Monday, January 26, 2009
Burns travels the least beaten path
Colin Burns surely would be popular at a cocktail party. He's the stuff movies -- with more sequels than "Halloween" -- are made of.
Colin Burns has improved both physically and mentally since his days at UMass. (Courtesy of Ljungskile/Other)
Burns was far from a standout at the University of Massachusetts, an institution with a modest soccer program. But he embarked on a road trip of epic proportions in some of Europe's less desirable locales to chase, and ultimately realize, his dream of becoming a professional goalkeeper in a pretty decent league. A big assist goes to YouTube.
Burns overcame a serious injury that might have killed him and dealt with the suicide of his only sibling before his European adventure. His travails featured getting a helping hand from one of England's most prominent soccer figures, roughing it with a former gang member and his family in a tough Scottish suburb, and not getting paid during a memorable, and at times harrowing, stint in Moldova. Plum brandy may be a specialty in the former Soviet republic, but trafficking of all sorts -- organ, human and drug -- produces more headlines. And just when Burns was near the finish line, he had to battle bureaucracy in Sweden.
Good thing he made it when he did. The money he'd pocketed from friends and family and from working throughout college ran out quickly, and Burns maxed out his credit cards.
Did we mention he could have returned to the U.S. at any time and found a more traditional job? Burns, who's 26, graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree, specializing in plant and soil science, and interned with the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots.
"People just told me I couldn't do it, and I was just so driven by them saying that," Burns said. "Any time anyone says I can't do something, I just say, 'OK, more motivation for me.'" So he must have been mighty pumped.
Burns, a Delaware native, was part of the University of Massachusetts squad that reached the NCAA tournament in 2001 -- but as the backup netminder. Before entering college, he'd sustained a broken skull after being kneed in the head during a regional game. Give or take an inch, and death or blindness would've been probable outcomes.
Burns' junior year turned tragic when his brother, Scott, committed suicide at the age of 23. His spell with the Minutemen was set back and marred by inconsistency: One game he'd sparkle, while the next he'd make basic mistakes.
Head coach Sam Koch referred the 6-foot-3 Burns to Amherst, Mass.-based prominent sports psychologist Alan Goldberg, hoping he'd be able to help.
"I felt he needed to believe in himself, and I couldn't get that out of him," Koch said. "Where Colin had trouble was just making decisions in games, and so he made a lot of wrong decisions, which kept him out of games and didn't allow him to get the game experience to be able to make the right ones."
Although he wasn't the Minutemen's established No. 1 goalkeeper in his final season, Burns said Goldberg "completely flipped" his switch. A few months after graduating in 2005, Burns headed to Scotland to pursue his dream.
Thanks to an ex-girlfriend with connections to Terry Butcher, a hard-nosed defender who represented England more than 70 times, Burns landed a weeklong training stint at Motherwell, a top-division club Butcher managed at the time. Coupled with a longer training spell at Glasgow's Partick Thistle, Burns learned from experienced pros and enhanced his skills. His base during the latter tenure was hardened Govan, the birthplace of legendary Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson.
Unable to acquire the requisite work permit, even with his Scottish roots, Burns eventually returned to the United States. While staying with friends in England during the summer of 2006, he got a call and was asked whether he'd be interested in plying his trade with FC Olimpia Balti in Moldova, which borders Romania and Ukraine. He jumped at the chance.
Unfortunately for Burns, the club underwent a change of ownership soon after he arrived. Even though a wealthy businessman took over, no investment was planned until the following season, and Burns didn't receive any wages in his 3½ month visit, barring a $100 bonus. He did get an opportunity to see Romania, although the trip was a covert mission intended to gain new visas. Burns claims games were fixed and the mob was involved in his club.
"I learned much more about the country after I left," Burns said. "I kind of got the lowdown on the unmentionable things that scared the crap out of me. I think there were eight foreigners that were from America or of American origin when I was there, and they only ended up with two or three by the end of the season. Everyone just left. They'd come for two or three weeks and decide, 'This is awful.'"
Back in the friendlier climes of U.S. suburbia again, Burns remained undaunted. He made videos of his work in goal and posted them on YouTube, alerting teams across Europe. He later trained in Portugal and Denmark, and all this, you guessed it, without an agent.
Helped by a friend, Burns found a home in the Finnish third division early in 2007 and transferred to a second-division side, Kokkolan, late that summer. He drew praise for helping Kokkolan avoid demotion. In late 2007, Burns earned a weeklong trial with the Swedish team Ljungskile, then managed by former Manchester United midfielder David Wilson, as he sought new pastures. Burns impressed and, as instructed, returned 20 pounds heavier for another trial in January 2008. He signed a two-year contract a month later with Ljungskile, which had just been promoted to the highest division.
Then, a roadblock.
Until recently, world soccer's governing body, FIFA, forbade a player from suiting up for more than two teams in the period between July 1 and June 30 in a single year. FIFA then altered its definition of "season," taking into account the different starting and finishing dates of leagues in Scandinavia, so Burns appeared to be in the clear. (Sweden's season starts in March.) The problem was, Sweden's soccer association hadn't made the change and played hardball. It didn't help that Ljungskile was considered the black sheep of the Allsvenskan league thanks to its small size and inability to fill larger stadiums with its traveling fans.
Radio stations and newspapers harangued the national governing body, questioning why it wasn't following FIFA's rules, and it soon relented. Swedish media proclaimed it the "Burns rule." Burns opened a few eyes in his first start, getting the nod April 25 after veteran No. 1 goalkeeper Michal Slawuta was suspended for collecting a red card in the previous fixture. Ljungskile prevailed 2-1, ending Gothenburg's 19-game unbeaten streak, and Burns was named one of the three stars of the game.
Wilson initially stuck with Slawuta, but Burns took over as the starter Aug. 17. He blanked Helsingborg -- which featured revered striker Henrik Larsson -- 1-0 and earned player of the week honors. The only sour note from his maiden season in Sweden was relegation in November. Since then, Burns says he has drawn the interest of clubs still among Sweden's topflight. "He performed good when he was here," said Lars Eriksson, general manager of rival club Hammarby and a former Swedish international keeper. "He played in a team that wasn't that good, and it's especially difficult when you're struggling at the bottom of the league."One of Burns' next objectives is to play for the U.S. national team, which isn't lacking in keepers. He was disappointed that he wasn't picked for a training camp this past month. Ironically, the U.S. hosted Sweden in a friendly in California on Saturday (which the U.S. won 3-2).
"It's always a side goal of mine to get in," Burns said.
Given his endeavor, how many would bet against him? Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist covering Americans abroad for ESPNsoccernet. He also covers tennis for ESPN.com.