Wednesday, December 16, 2009
At first glance, the career path taken by Jay Needham appears to be like many American soccer players practicing their craft overseas, yet upon closer inspection, a much more complicated story full of professional obstacles reveals itself.
To understand the adversity that Needham has gone through in his career, one must backtrack to the groomed surroundings of Southern Methodist University where Needham starred for four seasons and was named a Hermann Trophy finalist.
Initially labeled a slam dunk as an early selection at the 2007 MLS draft, the native of Fort Worth, Texas saw his stock drop shortly after the MLS combine where Needham says he, along with several other players, were made to go through physical tests under less-than-ideal circumstances.
"I fell like a rock in the draft," Needham recounted to YA. "There was a group of us who were on a plane that arrived late to the combine and they had us do our tests like the vertical jump in our jeans. We weren't even allowed to change into workout clothes."
"I had been in Los Angeles prior to the draft to work on my speed and I was getting good reports. Heck, I can even dunk a basketball! But our flight arrived late and they told us we had to hurry and do those tests... It was very frustrating."
Come draft day, Needham was selected in the third round by DC United, a club he had long admired and respected. The former Mustang soon found himself in the nation's capital training with the team and hoping to secure a playing contract.
Just minutes after he played in a scrimmage with United before the team was to head down to Honduras for a CONCACAF Champions League match, Needham received some bitterly disappointing news from team officials.
"I got called into a meeting right before the team left for Honduras and they said they could only offer me a developmental contract… I was floored and completely disappointed. The next two days of training were hard, but I had the support from the other United players who even said it wasn't right that I got just a developmental deal. I finally decided to take a different path and turned them (DC United) down," explained Needham.
After refusing the $17,000/year developmental contract offer from United, the former Conference USA standout was immediately contacted by the Puerto Rico Islanders of the United Soccer League where the club offered him a salary double of what he would have made in Washington. Needham quickly agreed to terms and was relieved to be on his way to the Caribbean.
"That was a whirlwind week, especially since I was just 22 and playing out of my comfort zone for the first time. But my year in Puerto Rico was a blessing in disguise. I was named Rookie of the Year in the league, I played with a great group of guys and playing for (then and current coach) Colin Clarke was a big boost for my confidence. He helped me in so many ways like my positioning on the field and how to conduct myself as a professional player," he added.
The Lone Star State resident spent just one season on the island as he once again made another attempt at latching on with a MLS team. A trial with the Los Angeles Galaxy went for naught but shortly thereafter his agent approached him about an opportunity to play overseas. It turned out that it was with Alta IF of the Norwegian 1. Division, a team recently promoted from Norway's third level of soccer.
After successfully convincing his wife Jessica, also a native Texan, that moving above Arctic Circle would be a good thing, Needham arrived in Scandinavia and spent two seasons with the club where he led them to their most successful campaign ever, a sixth place finish during the 2009 season which the 25 year old will always fondly remember.
"It was a wonderful experience playing in Norway. We loved living there with the Northern Lights and Midnight Sun. The people in Alta were so welcoming and they always went out of their way to help us," smiled Needham.
The ex-USLer played in 24 matches his first season with the club and had considered leaving to try to return to the MLS, but was ultimately swayed by Alta management to return for a second year which coincided with the arrival of new coach Aasmund Bjorkman.
However the relationship between the new head man and the midfielder got off to a rocky start when Needham said he arrived days late to preseason training even though he had received permission from Bjorkman and club officials to show up later than his teammates in preparation of the 2009 season.
"I showed up for preseason and he (Bjorkman) treated me like an outcast. I tried talking to him but he wouldn't even look at me… We finally had a sit-down meeting while we were in La Manga, Spain on training and he told me that he was not happy with me and that I wasn't in his plans."
Despite being relegated to the bench in the early going, Needham, as he always has done in his career, kept his head down and worked his way towards earning a spot in the starting 11 which he says came to fruition before an early season match against Nybergsund when he says that Bjorkman unexpectantly called his name.
"Out of the blue, Aasmund said to me, ‘You're going to play central defender and be our team captain.' Then one match later he said, ‘You're going to be our starting central midfielder.' That's when things really started coming together. We then beat [Eliteserien club] Bodo/Glimt in a Cup game where I was on fire. I think I maybe missed one or two passes the entire match. After that, Aasmund came up and put his arm around me and was laughing and joking. I was his best buddy!" laughed Needham.
Alta parlayed that early season success into a promotion run that lasted the entire season, a remarkable feat for such a small and modest club. Perhaps the biggest highlight for the American came in the final match of the year when the home fans at Finnmarkshallen Arena, knowing that this was the team captain's last match with the club, gave Needham a standing ovation after he was substituted off midway through the second half.
Now out of contract, Needham's two stellar seasons in Norway have made him the target of various clubs around Europe where he says he would like to continue his playing career unless a MLS team was able to offer a can't miss deal.
"Right now I'm looking at playing in two or three different countries. I want to ride out this ship in Europe as long as possible, but certainly if I did get a great offer from a MLS team, I would consider it. I really prefer the ‘Latin-style' of play. That's really not the case in Norway so I'll be looking to play somewhere where possession soccer is the focus."
However when it is all said and done, Needham asserts there is really just one motivating factor that brings out his best when he is on the field.
"For me, what gets me up is the fan atmosphere. That's what I play for. I want it where the fans are screaming and the stadium is packed. It's not about the money. I love what I do. I'm lucky enough to travel the world doing what I do for my career. What more could you ask for?"