different.
And now you’re here. What drew you to Ottawa to play for the Fury?
I always told my family that I’d always wanted to play in Canada. I’ve just always wanted to play here. I don’t know why. And then at the end of January I got rid of my contract in Kansas. And again, with the winter window it was hard to find a club because the teams are already settled normally in Europe. So it was like, ok, let’s go, Ottawa’s interested there might be an option and you can also sign there for four months and then try and go back to Europe or wherever in the summer. It’s easier to transfer in the summer. So that’s why I came here.
Was Julian de Guzman an influence at all?
Yeah, I spoke to him when I was about to sign, but I didn’t really ask him about it. It’s something you have to do for yourself anyway; you have to prove yourself. He can tell me it’s nice here, but if you don’t work hard and don’t succeed then it’s not nice here, you know? If you don’t play well, you don’t like it here. If you play well, you like it here.
Do you see a difference between the MLS and the NASL?
Of course there’s a difference but the basics are the same, I think. Just the level of the stadiums, smaller and we play on fields where there’s lines of the football team. That was the first time for me in the first game we played in New York and I was like, “What is going on here?” I’ve never seen that! Like, “What?!”
What is the biggest influence on your decisions to go to different teams?
My family is important. Like right now we’re in the process of “What do we do now in the summer?” I told my agent, “You can look everywhere but I won’t play in a country where I cannot bring my family.” I have to bring them, I don’t want to be apart from them. But we’re here now and I’ve told everyone a couple of times we like it here! We know the city, we know the club, we know the players, my family is here and they like it here.
If there were a Canadian League, would you consider playing in an all Canadian League?
Yes. Yeah, of course. Yeah, definitely. I think it’s also huge for Canada. Also politically, if we ever want to host a big tournament we need our own league. I think it’s also good for my experience as well. If you want to live in Canada, maybe I can be a head coach somewhere, like Saskatchewan United or something laughs, but then it would be an option. You know play in the league for a couple of years and then work in a club somewhere. I’ve just heard the rumours, but what I’ve heard is that it’s going to happen year or years, which is good I think.