MICHAEL ADUBATO - Wednesday, September 9, 2020
A late comer to European soccer after his collegiate career, Eric McWoods is still finding his feet across the ocean, having just signed for Balzan FC in the Maltese Premier League.
The St. Louis native was discovered playing in Estonia for JK Narva Trans in the country's top flight, the Meistriliiga, where he bagged 13 goals in the 2019 season and earned a move to Zalaegerszegi TE in Hungary's top division.
"Hungary was a very interesting experience, to say the least," McWoods told Yanks Abroad. "It was just different. Eastern Europe is obviously a lot different. For me, I just wanted to make a move, more to the west. In this case more southern too. But overall it was a good experience, obviously playing with [Eduvie] Ikoba (an American who now plays for Trencin in Slovakia)."
Going from one team to another or even one league to a bigger one, the motivating factor is the chance to improve; to hone the skills of your craft and become a better player.
"Zalaegerszegi was definitely a step up in terms of the infrastructure and playing with guys who've played all over the place; a lot of experienced guys," said McWoods. "For me I think it really helped me adjust my game, especially being more tactical and adding to what I already had."
"I knew I had the natural God-given athleticism, the speed and that but I would say that it made me a lot smarter footballer in terms of movement. Before I would just run a lot. But now I know when to move, I know when to make the runs, when to be decisive and when to play simple.
Now, it's running with a purpose. There's no point in running if you're not running with a purpose. I think that's probably my main thing. Now my movement is a lot swifter and I think that's something great that I added to my game."
Although he preferred not to talk about it, the 24-year-old striker did witness racism during a game.
"In one of our games we had a player walk off the pitch because our fans were doing monkey chants. They weren't directed at us but at a player on the opposing team," he explained.
Clearly the UEFA and FIFA initiative to kick racism out of the game isn't going very well. McWoods, however, tries to keep a positive attitude.
"You have to have a strong mentality and not let it affect you. That's the main thing. It's everywhere. It's a part of football so I don't let it affect me too much. It is what it is," he said. "In the end I think it as best to just move on and try something new."
That something new turned out to be on the beautiful island nation of Malta, located in the Mediterranean Sea, roughly 80 miles off the southern coast of Sicily, Italy. McWoods stressed that one of the main factors for heading to Balzan was the team's English coach.
"Mark [Miller], the coach, I've known for a long time. I met him a couple of years back and he tried to get me to go to Malta. He's been on Malta for about 35 years," he said. "I'm not a young player, but I'm still not super old, so for me, I wanted to be with a team and a coach where I feel like I can still add a lot to my game and this is the coach that can do that. He's one of the best, if not the best coach that I've ever had even though I've had him for a short span. Ultimately that was the thing that I was looking for."
The coronavirus has also played a part in a lot of our lives and professional athletes are no exception. During these times it's a lot harder for transitioning players to latch onto a new team, especially with the lock down and team's income dwindling, in many cases for smaller teams, drastically.
McWoods own ordeal with the virus while searching for a new team saw him go through a lot of hassle. But in the end, he was just happy to find a new place to show off his abilities.
"During the virus I was stuck in Europe. If I went back to the states I wouldn't be able to play in Europe, so I left Budapest, went to Malta and had to go through that TSA nonsense because they weren't allowing Americans to fly," he said. "But it was great to have a team right away. I didn't want to sit around and wait, wait, wait and this felt like the right fit for me so."
The Maltese Premier League season runs on the same calendar as the majority of European teams. It usually kicks off in late August and runs until May. However, with new cases coming by the day, it has altered the schedule even more.
"Our season will run from September until May, but actually they put it back another week because two of our players had the virus, so the whole team had to quarantine for two weeks. It works out better for me because I've had a nagging injury. It's a blessing in disguise," said McWoods, who explained that he suffered a hip flexor injury.
Having left his Hungarian team after their season ended and going immediately to Balzan to continue training took its toll.
"When I was in Hungary we were still training during the virus and we were having games. I was still fit and I think I just over worked the muscle. I was working too hard and just overworked my body, according to the doctor. He said he didn't think that I had enough rest," said McWoods.
"I was here training. I trained for a week and a half before the injury. I shot the ball and I felt it. I thought it was nothing, but actually it was a pretty serious injury. I've been out for 4 weeks now. I've still been able to do some jogging, keep my fitness, things of that nature.
For the most part it's just that I must get ready for the season. I know that if I come back too soon and try to make an explosive movement because that's a big part of my game, I can re-injure it for a long time. As time progresses, I have to make sure that I'm healthy, score some goals and help the team."
McWoods is optimistic about the season and the quality of his new team. They are usually up at the top of the standings every season, challenging for the title.
"For the team the goal is top three. Usually this team, from what I've heard and seen, is usually top three, top four, and usually fighting for the title every year," he said.
"Winning the league would be the most important thing. For me, I have to score and be able to put our team in the best position possible. I think that's why they brought me here because we need that (goal) threat. We need that person who can win games and help the team. I just have to score goals and have a good season. I know if I have another good season like I did in Estonia, then I know that I will keep moving up. Obviously for me, the main thing is to keep moving up. Keep moving up."
Balzan's season will get underway on September 19th when they hit the road to take on Tarxien Rainbows FC. The team's American is slated to start, depending on his health.
"This is a new experience. The goal is to keep moving up, continue to stay healthy, continue to add to my game and score goals. That's the main thing, scoring goals. That's why I'm here. That's my job," said McWoods.