International influx broadens the college game
The flags of eight countries wave over the University of Illinois-Chicago's Flames Field: the United States, Mexico, Canada, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Poland and the Ukraine.
"That's the different countries represented [by players on the team]," UIC coach John Trask explained. "Either they were born there or that's the language they speak at home."
International players are a valuable part of the college game, adding not only to programs in terms of on-field success, but bringing a diversity to teams around the country.
It takes a certain kind of kid to uproot his life. Most college students are reluctant even to leave their home state, let alone trek thousands of miles away to an often obscure college town they knew almost nothing about before the recruiting process began.
Living in another country changes everything. The culture is, well, foreign.
The language, even if it's still English, is different. All of a sudden football is soccer, and while the principles of the game are the same, even aspects of the sport can seem new. Home sometimes feels like it's a million miles away, and having grown up using kilometers, there's a conversion that needs to be made before even that makes sense.
College life is an adjustment -- the life of a student-athlete, doubly so. Settling into that lifestyle while adapting to life in another country can seem overwhelming, but South Carolina defender and native West Indian, Makan Hislop, insists it's not that bad.
Approximate distance from Columbia, S.C., to Tobago: 2,048 miles (3,296 km)
Estimated cost of a ticket to go home over winter break: $1,200
Total travel time: About 14 hours (three stops)
The first question is: How does a kid from the tiny West Indian island of Tobago end up in South Carolina?
"The first big development, obviously, is the Internet," South Carolina coach Mark Berson said. "A lot of these young men now have access to the Internet, and they keep up with not only the soccer programs and the results, but also with the universities."
Players can look up how the team has done, who it plays and what has become of past players as well get an idea of the school's academics.
Another way is word of mouth.
"Generally, teams through the years develop a network of players, maybe former players that go back home and see someone from the area that they recognize as a good player and they'll contact us," Berson said. "Sometimes the contacts come from the players themselves sending an inquiry. Sometimes we learn about them."
Hislop, now a senior, fell under the last category.
"Basically, the coach came and recruited me," explained Hislop, who has been a solid starter on the team's back line for the last three years.
Hislop was recruited to play for the No. 16 Gamecocks after then-assistant coach Brian Cunningham held a training session in Trinidad and Tobago. Cunningham liked what he saw in the young defender and relayed news of the player's potential to Berson. Trusting Cunningham's opinion, Berson offered Hislop, captain of Trinidad and Tobago's Under-21 national team, a scholarship to play soccer in Columbia.
It didn't hurt that Berson was good friends with Lincoln Phillips, technical director of the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation.
"The soccer world in a way is not really that big," Berson explained. "There's a lot of contacts out there, and you kind of keep in touch over time."
Hislop discussed the offer with his parents and decided to come to the states.
What did he know about South Carolina? "Well, I knew where it was located," Hislop said.
He'd been away from home as a member of the youth national team, but that was for only a few weeks at a time. He knew being gone for months would be a little more of a challenge.
"I wasn't really worried," Hislop said of leaving home. "It was more, 'Who's going to pick me up?'"
There was still somewhat of a culture shock when he arrived.
"It was quite an adjustment culturally and economically," the senior said. "But, soccer is soccer."
Although even that was a little different.
"One thing, locally, back in Trinidad and Tobago, there's a certain type of football, everyone plays more slow and composed," Hislop said. "In America, the game is played faster and more aggressively."
The American style, he explained, is centered on a more rounded team where individual players are put into a system. Back home, the game tended to center around four or five top players. His time on the youth national team helped prepare him for the change.
"I was able to be exposed to that speed and that kind of difference in the game," Hislop said. "I would like to think that the Under-21 team gave me that insight into the international game and how to compete at that level."
The biggest adjustment was academic. For the first time, Hislop was responsible for picking his own courses, making sure that his studies got done and living away from his family. All typical college student issues, but compounded by distance.
"A lot of times, I'm sort of on my own," Hislop said. "If anything goes wrong, I don't really have someone easily a phone call away. ... It's not that simple for me because I'm international, but it's forced me to be more independent."
It has also made him feel more appreciated when he does get back home.
"Every time I go home, everyone gets so excited," Hislop said, laughing. "They have so many questions and are always saying, 'Tell us a story.' When I go home for Christmas, it's like a homecoming."
He appreciates home more as well. Having been raised on a tropical island, Hislop rarely thought much about going to the beach in his youth.
"Before I came to America, I never ever went to the beach," he said. "But whenever I go home, I always want to go to the beach."
Approximate distance from Chicago to Belgrade, Serbia: 5,006 miles (8,056 km)
Estimated cost of a ticket to go home at winter break: $1,100
Total travel time: About 13 hours (one stop)
Jovan Bubonja has established himself as one of the nation's top goalkeepers this season. The sophomore is ranked third in both goals-against average (.41, seven goals in 17 games) and save percentage (.897). His efforts helped the University of Illinois-Chicago to a No. 10 ranking earlier this season and a 12-2-3 overall record.
Bubonja managed to slip into the season relatively unknown. A little of that was due to redshirting last year after tearing his ACL in the preseason, but the main reason was because few people in this country had ever seen the Belgrade native play.
Bubonja was introduced to the American college soccer scene at a camp held at Indiana two years ago. UIC assistant coach Sean Phillips worked with Bubonja there and was impressed by his ability. In a situation similar to Hislop's, the head coach trusted his assistant's instincts and went to evaluate the player.
"When I had the chance to fly over to Serbia and meet Jovan's parents and meet Jovan personally, I knew right away I was dealing with a very special player," Trask said.
Making that trip was important on a number of levels for Trask. First, he refuses to sign any player without seeing him play. Second, he wanted to give Branko and Branka Bubonja some peace of mind.
"Whichever way you want to say it, you're taking an 18-year-old kid from his home, from his mom and his dad," Trask said. "You want to make sure they feel comfortable. Rather than just send over a DVD and have three phone conversations, I think when they have a chance to shake your hand and have a meal with you, they know right away whether this is the right situation."
The Bubonjas felt it was a good one and Jovan committed to UIC.
"I thought it might not be like my hometown, but let's go see how it is," Bubonja said. The opportunity to get an education as well as play soccer appealed to him, and he noticed from looking at the roster he wouldn't be alone.
"I saw there were some other guys [from abroad], so I wouldn't be the only foreigner on the team," Bubonja said. "I wouldn't feel awkward."
In fact, the Flames have five other international players on the team, and Bubonja said that did help, but it wasn't a cure-all.
"Of course, in the beginning you are homesick," the keeper said. "Everything is different. The society's different. The community's different. But once I got to like the guys a lot, I enjoyed it. I still enjoy it."
With technology the way it is, it's easier to communicate with family back home, which has helped the transition.
Some parts of the process have been more enjoyable than others. Injuring his knee and being forced to rehab instead of play was tough. It also put life in perspective.
"Soccer, it's easy because you love it," Bubonja said. "The academics you have to do your work just like on the field. You need to make sure you're eligible to play because after four years, you want to do something other than soccer if you don't go pro. And even if you do go pro, you'll still have an alternative -- because ACL surgeries or any other surgeries can happen. You make sure you have alternatives, and that's what college is about."
In Serbia, his club teammates were older, and a number of players didn't or weren't able to have soccer as a top priority because of jobs and other obligations. That's all different at UIC.
"Here, it's all about the team," Bubonja said. "That's what matters the most, you're a part of something."
Trask wants his players to feel that way. No matter where they come from or what their backgrounds, the Flames are a team.
After serving as a Major League Soccer assistant coach from 2000-04, Trask probably wouldn't have taken the UIC job last fall if it wasn't for the multinational makeup.
"Blending those cultures is what I find to be interesting on a daily basis," said Trask, who has noticed that international student-athletes often have a greater appreciation for the opportunities playing college soccer presents.
"Sometimes you deal with the suburban parent or player who feels like this is a right owed to them," the coach said.
International players don't seem have that sense of entitlement.
"They want to go to class," Trask explained. "They want to be friends with their teammates because maybe they don't have that opportunity back home. Back home, you're either a professional soccer player or you're going to a university or you're getting a job. You're not really able to combine them. It's a pretty unique experience.
"The ones that are fortunate enough to do it seem to kind of teach the American kids it's OK to be a different color or speak a different language, that they're the same type of people. They just love soccer and want to get an education and have friends and girlfriends and all the rest of it."
Approximate distance from Morgantown, W.Va., to Havelock, New Zealand: 8,326 miles (13,400 km)
Estimated cost of a ticket to go home at winter break: $2,200
Total travel time: About 35 hours (two stops)
That's actually flying into Pittsburgh. Then, there's an hour-and-a-half drive to Morgantown.
It's worth the jet lag for forward Jarrod Smith, especially now that the Mountaineers are the No. 4 team in the nation.
His first season, he wasn't so convinced. Smith was recruited by then-coach Mike Seabolt. Seabolt, Smith recalled, came to New Zealand, saw him play one game and offered him the chance to play at West Virginia.
"I didn't know much about college soccer in America at all, let alone West Virginia," Smith said, but he accepted.
Smith had been at boarding school since he was 12, so the separation from his family and friends wasn't too hard. In fact, aside from returning to play games as a member of New Zealand's national team, Smith has only traveled home to visit twice.
After his first season, however, he was considering returning home for good.
"We weren't perhaps the team I thought we would be," Smith said. "We only won five games that season. Being my first season, I was a little worried about how things were going to go, but I stuck with it."
The team and Smith have improved dramatically since 2003. Smith has been the team's leading scorer the last three seasons, but entered his senior season with just 17 career goals. He has already scored 14 in 2006. Though the Mountaineers' five-win season wasn't something he enjoyed, it has shown Smith how much he and his teammates have progressed.
"We've come through so much [that] right now, it feels pretty good," Smith said of battling through adversity to become a 13-1-7 team. "I think if it had been this way all along, [the current success] wouldn't be as good a feeling."
He shares that sentiment with all his Mountaineers teammates, including two players from New Zealand and one from Australia. Having teammates from a similar part of the world has helped when times got tough.
"Culturally, we're all a different breed of people really," Smith said. "The way we talk, the way we think. It's good to have a few of them around to have a laugh. But also at Thanksgiving and times like that, we get together. It would be a bit harder I guess if you were the only one."
He's far from that at West Virginia. The team has seven international players, who have a different perspective than their American counterparts when it comes to soccer.
"With the international kids, they grow up basically living the game," West Virginia coach Marlon LeBlanc said. "Our soccer kids in this country are still at the infancy stage with what these kids have had in their culture for years and years and years."
LeBlanc notes that everything abroad is soccer-centric -- from billboards to sports sections.
"It's just a completely different culture," LeBlanc said. "I think the international kid kind of brings that love for the game that they've just grown up with all their lives."
Because of that, foreign players often have a deeper knowledge of the game. It's not because they necessarily have a greater desire to learn than American kids, LeBlanc explained, but it's just a result of constant exposure. While soccer might be televised a few times a month in the United States, it's on almost daily overseas. It's ingrained in the culture.
"That knowledge of the game and just growing up with it, that's the way the game's supposed to be played," LeBlanc said.
Those players bring that passion with them to the college level. Sometimes, it can be detrimental if a player lets it consume him. With his foreign players, LeBlanc watches for that a little more, as well as for homesickness.
"When I was at Penn State, there were quite a few international kids," the coach said. "You hear about the homesickness and things like that. I think that's something you have to deal with."
Establishing a tolerant environment is one key, but this season, he's learned another.
"Especially this year, I've seen winning certainly helps that," he said, laughing.
All the players on his team -- international and American alike -- have contributed to that success.
Trask hopes his athletes at UIC see the level of success that a unified team can achieve.
"If we're respectful of each other's culture, we end up being a lot more like a professional team," Trask said. "If that integrity is not there, when you [fail to] respect each other's backgrounds, it's a recipe for disaster. I think that everybody's looking at us saying, 'These guys are the United Nations, and they're going to fall apart.'"
So far, the Flames have proved doubters wrong. It's a lesson that will take the players far in life, on and off the field.
Maria Burns covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet and is a writer and columnist for The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Ind.). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org