Battery midfielder Nicki Paterson and I sat down for lunch at a bustling Chipotle restaunt on Rivers Avenue in North Charleston on Sept. 2, 2013. I’d asked to meet him there because I’d been hearing him sing its praises all season, and wanted to see it through his eyes.
What I found out was, Paterson orders the same thing every time: A mixed bowl, with chicken and steak, and a tortilla on the side.
That’s a very NP thing, apparently. As spontaneous as he looks on the field at times, Paterson is a man who builds and thrives on routines. “I’m probably one of the most superstitious people you’ll ever meet, apart from Auggie (Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser),” he says over lunch. “I still dress the same way, I wear the same things. I still ice-bath the day before a game… I eat the same way. I eat at the same time. And it’s not something I need to do. It’s more of a “’If I’m prepared, nothing can go wrong.’”
The more he talks, the more you realize why this 28-year-old from Motherwell, Scotland, might be inclined to keep an eye open for incoming soccer calamity. Though he was a talented youth player who came up through the local club system and signed his first professional contract at 16, his formative years as a pro were dogged by powers beyond his control: Broke clubs, poorly timed coaching changes, bankruptcies, visa problems.
His talent was always there, but Paterson didn’t become an outright success until Anhaeuser plucked him out of professional limbo in 2011 and discovered a latent creative streak in his new holding midfielder. Paterson led the team in scoring in 2011 and 2012, finishing second in the league with 10 goals in 2012 as he earned team MVP and All-League honors and collected his first championship trophy. The New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer whisked him off to New Jersey with an eye to adding him for their stretch run.
And yet, at the moment when his ascension to the top level of North American soccer seemed all but assured, fate smacked him around, again. MLS rules and bizarre twists left him unsigned despite playing the best soccer of his life, and Paterson returned to Charleston in February determined to make his case yet again.
So began a wild season of Battery soccer.
But we’re getting ahead of the story.
(Q: Where are you from?)
(Around age 11, soccer became a formal part of his life)
Up until then a lot of it is just club soccer and school stuff. Eleven, 12, I got offered to sign with Motherwell, who was the local team, who literally were about a few hundred yards from my house, real close to my neighborhood. Pretty good youth team. I’d say that Celtic, Rangers, Hearts, Dundee and (unintelligible) Motherwell were right there for the next biggest clubs. They’re actually probably bigger now than they were then.
But yeah, I signed with them when I was 11, 12 years old, right through to maybe 16, and it was a great time there, all the way through high school. At the time you’re not really supposed to play for your high school in case you get hurt or injuried or something. I still did. I just tried to keep it quiet.
For me, one of my best friends was also on the team growing up in Motherwell. And we both kept each other out of trouble, because when you get to ages of 14, 15, 16 in Scotland, everybody wants to start going drinking and hanging around the street. And for us, we practiced three nights a week, with a game at high school maybe the Saturday, or maybe another game with Motherwell the Saturday or Sunday…
Motherwell at the time had been through a little bit of financial turmoil, and opportunities to get from the youth club to the first team were extremely limited, so at 16 I got the chance to sign a contract with Hamilton, who were a division below. I was very young. I was like the youngest kid in my high school for my particular year. I probably should have been the year below.
When you get to a certain point you either have to pick a degree, a job, or soccer, soccer being a job. And I had a choice because I did really well at school, I could have went to university at anything I wanted back home. But I always wanted to play soccer, so when I got the chance to go full-time with Hamilton, I decided to quit the education. My parents wouldn’t let me leave until I’d actually graduated from high school.
Portrait of the player as a young professional
So at 16, I signed for Hamilon on a two-year, what they call a YTS contract. You go in and you’re basically an apprentice for two years. You clean boots. You clean dressing rooms, you wash the kit, you put the kit out, you basically do everything that employees would do to make sure the first team runs smoothly. You basically train when they train, or train after.
It was an amazing two years. Again, I was the youngest kid at the club. Sixteen. Most guys are 17 or 18 when they do it. So although I was playing in the U18s, I could also play with the U16s, and Reserves, and first team, if it came available. The first year I was mainly between mostly 18s – if the U16s had a big match, I would play with the 16s in the cup games, I played a handful of reserve games as well. So pretty good experience for a 16-year-old.
That offseason, Hamilton wound up in the exact same financial turmoil that Motherwell had been in. So from the period of probably May to end of July, August, nobody received a single penny in wages. Half the first team walked out. So some of the guys got a chance because some other guys left.
I got a phone call, very early August, maybe a week before the season started – everybody had no idea what was going on, just keeping ourselves fit – that the club had been taken over, everybody to report for training four or five days before the first game. Twenty-four guys turned up from like the season before, and we had a week to get ourselves ready. And basically the day before the first game of the season… we played 11-v-11, basically to figure out (who the new manager’s) 11 were.
At that point in, I was probably still the last-choice guy on the team, because I was just on 17. And that game I scored two goals in the first half. I was a forward at the time. So the second half, they put me on with the first-team squad, scored another two goals – one from the halfway line.
So that was that. I was starting my first-ever game two days later, 17 and one of the youngest kids at the club to do so. So it was obviously a huge moment for me at the time.
Started like the first five games of the season. We won four, tied one. Played right mid, forward, left back, left mid, center mid, my first five games. Five different positions, five games. And slowly, we started to sign a few guys, other guys became healthy, and after five games I was back on the bench, because the club captain was sorta back, and that sorta pushed me back to the first sub. I spent the remainder of the season as a sub, sometimes used, occasional start. Great year.
End of that season, for some reason or another, they decided to go another option and sacked the coach after the team finished in sort of the mid-table. Another guy came in who was like head of the Clyde regime, who is another team I played for. This guy was all about experience, older guys. The younger guys: Know your role. So I spent the whole season sitting on the bench, coming on for 10 minutes here, 20 minutes there. Also that year, the club decided to change (from) being a full-time second-division club, they were going to be part-time. Basically went from paying everybody a full wage to half of what they were on. Which probably saved the club in the long run, but really hurt us that year.
Coming to America
As soon as (Hamilton) went part-time, I was looking for something else almost the entire season.
Someone came into the club from an agency called FirstPoint USA, and they’re the agency that kinda puts games on for coaches to come over and (you can get an offer to) go to the States. And it wasn’t something I was completely 100 percent on about at the time, but I got asked, would I go and almost make up the numbers for a game at Rangers training complex. There would be American coaches, but also Scottish and English coaches as well.
I thought, well, it’s an opportunity.
I turned up on a Sunday morning at 8 in the morning. It was snowing. It was probably 60 or 70 coaches, mainly American. So they kinda sold it as a UK trial, but it wasn’t, really.
Again, my team won 4-0, and the first game I scored three goals from center midfield.The second game my team won 1-0. I scored the penalty. So at the end of the day, of the 60 or something kids that were there, I had the line of 13 coaches…wanting to offer me some sort of scholarship to the States.
I basically stood there and went through them one by one. Each handed me a media guide. “What’s your grades like?” Good. “Would you like to come to Florida? Would you like to come to New York? Would you like to come to …” I was like pffft. A lot of them were talking about academics. What’s the football program like?
The last person I spoke to was a guy who had a full rain suit on. And the guy peeled his hat off and put his face down — real tan guy, goatee beard, cool as you like. “Forget all the stuff all these other guys said. How would you like to come play for me in Vegas?”
And that just stuck with me.
I got in the car, and my dad was like, “You could not have played any better than that. We’re you trying to impress people?” And I was like, yeah. “Any word from any of the guys at First Point?” And I said, “Not only that, I’ve just spoke to about 12 or 13 coaches or assistant coaches. The guy from Vegas straight off the bat wants to offer me a full ride to go to Vegas.”
My dad was like “Vegas. Jesus!”
So within the next week, my house phone, the mobile phone, were just blowing up from American coaches who were only allowed to contact you once every two weeks. I didn’t know who was good, I didn’t know who was bad, I didn’t know who was D1, I didn’t know what NAIA meant.
Long story short, it was only one it was ever going to be. And I chose to go to Vegas for four years.
(Q: So I have this theory that you chose Las Vegas because it was as different from Scotland as you could get.)
That’s definitely true. My mom was more keen on me staying on the East Coast. The guy made a pretty good pitch for me to go to Loyola. He was an English guy. There were English players. It was a five-hour flight. It was a five-hour time difference, whereas it was an eight-hours and way over the desert in Vegas.
So I watched Oceans 11 and then decided on Vegas, pretty much is what happened.
NEXT: It’s soccer culture shock as Paterson moves to Nevada, earns his degree, and begins his professional career.
TOP IMAGE: Nicki Paterson and his younger brother Jony, captain of Scotland’s Paralympics football team, taken at an uncle’s birthday party about five years ago. “Whereas he looks to me as his inspiration, he’s my inspiration,” Nicki said. Photo courtesy Nicki Paterson.