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Welcome Back: International players coming to Pitt in record numbers

By Jasper Wilson / Sports Editor

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Soccer is known as the world’s game and, this fall on campus, there will be plenty of evidence to back up that reputation. 

The Pitt men’s soccer team has eight players from abroad — its most ever. Prior to this season, the team had seven players from outside the country since 2000, with no more than three on the roster at one time. 

Everyone is doing it. Although the NCAA doesn’t keep statistics on players’ countries of origin, all ACC men’s soccer teams have at least one player from another country. Boston College has nine. Eight of Pitt’s nine non-conference opponents have at least one international player. 

Joe Luxbacher, head coach at Pitt since 1984 and assistant coach and player in Oakland before that, said the uptick in international players began in the late ’90s and early 2000s with the advent of the digital age. Luxbacher said the trend was fueled by combines such as the one in which Joe Prince-Wright (2011) took part. In combines, players pay a fee to play in front of American college coaches in a tryout-type environment. According to Luxbacher, this industry started to develop when savvy Europeans who had come to the States to play returned to their home countries and capitalized on an untapped commodity. 

Before that point, the resources didn’t exist to look beyond the United States for talent. 

“Way back then, there was no way to really see them. We didn’t have the money to go there. All the online video and YouTube stuff that’s available now wasn’t then,” Luxbacher said. “So you didn’t really recruit them as much because you really couldn’t get a good look at them to see if they’d fit where you want.”

That didn’t mean schools didn’t have players from other countries. The difference was that they came to America for academic purposes and then often joined their school’s teams when they got to campus, according to Luxbacher. 

Last fall, Luxbacher said he and assistant coach Chris Karwoski had plans to scout at combines in Toronto and elsewhere in Ontario during December. This year’s class of freshmen has three players from Canada and one from Australia. 

But coaches can’t see everyone that way. They use other methods as well, like game and highlight tapes. 

Samuli Ahola, a Pitt player from 2006 to 2010, had begun his mandatory six-month stint with the Finnish military when a highlight tape he had put together and sent to a number of American colleges caught Luxbacher’s attention. He would become the program’s first European player this millennium. 

Prince-Wright, who played at Pitt from 2007 to 2011 and was Ahola’s teammate, was only told about a December showcase in Bristol, England, a couple hours from where he lived in Southampton, a week before it happened and he almost didn’t go. Completely unaware of the opportunity to play collegiate soccer in America before hearing about the event, he attended and happened to catch the attention of the Pitt assistant coach there. Two months later, he was on his official visit, watching a men’s basketball game in the Petersen Events Center.

“Hand over heart, I didn’t even know college soccer in the U.S. was a big thing,” Prince-Wright said. “It was all new to me.”

Romeo Charron and Michael Tuohy are part of the current crop of internationals.

The summer before Charron’s final year of high school, he was called into the Under-18 Swiss national team. 

The Geneva native knew he wanted to go to university and get his diploma, but he also wanted to continue to play soccer at a high level. These dueling desires created a dilemma — players can join pro teams or choose to attend college once they turn 18 — and it was the national team camp that made him realize he was at a crossroads.

“There’s one country that gives you a chance to do studies and the sports you like, and that’s the United States,” said Charron, a sophomore who had visited the country twice on family vacations. “I chose to come to America to do both.”

Charron’s club back home, Servette Football Club, plays in the second tier of professional soccer in Switzerland and had approached him about signing with them in that capacity, but Charron, who captained their youth side, held off because he knew that would ruin his college eligibility.

Instead, Charron took the necessary steps to make the continental jump.

He spoke with a former club teammate, who now plays for Harvard, about the challenges of balancing school and studies. Charron and his dad also made a highlight tape and, through a third party, sent it to schools, including Pitt.   

Luxbacher had travelled to Italy that fall to scout, and that’s  where  they heard aboutCharron through a mutual aquaintance. 

After much correspondence via email, Charron visited Pitt in mid-May of last year. 

Born in London, Charron spent the first four years of his life there and then took English classes at his Swiss school, so he is fluent in English as well as French.  

But that’s not to say there weren’t adjustments. Back home, first-year college students often commute instead of living in a campus setting.

“It was a big step for me, moving first of all away from the family, from the comfort zone,” Charron said. “That big step was almost like a tear. It was really cutting every comfort I had. I really had to do it.”

While Charron knew English before coming to Pitt, he still found there were some language barriers. 

The business student, who will likely major in finance, also says the way he learned English back home was different because it was more practical than how he has had to actually learn in English in the classroom here, which led to struggles in some classes, including a psychology class his first semester. 

“The process of learning in English was new to me. I didn’t learn principles and concepts in English,” Charron said. “[Also] I had good written English but there was still some techniques, some norms that I had to learn.”

 The first challenges Charron recalled facing were on the field, as preseason started before classes and the academic semester.  

The style of play and philosophy of the American game were more direct and physical than what he was used to. He had never lifted weights before coming to Pitt. 

“Many times after practice, I’d have a 15- to 30-minute talk with both coaches, telling them, ‘I can’t find myself on the field. I don’t know what to do, where to go.’ I was lost for like a two to three week period,” he said.

But over time he settled in.  

Michael Tuohy, a member of Pitt’s team from Scotland, had a friend who had gone through the process and ended up at a Division II school in New York. Tuohy spoke with him about his experiences and became convinced he should follow a similar path.  

He used a Glasgow-based service called FirstPoint USA to attract U.S. schools after his first year at the University of Stirling back home.

Tuohy’s path to Pitt materialized late. He learned of the University’s interest in April two years ago, the day before a deadline for a different school’s offer. He verbally committed to Pitt the next day. A month later, he travelled with his father to the U.S. for a campus visit, during which Tuohy officially committed.

Joining the team as a second-year player, he didn’t have the same built-in structure freshmen have, living together as teammates who are in the same new situation in Sutherland Hall. Those were aspects of freshman year that Prince-Wright said greatly helped his initial cultural adjustment. 

“I was living by myself in an apartment about a 20-minute walk away from my nearest teammate,” Tuohy, now a senior, said in an email. “This proved difficult for the first few months, and I got homesick quite regularly.”  

He remedied this by using Skype and Facetime to communicate with his family often. Over time, the rigors of life as a student athlete helped the pangs for home subside. 

“The demands of academics and football [soccer] dominated the majority of my thoughts, and so I almost did not have time to feel homesick for more than a day or so and my mind would become occupied with a big game or deadline,” Tuohy, a sociology major, said.

His new teammates also helped.

“I think the lads are used to internationals coming into the team and really help to integrate them into the team and create a comfortable and close atmosphere to develop strong friendships,” he said. 

While the initial acculturation process hasn’t been smooth for either player, neither has ever thought about calling it quits and returning home. 

“I made my decision to come here to better myself academically and as a football player, and I have never even come close to regretting my decision,” Tuohy said. 

When asked what advice he would give to fellow people trying to make the jump, Charron preached patience. 

 “It’ll come naturally, as you have to experience it by yourself,” he said. “You’ll adapt. You will adapt.” 

 

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Welcome Back: International players coming to Pitt in record numbers