The NP Interview, Part 2: Culture shock

The NP Interview, Part 2: Culture shock
"Whaddaya mean Paterson's not signed yet?"

“Whaddaya mean Paterson’s not signed yet?”

When we last checked in on Nicki Paterson, the Battery midfielder was remembering his soccer career in Scotland as a youth player at Motherwell and teenage professional at Hamilton Academical (2002-04).

His career was running ahead of the curve — until Hamilton changed coaches, broke its budget, and took a step back from full-time professional soccer. Feeling frustrated with the club and working a second job to pay the bills, Paterson stumbled into an opportunity to showcase his skills for coaches from American universities.

Result? About a dozen American scholarship offers for the young Scot. In the end, he was more or less recruited to the University of Nevada Las Vegas by director Steven Soderbergh, whose Oceans 11 made The Capital of Second Chances look like a good place to jump-start a career stalled by management mishaps in South Lanarkshire.

UNLV put Paterson on the soccer map in North America and gave him the most stable four years (2005-08) of his adult life. But it also moved him off a United Kingdom career path and onto a North American one. And as Paterson was about to find out, Scotland wasn’t the only country with troubled franchises and tight finances.

The interview, Part 2…

Paterson, photographed while clerking at a convenience store in Iowa, while playing for the Des Moines Menace of PDL in college.

Paterson, photographed while clerking at a convenience store in Iowa, while playing for the Des Moines Menace of PDL in college.

Coming in to Vegas, my whole intention was, “Let’s just go and do something different for a year.” If I stay, I stay, if I don’t, come back, try to go to Scotland or England, maybe the financial situation will get better over the next couple of months. (Instead, the financial situation) got worse, and I had an absolute ball in Vegas, and decided to stay and graduate.

For me it was a very weird experience, to go from being out of school for three years. My first meeting was with an academic adviser. I wasn’t ready for that, because I didn’t know what my degree was going to be. I decided to take complete sport classes, in view of me having a degree and going down the P.E.-teaching route. Because the only other thing I could ever see myself doing was that or a coach.

The thing is, I thought everyone was on a full-ride when they went to college. Little did I know there were only eight scholarships between 27 guys, and a lot of these guys are paying 25, 30-grand a year. Just blew my mind, you know?A lot of these guys were just participating in soccer to get themselves a degree. Whereas to me, soccer was my life and guys didn’t necessarily take it as seriously as I was.

(Editor’s note: Paterson’s career at UNLV coincided with the UNLV career of Seattle Sounders winger and  former Battery star Lamar Neagle. Neagle also played with Paterson in Des Moines, Iowa, where summer games with the Menace of PDL also required clerking at a Kum and Go convenience store. Funny interview with Paterson at the store here. Neagle went on to play one season for the Battery, scoring 14 goals in 24 appearances in the club’s glorious 2010 double-championship season.)

(UNLV) was a big name, but they couldn’t get kids to commit because their parents were scared they would drop out of school. They hadn’t been that successful. They were a batting-.500 team. So it was a weird first year for sure.

(I got my degree) in three-and-a-half years. Phys Ed, K-through-12. When I was there, I always did summer school. Once I realized after a year and a half that I’m going to get my degree, I see myself living in the States for a while, maybe turning pro here, or getting my degree and going back, I was all about finishing as quickly as possible.

(Did you come out thinking MLS, or going home?)

Nicki Paterson, Running Rebel.

Nicki Paterson, Running Rebel.

Fifty-fifty. I realized quickly when I came back for Christmas, or summer, whatever I may be back for, people didn’t really care who I was playing for. It was just “Where are you playing?”

So it was all, “Well, I’m in Vegas right now.” “Ah, what’s Vegas like?” Not “What’s the football like?” Nobody ever asked.

People at home, even now to a certain extent, still look down upon American soccer. Beckham only turned up my first year. So every year American has grown, and people’s perception at home was getting better and better, but when I went home after I graduated, it was only then I realized.

The whole (MLS) draft system, I only really took a lot of care about it the end of my junior year, start of my senior year. “What do I need to do to turn professional here?” My junior year, guys were still making 15-grand a year. It’s like a developmental MLS contract. I was like well, is that worth it? I didn’t even know USL One and Two,who or what that was.

As my senior year went on I was taking more of a notice on it.  Made it to the USL Combine, which was in Charleston, believe it or not. I was like “Who is this team? Are they USL One?” I was like “Oh, I like this. This is good.” And I killed it. I did real, real well.

I got on Columbus Crew’s draft list for the MLS draft. Another few MLS teams were interested, but the foreign issue was kinda putting them off. USL One and Two clubs started to inquire. So this was back in Vegas, trying to sort out where I was going to go. Columbus looked great. There was a Scottish kid, Adam Moffat. He basically hurt his knee, hurt his ACL maybe, and they didn’t know if he was going to make it back for pre-season. If he didn’t, they were going to sign me as a replacement, if he did, they weren’t.  He came back and it fell through in the end.

First step: USL

UNLV mugshot

UNLV mugshot

And at that point I was torn. Do I go back home? My mom and dad wanted to come out and see me actually walk in Vegas. My brother was coming out for a vacation. And then I got a phone call from Harrisburg saying “Would you like to come and play here for the season?” And I was like… do I just chill in Vegas for a few months and have my parents come see me walk? I basically did one P.E. class and yoga in the morning (my last semester), and that was it.

I spoke to both teachers. They both agreed to give me a grade to just leave. My parents were pretty bummed that… I gave up my chance to walk, because that was the opening game of the season for Harrisburg that day. And it was that experience (with the City Islanders in 2009) that made me want to make it in the States. I just seen the standard of what it was like in USL and thought I could get to MLS. At that time the bargaining agreements were all going through, the wages were all going up and up and up, rosters were getting a little bit bigger, there was a reserve league.

(Editor’s note: Harrisburg finished third in the league, with Paterson making 19 appearances and scoring twice.)

(So) I had a big decision. Basically I played at Harrisburg, and at the end of the season I signed for Austin Aztex (USSF Division 2 Professional League), who were under Adrian Heath. But he was supposed to be leaving to go MLS, as an assistant maybe, and there was a new coach coming in to take over, Anthony Hudson. This was all quote-unquote. This is what was supposed to be happening.

But I went to Austin, signed a two-year contract, we had a very successful time. We beat Monterrey, we beat three teams in England in our tour of England, I played every minute of every game, scored two or three goals from midfield. Everything looked great.

Paterson spent two seasons playing for Clyde F.C. after his deal with the team that would become Orlando City S.C. fell through.

Paterson spent two  North American off-seasons playing for Clyde F.C. after his deal with the team that would become Orlando City S.C. fell through.

Two weeks later I got an email that said my services were no longer required, along with 20 other people cc’d in this email. They say Adrian he had decided to stay and decided he wanted to build a team from scratch, get rid of everyone after just using me for two weeks. So I was stuck at home in Scotland with little or no options. What are you going to do?

So I signed for Clyde, just to get something close to me, try and build it back up again. And then got approached by Anthony Hudson, who is the coach at Real Maryland. Asked me to come and play with him there.

Wasn’t too keen on going to Real Maryland, but he said, “Look, I’ll make you a better player. You’re going to be the main guy on the team for me, and I’m going to do big things in my coaching career, and where I go, you go,” type things. So I decided, do I want to be at home in Scotland and try and make a stand, or do I want to come back to the States? And this guy’s ambition won me over.

(Real Maryland) were in the same league as Charleston that year. The money I was on was better than the year I was on in Harrisburg. Significantly. I was the highest-paid guy on their team. Still not earning much… but I improved massively that one year.

The team was awful. We had a good starting 11, but no backbone. And we had probably seven of the 18 guys on the team getting paid under $200 or $300 a month. Two or three guys, living with a host family, cleaning the kits, just to be on the team. So when we picked up a few injuries, suspensions, it was very difficult for us to compete.

And that year we tied twice with Charleston. So my best games of the year were when we came here, because it was easy to get yourself up for a game in a perfect grass stadium. We trained in a high school stadium, played in a high school stadium. It was 50 fans.

But that season taught me I don’t need the fans. I don’t need the money. I don’t need anything to be successful. (Hudson, now the national team coach for Bahrain) instilled into me the work ethics and brought out the good attitude that’s inside of me. He made me a positive player. Very rarely that year was I bickering or arguing. I was just so focused on improving and constantly having myself in the shop window. That really taught me a lot of life lessons.

(Editor’s note: At the end of the 2010 season, Real Maryland self-relegated to the PDL, where the club remains to this day.)

That ‘uh-oh’  feeling…

(When the 2010 season ended, who approached  you other than Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser?)

160px-AC_St_Louis_logo.svgSo that particular year, at the end of that season, I got the chance to sign for A.C. St. Louis of NASL. Went to St. Louis, signed an at-the-end-of-the-season-plus-two-year contract. Very good contract. It was the best contracted year of my career. Found out that the particular visa that I had through Real Maryland had just expired a couple of days before my first game, and that I needed to leave the country. Literally. Right away.

So before I even played for AC St. Louis, I had to go home, not knowing if I was ever going to get back in the country again, or what was going to happen. A.C. St. Louis folded a month later, and I was sitting at home thinking “What the hell is going on? Everywhere I go is just”… Maryland folded, St. Louis folded, Austin folded, within 12 months.

(In USL PRO, my experience is that a lot of the best players tell stories about teams that went through troubles at key points in their individual development.)

I mean, it can make you or break you as a soccer player or an individual.

For me, I’m at home, pretty drained. I was so pumped to play for St. Louis. Had a few buddies on the team, it was a good setup. Good place. Ready to go out for that first game, and then to have to spend two-grand to leave the next day on a flight? It took all my money as well. So I’m at home with no money, no hope at that point, and what was my next step?

Clyde_FC_logoThe Scottish season had started, basically, by a month. So everybody’s budgets were full. Who am I going to play for? It was at that point that I signed for Clyde (for the second time). They were similar to where Hamilton was. Were a premier league club and had kinda fallen down a little bit, and they were trying to build their way back up. So it was a stepping stone, if anything.

(How are the contracts in the Scottish second division compared to USL PRO?)

Less. I mean, back home right now you’ve got four divisions. And the premier guys are still making up to 20 grand a week. And the second division guys are making a thousand, two thousand a week. And your bottom two divisions are part time. Guys are making $400 or $500 bucks a month to expenses. So when I first went to Clyde it was a little bit more than expenses. It was peanuts. But I picked up a job at home as well.

So for the first time I was working at home, I was playing, and I was like “I’m 24, 25. I should be getting ready for the prime of my career, (and) I’m at the lowest point. Almost.” I’m starting from scratch at home. What am I going to do? I had a few calls from certain clubs, NASL, USL, wasn’t sure of the places. I have no idea.

I think it was Christmas eve or something like that, I was in a bar in Scotland, and my phone went. It was my agent. I almost didn’t even answer it, because I didn’t want to talk to him. Because he’d had no good news for me for years at this point.

So I answered it, and I was in a conference call between me, him and Auggie. Within 10 minutes I was signed for Charleston. It was that quick.  

NEXT UP: Everything comes together in Charleston.

4 Comments

  1. bravo (stands up and claps)can’t wait until part three….

  2. Excellent stuff great to read a story about a person’s struggles when that person is a fighter and doesn’t give up, way to go Nicki.

  3. You know, as fans, we bitch about our struggles in the barren landscape of US Soccer, this piece just goes to show that the players usually have it much worse than we do. It’s amazing any of these guys stick around, talk about 1 step forward & 2 steps backwards. Well done Dan….

  4. Part 3 gets into the effect of MLS’ Discovery Rights rule, and it’s the kind of thing that erodes my general belief that MLS’s control-freak policies are a necessary evil because they give soccer a stable environment for growth.

    Bullshit. The bottom line is, if Paterson and his agent been free to sign with the team that was ready to offer him a contract 12 months ago, he’d be in MLS today. Preventing him from going someplace else didn’t make the Red Bulls stronger. And letting teams compete for lower-league players is ultimately good for all levels of soccer.

    At some point this off-season I’m going to write about the USL PRO’s record against MLS reserve squads in 2013. Because what it suggests is that the third or fourth best player on a decent USL PRO roster is one hell of a lot better than the 19th player on an MLS squad.