A little over twelve months ago, Portlaoise man Kevin Keenan was at a crossroads. Having spent over ten years trying to forge a career for himself in the world of professional soccer, he faced a decision which would shape the rest of his life, despite still being shy of his 20th birthday.
One option would take him across the Irish Sea to England, where Premier League club Sunderland wanted him to come over for a trial. The other was to turn his back on the traditional destination of choice for young soccer players and head for the sunnier climes of Florida. It wasn't an easy decision, but after much soul-searching, the offer from America won out.
While Keenan's story has seen him end up in the palatial surroundings of Flagler College in the idyllic Floridian seaside town of St Augustine, like so many young soccer players, it started out in his local club.
As an eight year old, he made the short trip down to Rossleighan Park in Portlaoise for his first introduction to the game. Under the tutelage of the club coaches Mick O'Loughlin, John Beere and Joe Delaney, he took to it quickly, and before long he was catching the eye of Eircom League club scouts. "I played with Portlaoise until I was 12, then I went to the Kennedy Cup with the Midlands team when I was 13 and that's when I got a trial," explains Keenan from the comfort of his sitting room during his recent Christmas break. "St Pat's had seen me up there, gave me a call, so I went up for a trial, made the team, and the rest is history."
Once settled into the Inchicore club, his rapid progression through the ranks continued, and he was fast-tracked into the adult grades soon after. "I went from U-14 up to U-15, and then the U-17 coach saw me playing a game and brought me into that team, and I played a year ahead of my grade for six months.
"The reserve manager came to me then and called me into the reserve squad, because they might be putting me into the first team. I had gone from U-14 to U-15, and then from there up to U-17 and then into the reserves, which was senior, and for the first few months I got kicked around a bit, it was a kind of 'welcome to senior football'".
With the physical and mental demands of the game growing with each year, Keenan began to wonder if the game he fell in love with as a child was all it cracked up to be. After a few seasons on the cusp of the St Pat's team, he began to question whether it was all worth it. "If I'm honest, I wasn't enjoying it at all before I left (for America), it was like a job. I enjoyed soccer when I was young, until the age of about 15, when it started getting serious, when I started to go to England.
"When I was 15 I went over to Middlesbrough and Everton, I only did maybe two months in each and came home – Middlesbrough just didn't work out and in Everton I got homesick. I came home and tought 'What am I going to do with myself now?', so I got back in with St Pat's and played U-17 and then reserves, and with the reserves they start critcizing you more heavily, you get things picked out and it opens your eyes, you wonder if that's what you have to put up with."
Keen to give himself options, he enrolled in the Association Football course at Coliste de in Dublin, which helped him to prepare for the life of a student-athlete. When Flagler coach John Lynch, originally from Meath, offered him the chance of a scholarship, he knew exactly what he wanted to do.
He turned down the offer of a trial at Sunderland and the other scholarship offers from around America and headed for Florida, where he admits the standard of competition he found himself in took him by surprise. "I had been over in England before I went to America, and had played in the Eircom League First Division and in the Premier Division with St Pat's, but I was very surprised by the players over there.
"There are some bad teams, but overall it's very good. We only have two Americans starting on our team, we have a Swedish international, a Spanish international, an English international, a Bosnian International, a German international, and three other Irish lads there who have played international. There are teams that are fairly highly ranked, we have met teams with other internationals as well, and it's a very high standard. I was surprised to be honest, it's probably even a better standard than the Eircom League senior division."
While the standard of soccer is high, so too is the standard of education he must maintain. Playing soccer on the Florida coast sounds like a dream come true, but he has academic commitments too which he has to balance with his soccer due to the terms of his scholarship. "I have to keep up a 2.5 GPA (Grade Point Average), which is a C+ average, so you're looking at over 75% average in all your exams," explains Keenan. "At the moment I have an 82% average, which is pretty good, I'm studying elementary education, which is basically primary school teaching.
"We train six days a week, and we train twice a day, from six to nine in the morning and six to nine at night, and we go from nine to four during the day in college, so really you don't have much time to to do anything. You're training in 35 degree heat, the humidity is 80%, so it's like walking into a sauna and trying to play soccer. Once you enjoy it, it's grand, but we travel maybe 12 or 13 hours on flights or buses, and three or four times this year, on a Sunday, which is supposed to be our day off, we would start travelling at five in the evening and wouldn't be home until half seven the next morning, and then you're straight into college."
While he admits he struggled a lot in the beginning, he has now settled into his new life. Once he found the right balance between sport and study, he excelled on the field, earning player of the tournament honours at the regional finals late last year. What the future holds now, however, remains to be seen. His name will go into the MSL draft after his fourth year in college, and a career in the top American league could await.
It's a long way off yet though, and the Portlaoise man admits he's just enjoying the present rather than looking to the future. "I'm so lucky to have gotten the opportunity that I have, there are lots of fellas that are probably better soccer players than me and haven't gotten where I am. I've got the opportunity of a life time. Where I am in America is one of the most gorgeous places in the world. The college is phenomenal, I do my homework by the pool, and it sort of gives you a slap to let you know how lucky you are.
"At the moment, I haven't thought about playing in the MLS, but if the opportunity arises, by God I'll take it. If it doesn't, I'll just be happy to say I've played professional football. I've seen all the ins and outs, played semi-pro, played international. I'm happy as I am. Maybe in a few months time I'll really want to play professional, but I'm just happy at the moment to be getting an education, getting a degree and playing soccer."
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