For years, N.C. State's men's soccer team has relied on international players. What's the adjustment like for these students?
Above, N.C. State has relied on international players for years. Here, Guatemalan-born goalie Jorge Gonzalez (no. 7) helped lead N.C. State to a winning conference season in 2005. Photo by Takaaki Iwabu for the News & Observer.
This story was written by Ben Heffner for Paul Isom’s advanced reporting and writing class at N.C. State.
For Jake Dykes, a jovial sophomore defender on the N.C. State soccer team, education had always come second to soccer.
Dykes was born and raised in Sligo, Ireland, and as he climbed the ranks of his hometown Sligo Rovers and eventually Northern Ireland’s Ballinamallard, he soon learned that the difference between a professional athlete and a former professional athlete could be a matter of seconds.
“I realized that there were guys retiring at 29 with bad knee problems or bad ankles or something like that, and they had nothing to fall back on, they had absolutely nothing to fall back on,” Dykes said. “So I decided that I wanted to get an education.”
Dykes’ teammate, sophomore midfielder Julius Duchscherer, had always been an excellent student in his native Germany, but found it increasingly difficult to pursue his academics while playing full-time for a club. As it turns out, the American term “student-athlete” doesn’t mean the same thing in Germany.
“We don’t have this system where you can study and play for a university,” Duchscherer said. “You play for a club and you have to study on your own, so it’s really hard to combine. Coaches don’t support you. They want to see you play on the pitch, but it doesn’t matter for them how you do in school.”
Speaking the language
Since the 2012 season, the N.C. State men’s soccer team has featured a total of 16 international players, including eight on the 2016 roster alone. These talented players hail from countries around the globe and bring their own unique styles, experiences, and personalities to a team made up largely of American players.
However, these players do not solely exist on a soccer pitch; they are also students who are entering into a new environment that presents an entirely different set of challenges. From the rigors of receiving an N.C. State education to navigating the American social world, the Wolfpack’s international recruits are forced to make a quick adjustment in order to succeed in the United States.
The first weeks of moving to a new country can be a harrowing process for anyone. Throw in learning to speak a second language colloquially, and it can be downright frightening.
“We learn English from the fifth grade in school, but the English we learn in school is different to the way that it is actually spoken, with the informal language, accents, and slang,” said Duchscherer, whose first language is German.
Both players mentioned that American writing styles, terminology, and reference requirements were difficult to get used to, which forced them to spend more time on assignments than the average student. Dykes also said that he only had to receive a 40 on tests in Ireland to pass them, a statement that would shock most American students.
Despite these challenges, both said that they have adjusted well and that they have loved the American education experience. In fact, Duchscherer was named to the All-ACC Academic team in 2015 (one of only five freshman to make the 38-person list) and in 2016.
Former head coach Kelly Findley (who was fired at the end of the 2016 season) said that the language barrier can also force a transition on the field for some players, most notably former goalkeeper Fabian Otte.
“We had to do a tutorial with the top five things that he was going to say in the flow of the game,” Findley said. “I don’t speak two languages, and, inevitably, as it happens in soccer, you have to make a decision in a split second. So now you have a guy trying to translate in his mind a German word to an English word in the heat of the game, so we gave him a cheat sheet of key things to say.”
But, as Findley pointed out, soccer is an international game, and it has its own unspoken language.
What’s the benefit?
All of this also begs a simple question: With the energy that it takes for international players to transition, why did Findley making such a concerted effort to get them on the team?
“I think the games are more competitive now and so it’s good to get guys that are older, which most international guys are, and to get guys with experience, which most of them have because they’ve been in a men’s locker room for a couple of years,” Findley said. “They’re a little bit farther ahead than American players who are just coming out of high school. Also, they’re coming halfway around the world so you kind of know that you are getting a guy that is willing to take risks, which is something that I like in a player.”
Both players agreed that compared to the cool, calm, and collected game of Europe, the American game is faster, more free-flowing, even “hectic,” so that willingness to take risks comes in handy.
“Over here, a kick of the ball can win a match,” Dykes said. “That’s the difference. It’s hectic, for 90 minutes, it’s hectic. Last five minutes, the clock goes down, anything can happen. People are storming forward, even the center backs, so that’s a big difference.”
Duchscherer also expounded on the differences in the average player that he played with in Europe versus his two years at N.C. State.
“I was the youngest player on my club in Germany. Then I came here and after a couple weeks I realized how young the team was; I was the oldest. From the youngest player at my old club to the oldest player here,” he said. This aspect you can see on the pitch. Many players don’t have the experience and it is completely new for them. Many of the freshman have to transition into college sports. They have to get those experiences, but on the other side, every young player is fit and can run up and down, it is much faster.”
Of course, international soccer is not a monolith and players from different countries can have vastly different styles. Under Findley’s watch, N.C. State welcomed players from Brazil, France, Germany, Guatemala, Italy, Liberia, and Venezuela, each bringing their own style.
The current Wolfpack squad boasts seven players from two different countries: Dykes from Ireland and a whopping six players, including Duchscherer, from Germany.
“One reason I like the German guys is that I think that their style translates well to college soccer,” Findley said. “College soccer is very pragmatic, very efficient, very defensive, with hard work and pace, and that’s very German. English players would work well, too, and I think it’s important to sprinkle in a couple different guys. The German guys have done great for us, but I would prefer not to have six; I’d rather have three or four and a couple other guys from different countries. But they’ve been great, and Jake’s fit in really well, so I’ve been very pleased with all of them.”
Coming to America
N.C. State’s recent reliance on international players is not an anomaly; it’s a trend. In a 2016 game against James Madison, N.C. State started six international players. James Madison started five.
But why do international players turn their backs on their short-term professional dreams in Europe to play amateur soccer for universities in America? According to Findley, the opportunity to receive an education and the rising popularity of Major League Soccer (MLS) are both huge factors.
“I think one of the reasons we’re getting better foreign players coming over now is because they think: ‘Ok, I haven’t made it in Germany, I can’t get to the second league, but maybe I can go to the U.S., get my education, and maybe I can get into the MLS,'” he said. “So that’s increased the marketability of college soccer because they see that on the back end. It seems like half the league is probably international, which is pretty normal everywhere because you can go find players from all over the world.”
Findley’s off-hand estimate was close to the truth: In 2015, a study by the Elias Sports Bureau showed that around 43 percent of the players in the MLS were born outside of the U.S. and Canada. They don’t call it the international game for nothing.
‘It took a while, but I’m really, really happy’
For international players living in America for the first time, it can be a strange experience. It’s a lot for a young person to juggle between playing soccer, keeping good grades, engaging in the American social experience, learning the language and watching all of the sports that American TV has to offer. (Duchscherer revealed that he is a huge fan of American football, basketball, and baseball.)
Despite the initial struggle, it seems as though the decision to come to America has been worth it.
Duchscherer, in his second year with the Wolfpack, has excelled academically and has taken on the role of one of the Pack’s best players and students in his sophomore season.
Dykes is still adjusting to his first year of school, life and soccer in America, but it would seem as though he made the right decision to run with the Pack.
“I love it. The food is great, the people are great, my roommates are great; I really can’t complain, can’t complain,” he said. “I miss my family every day, I miss my people back home, but it’s great over here and I’m really enjoying it. … It took a while, but I’m really, really happy.”