For many, January represents a chance of a fresh start but for a long time this wasn't the case for young footballers. There was a time when December would have represented a dilemma of Dickens-esque proportions - years of dedication, determination and sacrifice leads to one life-defining chat with their Academy Manager or Head of Youth Development and their sporting future can seemingly be settled in a matter of seconds. A positive discussion could lead to their first professional contract and a tentative step on the ladder to promised stardom. Great Expectations.
But for the majority it will be a crushing ‘no’. The shock can be devastating. Some of these boys who are rejected by their clubs at 16 or 18 have been at their club since they were 9 or under. They know nothing else, or want anything so much. Yet, even despite spending nearly half their life at a club, players only ever possess a 0.5% chance of making it. Hard Times.
Now, there is another way, Vertex Soccer, founded by Sam Curren who was one of those young players who experienced the dreaded ‘no’ at Notts County: “I was released at the end of the 2006/2007 season by Steve Thompson. It was a tough one for me as I was doing really well at the start of the season and breaking through to the first team, then an injury put me out for the remainder and the inevitable happened”.
Luckily for Sam, the inevitable stopped there. Non-League and amateur sides across the country are littered with lads who could’ve made it. But Sam chose a more unfamiliar path into college soccer in America: “My dad had coached in the USA for a couple of years and encouraged me to explore the option. He then emailed a few universities around June/July time and a university in South Florida got back to us saying they would like to sign me. Quite irrational really but by far the best decision I ever made”.
It’s easy to see the appeal. One or two year deals at lower league sides like Morecambe and Accrington Stanley offer only a slim chance of reviving the professional dream, and even then it would be in front of average attendances of under 2,000 and are a far cry from the luxurious surroundings of your average Category A or B Premier League Academy. Compare that to the security a four year sports scholarship at somewhere like the University of Connecticut with its purpose-built stadium and 3,500 average crowd.
It was a no-brainer for Sam and one he enjoyed immensely. But he couldn’t understand why so few of his compatriots were making similar moves, prompting him to create Vertex Soccer – a company dedicated to offering promising prospects a chance to make a similar switch: “ I played six years in the USA then came back and signed at Mansfield Town. Again injuries played a part in my lack of games and success and my contract wasn't renewed. That said I was invited back to Notts County for pre season by Matt Alexander. We played Stoke City U23s at St George's in a pre season friendly and there was a right-back on trial from Ipswich Town. A young lad, very technical and tactical but physically he was never going to play in League 1. He was told he wouldn't be offered a deal at Notts and I mentioned he would be very fitting for the university game in the States. We went for some food and I helped him through the process securing him a full scholarship at a D1 university in Atlanta through my contacts and it clicked that I could start a business doing the same for lads all over the country. That same player was actually just drafted to the Philadelphia Union in the MLS!”. The player in question is Aaron Jones, rejected after ten years at Ipswich and now proud Economics graduate who made his professional debut against Swansea City in July of this year.
Vertex’s influence in professional soccer doesn’t end there, either. Sam describes Jones’ draft as “huge” for Vetex as it gave them a ratio of one-for-one, producing a professional career from his first intake. And there’s more to follow: “I’m hoping to be two-for-two this coming winter when Sam Gainford (Liverpool FC to University of Akron) and Mo Adams (Derby County to Syracuse University) will be hoping to be drafted in the 2018 MLS Superdraft”. Careers that may not have happened had Vertex not filled the void for these boys.
But Vertex offers more than careers in football. College scholarships open many players eyes to the opportunities afforded to them by America’s education system. While their former teammates are lamenting former glories at amateur clubs, those brave enough to cross the Atlantic for their football have broadening their horizons both geographically and in terms of employment: “Some sign pro deals, some become coaches of their university teams and we also have boys heading into new and different careers away from the game. We have boys studying everything from Psychology, to Business Management, to Aeronautics whilst playing four years of full time football, the amount of doors they could open is endless”.
Different doors are opening for Vertex too. From its initial beginnings, Vertex’s intake came from Category 3 and 2 academies. Now the Premier League sides have come knocking as the FA are keen to ensure that clubs take their pastoral responsibilities for young players seriously.” We have been speaking with the Premier League and looking at how we can work with them to deliver the option to all released Premier League players. We are also in the process of formulating a three year partnership with Manchester City. We have also started a new arm to the business called Vertex Soccer Tours where we will be bringing the best university and MLS academy sides to the UK to tour and play vs professional academies here. Ultimately, bringing the two worlds together”.
Two of Sam’s worlds collided recently, as his latest Vertex hopefuls played out a credible 2-2 draw against his former club’s under 18s as his players begin the process of preparing for a new life across the Atlantic. And if his previous alumni is anything to go by, it may well be an impressive one.
The 2018 MLS draft takes place between the 17th and 21st of January where many of the Vertex alumni will be hoping to make the next step up the football ladder