An Argentine-American in Israel
"I was home with my family at night," Bryan Gerzicich tells me. "And then the walls and the floor started shaking. We got really scared because we thought it was a bomb or something."
This happened eight months ago. Gerzicich feared a bomb because he lives and plays soccer in Kiryat Shmona, a tiny town of 23,000 in northern Israel that rubs up against Lebanon, making it one of the more dangerous areas in an already dangerous country.
The region is nicknamed "Kiryat Katyusha" in homage to the type of missiles used to attack the city. As recently as 2006, Kiryat Shmona was hit by over 1,000 missiles. Conditions have been relatively stable since, though it's still not somewhere a guy who grew up in Buenos Aires by way of Los Angeles would ever willingly choose to live.
Still, Gerzicich's a professional soccer player, an American professional soccer player, making a living and playing for a team in major European competitions. Where that's happening -- for an Israeli team, first in the Champions League, now in the Europa League -- doesn't necessarily matter. It's happening, and that's the important part. (Gerzicich missed both of Kiryat's Champions League qualifiers, which they lost 3-1 on aggregate to FC BATE Borisov of Belarus, after picking up a knee injury that required surgery against Azerbaijan's Neftchi Baku in the previous round. He expects to be back at the end of September
Back in January, The New York Times profiled the 12-year-old Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona's sudden rise. As a comparison, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israel's most successful club, is 106 years old and in the scope of world soccer, a club as young as Kiryat achieving so highly is unprecedented. And as the starting defensive midfielder, Gerzicich is one of the best players on Israel's best team. (Kiryat won the Israeli league title last season to go along with the past two league cups.)
Having been born in Los Angeles, spending 23 years in Buenos Aires and living in Israel ever since, Gerzicich's a man of more than one country. At the same time, he's still looking for a home. And those bombs?
"It was just an earthquake."
According to a thread on BigSoccer.com -- the most official/unofficial source for a scattershot survey like this -- there are currently 328 "Americans" playing soccer abroad, from Argentina to Mexico to New Zealand to Israel. No-one really knows what makes them American. They're all eligible to play for this country -- or they were. Some will choose not to. Some won't ever be asked. And others will get their shot, but regardless of their status or desires, all of them are united by the sport and some connection -- however vague that may be -- to this country.
In a sense, U.S. soccer doesn't exist because its history is too short to have even earned a stereotypical identity. What has stuck is the idea that the Americans are triers -- all bluster, no finesse. They're fighters who'll keep fighting, whether or not that's to the detriment or benefit of any kind of success. Americans play soccer like, well, Americans. But it's not that simple.
Americans are triers because they have to be. They're catching up on all the years gone by, so it takes some fast-forwarding to get to where Americans expect Americans to be: better than everyone else. Painfully unaware and unrealistic as this is, there's nothing wrong with trying to get there. How that's being done, though, is what's really creating the identity of American soccer.
Bryan Gerzicich was born in Los Angeles on March 20, 1984. His parents' two-year work contract ran out soon after his birth so the family moved back to Buenos Aires three months after he was born. He hasn't been back since. So, is he an American?
"Yes, I do feel that way," Gerzicich said. "My parents have told me many nice things about it. And I'd love to go there and get to know the country where I was born."
I spoke to Bryan via a computer (connecting New York to Israel) and also through a translator, his friend. His English isn't all that great, which to some angry people might disqualify him from being a "real American," but that doesn't really matter. It's a dumb question, the consideration of his nationality. If he feels a connection to the country he's born in, then what else even is there? Oh, he's still eligible for a call-up from U.S. Men's National Team head coach Jürgen Klinsmann. There's that, too.
Bryan's first professional club was Argentinean side Arsenal de Sarandí -- the defending Clausura champions -- where he played six games in 2006, but it became clear there wasn't a future for him at the club. He thought about heading stateside but that never materialized either. Instead, in a business-meets-sport-meets-what-the-the-hell scenario, Bryan's fitness coach set him up at a gym with an Israeli businessman visiting Argentina, after which time Bryan went back with him to Israel. Some time later, he became a member of Hapoel Haifa in the Israeli second division. There, Gerzicich was able to play soccer full-time, which was more important than wherever he had to be to do it.
"For the first couple of months, it was really hard because I came here by myself and I didn't know the language," Gerzicich said. "So it was kind of hard for me. And then I started to adapt, and since I was always playing, I had my head on the game. It was a game for me."
Eventually his Argentinian girlfriend (now wife) Susana followed him to Israel. They've been married for four years and have a four-year-old son, Lionel and a one-year-old daughter, Macarena. As his family grew, Gerzicich made his way up the club ladder and into the first division, never stopping to think, Wait -- what the hell am I doing, again? And why am I in Israel?
His only real scare came in 2008 when he was vacationing with his wife in Spain and heard reports of a conflict erupting in Gaza, but a few calls back to Israel confirmed that none of the violence was too close to home. So, when Gerzicich signed with Kiryat Shmona in 2010, he didn't consider such danger an issue.
"I've been here for many years now, so I was never afraid," Gerzicich said. "While I've been living here, I've never had an experience of terrorism or anything, so I was fine living here."
His club finished fifth in 2010-11 and won the Israeli league with five games to spare, sealing a spot in the Champions League qualifying rounds -- a place few Americans get to go. (Jermaine Jones with Schalke and Michael Parkhurst with Nordsjaelland earned automatic spots in the group stages this season, while Anderlecht's Sacha Kljestan and Helsingborg's Alejandro Bedoya, like Gerzicich, played the second legs of their qualifiers this past week. Only Kljestan's side made it through.) With Gerzicich a star man and the promise of Champions League soccer ahead, things seem pretty good (outside of his injury) -- but they can always be better.
U.S. Soccer doesn't have a frame-fitting identity; it's in a state of continued transition. Should American soccer try to be more European? Or should it embrace its American-ness and push that as far as it can go? No one really knows, and there's no one answer. When Klinsmann took the U.S. job last summer, he mentioned all of the different aspects of the sport here -- college, the MLS, the draft, the not-fully-embraced Hispanic contingent -- and stressed the importance of them all.
At the same time, since taking over, Klinsmann has called up a number of foreign-born players -- notably, the German-born trio of Danny Williams, Fabian Johnson and Terrence Boyd -- to the squad, tapping into the talent overload (or oversight, depending on your perspective) in other, better soccer countries. Whatever your stance on nationalism, this is a reality of modern soccer and the world we live in. Things are fluid. Borders aren't walls. And many Americans are seeing their professional soccer careers in this way.
But does this have any implications for the future of U.S. soccer? Would the federation rather have all its players getting schooled under the same system, even if it's one that's still taking shape? Or is the success of so many guys abroad -- guys like Brian Gerzicich -- some sign of progress?
"The goal for each individual player is for him to be in an environment that is challenging and allows him to improve day-by-day, month-by-month and year-by-year," U.S. Soccer spokesman Neil Buethe told me via email. "If that's in MLS, that's great, but for other players it might be in Denmark or England or Mexico."
At the same time, Buethe admits, the scatter of players makes it harder to monitor everyone.
"It's a challenge, but we have a system set up to track the progress of as many U.S.-eligible players as possible, which helps us in keeping tabs on possible national team candidates."
Whether Gerzicich ever gets a call up to the U.S. men's national team remains to be seen. When the midfielder first suggested that growing up in the U.S. might have been better for his soccer career, it sounded odd. Better than Argentina, the nation of Messi, Maradona, and countless contemporary giants dominating in the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, and everywhere else soccer is played? When put in the context of Buethe's comments, though, it makes some sense.
"Everyone would've seen me, so maybe I would've had more chances to play with the national team," Gerzicich said. "In Israel, it's more difficult to be seen, especially with the position I play."
It's a position where the U.S. is strong, with Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, and the foreign-born duo of Jermaine Jones and Stuart Holden the most obvious names blocking any possible path. These four play in Italy, England, Germany, and England respectively, and all four of them play for well-known clubs in the top two divisions of these countries.
"Maybe playing in a bigger team in a more important league," Bryan said. "I might be more recognized, so I'd have a chance to be closer to the U.S. national team."
That may be so, but again, no one really knows. All we know is that there are a lot of American people. There are a lot of American people playing soccer, too and over 300 of them doing it somewhere other than the U.S., an unique soccer diaspora that simultaneously shows the country's dual problem: some its players are making it, but its federation has not.
All of these things make American soccer what it is, whatever it is -- even (and especially) a 28-year-old Argentinean dude living on the Israel-Lebanon border who can't remember the last time he set foot on U.S. soil.
Ryan O'Hanlon works for Outside. You can follow him on Twitter at @rwohan.