Cat Scratches Feature: Making an international splash

Sept. 3, 2009

Soccer is the world’s most popular game.  It is a game built over hundreds of years and perfected in amateur and professional leagues throughout the world.

So naturally, Kentucky men’s soccer head coach Ian Collins considers recruiting international players to be a priority. Since taking over the program 15 years ago, Collins has solidified the UK program as one of the tops in the nation. Part of that program building has come through recruiting some of the best players, both internationally and in the United States.

A quick glance at the 2009 UK roster reveals that six key players hail from outside the USA, including three from England – Jason Griffiths, Matt Lodge and David Harrison. UK also boasts a talented Australian defender Brad Walker, tricky Brazilian forward Marco dos Santos and freshman midfielder Byron Vega, a native of Guatemala.

Recruiting international players comes naturally for Collins, a native of Bridge North, England. With an extensive amount of contacts throughout the United States and across the pond, Collins often times taps the international resource, bringing in impact players with an ability to fill immediate roles.

This season, coming off a 2008 campaign that saw UK rank No. 21 and finish second in the Conference USA regular season and tournament championships, Collins brought in three new international players (Lodge, Harrison, Vega).  Bringing in international talent is not always an easy or a quick solution, as there is an expected adjustment period in the classroom, on the field and socially.

“It is sometimes difficult. Guys adjust differently,” Collins said. “I have gotten a lot of experience over the years dealing with international players, both here and at St. Johns and other schools. Some guys walk right into the school like they have been here for years and for some guys it is like a monster shock to their system. You have to let each guy settle in at their own pace. You can’t rush guys on and really force them into something they aren’t ready to do. Most of it is mental.

“America is a pretty comfortable country and Kentucky is a pretty comfortable place. Some guys will come in from nothing and walk into this place and they are awestruck a little bit. Sometimes they might get homesick; there are various things they will go through. You kind of look at each guy individually and sometimes you don’t see the best out of them until they have settled down.”

Griffiths, a senior and native of Bracknell, England, is now in his second season as team captain, a year removed from a first-team All-Conference USA selection by the conference coaches. With 27 career points and as what Collins describes as the “engine of the team,” Griffiths is a perfect example of a player who has had success transitioning to the college game.

“Jason had the advantage of being here during the summer and he settled in and immediately became a great player,” Collins said. “It can be a difficult transition. It is like moving from America to somewhere else, it is going to take you some time to settle down and some guys just happen to do it quicker.”

Not all of the transitions are as easy as Griffiths’ transition from England. Dos Santos, who had to learn a new language after moving to Kentucky from Brazil, battled injury early in 2008 and didn’t find his form until later in the year. By the end of the season, dos Santos was named C-USA Newcomer of the Year, charting five goals and five assists.

“Marco is one of those guys who took a little bit longer to settle in to life in America and Kentucky,” Collins said. “Last year he started slow. No doubt he is talented; everyone who has seen him play can tell that. He had a great finish to the year. In the last eight or nine games he was phenomenal. In the conference title game, he was the best player on the field, in my mind, no question. Now that is all gone; he has to start over this year.”

As veteran players, Griffiths, dos Santos and Walker can assist the newcomers who are making that transition to college soccer.

“When all the international players come in, we just try to make them feel at home as best we can,” Walker said. “For myself coming in, America is a lot different than Australia in so many different ways. Having been here for a year and knowing what it is like, we just try to get them in and get them over to the house, over to the dorm, take them out to eat. We introduce them to so many people that we already know, it just gets them used to the climate and lets them settle in easier. That also helps them socially and on the field, but they feel more comfortable coming to training and coming to class. It helps them, but it helps us as a team as well.”

“For me when I came here, everything was so different, especially learning English,” dos Santos said. “I will be a senior this year and having been here for a few years, I have some experience right now with college soccer and I have been trying to share with all the freshmen some of my experiences with soccer and college life. We try to put them in a good position to focus on soccer and school.”

Having different academic classes of international players makes the transition easier for Collins.

“It helps because the veteran players have been through it,” Collins said. “It gives them a better reference point, gives them a little more of a link right away. That is helpful; it is someone to lean on and someone to really relate to. When you can be around someone who has been through what you are going to go through, then you can really pull from that experience.”

The veteran international players help in the transition of the newcomers, but with three English players and an English head coach, it makes Lodge and Harrison feel more at home.

“Being with all the English guys here, it is just like being back at home,” Harrison said. “We talk, all the laughter. Some people – it’s not a bad thing – but some people just don’t get the English sense of humor and with all of us being around here, it just makes it so much easier as a team and as a group to fit in.”

When Kentucky opens its season Friday against IUPUI with the UK Invitational at 7:30 p.m. EDT at the UK Soccer Complex, it will be the first real game-action for several new Wildcats. Not only will it be the first game action for some new UK stars, it will be yet another opportunity for Kentucky’s bevy of international talent to make a splash.

“(Playing at Kentucky) is just the best opportunity that we could get at the age we are at right now,” Harrison said. “The facilities we have been gifted with are better than some of the professional clubs in England. Coming from England to Kentucky is one of the best things I have ever done in my life.”