Northeast Times

There and back again

— North­east nat­ive Bobby Con­vey is in Year 13 of his pro soc­cer ca­reer; hav­ing played all over the world, he hopes the 'world's game' keeps grow­ing in the U.S.

Bobby Con­vey of Sport­ing Kan­sas City (back) tangles with Kev­in Al­ston of the New Eng­land Re­volu­tion in a Ju­ly 21 Ma­jor League Soc­cer game. Con­vey, a North­east Philly nat­ive, is in his first sea­son with Sport­ing Kan­sas City and 13th sea­son over­all of pro­fes­sion­al soc­cer. (Photo cour­tesy Gary Roh­man Pho­to­graphy)

Start­Frag­ment

In the midst of his 13th pro­fes­sion­al soc­cer sea­son, one that has brought him riches and world­wide re­cog­ni­tion, Bobby Con­vey still car­ries one bit of ad­vice to young ath­letes: Don’t be in such a rush to grow up.

Con­vey, a North­east Philly nat­ive who grew up not far from Welsh Road and Roosevelt Boulevard, has made his liv­ing play­ing soc­cer for nearly half his life. It can be a good liv­ing too, if you pos­sess the skills and com­ple­ment­ary pas­sion, drive and work eth­ic that Con­vey was blessed with and real­ized early on in his life.

The 29-year-old, who plays for Sport­ing Kan­sas City of Ma­jor League Soc­cer (MLS), has no re­grets from his own life and ca­reer, but as he’s got­ten older his jour­ney has awar­ded him valu­able wis­dom and per­spect­ive.

LET KIDS BE KIDS

“I had a unique op­por­tun­ity to have a good life and make a dif­fer­ence in my fam­ily’s life,” Con­vey said re­cently by phone from Kan­sas City, Kan. “But hav­ing kids go pro young­er and young­er is a mis­take. Kids should be kids for as long as they can, and look­ing back on it now, it wouldn’t have made much of a dif­fer­ence had I star­ted a few years later. I know people want to rush in­to be­ing a pro, but get­ting a good edu­ca­tion and a de­gree also means something. It’s cer­tainly more im­port­ant.”

Con­vey’s path was de­cided pretty early on after his ex­cep­tion­al soc­cer tal­ents were iden­ti­fied. A mid­field­er, he played loc­ally at Penn Academy and in travel com­pet­i­tion with the Phil­adelphia Soc­cer Club as a young­ster be­fore ma­tric­u­lat­ing at Penn Charter, an aca­dem­ic­ally and ath­let­ic­ally elite private school in the city’s East Falls sec­tion.

Des­pite suf­fer­ing a con­cus­sion when he was in second grade that caused op­tic nerve dam­age in his left eye severe enough to deem him par­tially blind, Con­vey nev­er re­len­ted. One thing was al­ways clear: the kid from the North­east was go­ing places.

GO­ING PRO

Con­vey didn’t last very long at the school, opt­ing in­stead to en­roll at the IMG Soc­cer Academy in Bradenton, Fla., in 1999. The academy “provides youth soc­cer par­ti­cipants with su­per­i­or coach­ing staff, state-of-the-art play­er de­vel­op­ment pro­grams and the best train­ing fa­cil­it­ies in the coun­try,” ac­cord­ing to the school’s of­fi­cial web­site. Con­vey’s class­mates at IMG in­cluded fu­ture soc­cer stars Landon Donovan, DaM­ar­cus Beas­ley and Ogu­chi Onyewu.

“I wasn’t there very long, but Penn Charter was a great ex­per­i­ence for me and my fam­ily,” Con­vey said. “The classes are small and there’s a lot more one-on-one time with the teach­ers, a learn-at-your-own-pace type of lux­ury…The great thing about a place like that is it pre­pares you for fu­ture op­por­tun­it­ies, no mat­ter what field you’re in.”

Con­vey sensed that he had a high­er call­ing, opt­ing to turn pro at 16 and ex­plore a ca­reer in pro­fes­sion­al soc­cer. He called his next step “one in a hun­dred mil­lion,” and ac­know­ledged that there “wer­en’t too many of us to make it, maybe four or five.”

After com­plet­ing his time at IMG, Con­vey was draf­ted by D.C. United of MLS, be­com­ing the young­est play­er to ever be signed by the league at the time, a mark that stood for four years. He was an im­me­di­ate con­trib­ut­or, start­ing 18 of United’s 22 games that sea­son, and went on to play in 89 games with the team between 2000-04, notch­ing eight goals.

CROSS­ING THE POND

In 2004, he took ad­vant­age of an op­por­tun­ity to play in the “big leagues,” so to speak, tak­ing his pro­fes­sion­al tal­ents over­seas. Un­like in the United States, where fans prefer high-scor­ing games like foot­ball and bas­ket­ball, soc­cer is king in many coun­tries throughout the world. There is per­haps no great­er ex­ample of this than in Eng­land, where soc­cer, or “foot­ball” (as the rest of the world knows it) is con­sidered a way of life and not just a game.

Con­vey dis­covered this while play­ing for Read­ing F.C. from 2004-09. A mem­ber of the cut­throat Eng­lish Premi­er League (which also con­sists of well-known clubs like Manchester United, Ar­sen­al and Chelsea), Read­ing is loc­ated 40 miles west of Lon­don and sits right in the heart of the fe­ver­ishly de­voted Eng­lish soc­cer basin. Strug­gling to ex­plain the ex­per­i­ence to Amer­ic­an out­siders, Con­vey offered a fa­mil­i­ar ana­logy.

“Soc­cer in Europe is like the NFL here,” Con­vey ex­plained. “It’s been around forever, and there’s bil­lions of dol­lars in­volved. Over there, people as­so­ci­ate with a cer­tain team, and that be­comes their live­li­hood. In Philly, you have sev­er­al teams to root for…that’s just not the case for people over­seas.”

In fact, Phil­adelphia sports loy­al­ists could prob­ably identi­fy with the no­tori­ously ra­bid Eng­lish soc­cer fans, at least as far as pas­sion and de­vo­tion go. So why won’t so many Amer­ic­ans give soc­cer a prop­er chance, es­pe­cially when it’s so im­mensely pop­u­lar throughout the rest of the world?

“Soc­cer is the world’s game, not bas­ket­ball or base­ball or Amer­ic­an foot­ball,” Con­vey said. “But Amer­ica is a tough nut to crack. There, people are set in their ways. They like what they like, and when you’re used to watch­ing a 200-point bas­ket­ball game, you don’t want to watch a sport where games are low scor­ing and can end in ties. But if people here really paid at­ten­tion to it, they would see that ex­cit­ing things are hap­pen­ing.”

AMER­IC­AN HOME­COM­ING 

After play­ing in 98 games for Read­ing, Con­vey re­turned to Amer­ica in 2009, log­ging 75 games for the San Jose Earth­quakes of MLS be­fore be­ing ac­quired by Kan­sas City late last year. In a sense, Con­vey’s heart nev­er left the United States, mainly due to the 46 ap­pear­ances he made with the United States Na­tion­al Team between 2000-08, which in­cluded a spot on the 2006 U.S. World Cup team at just 23 years old.

So now that he’s back, what pro­gress has soc­cer made in Amer­ica since Con­vey left for Read­ing?

“It’s def­in­itely still grow­ing. I think it was sort of fifty-fifty at first, but now you see that soc­cer is be­ing played in big sta­di­ums in al­most every ma­jor city,” Con­vey said of the 19-team MLS. “In Kan­sas City, we sell out every game and do bet­ter than the base­ball team in terms of nightly at­tend­ance. It’s one of the best places to be, and the own­ers have done it right by put­ting more money in­to it. It’s still in its grow­ing stage, but I’d say with­in the next ten years or so you’ll see bet­ter play­ers com­ing over here to play.”

Dav­id Beck­ham star­ted the in­flux of in­ter­na­tion­al soc­cer tal­ent com­ing to Amer­ica, something that must con­tin­ue if the sport is to ever really catch on with fans in the states. For his part, Con­vey sees the value of spend­ing time over­seas, tak­ing that ex­per­i­ence and ap­ply­ing it to the Amer­ic­an ver­sion of the sport.

“For me, I learned that like any line of work, you need to step up or be crushed,” he said of play­ing in Eng­land. “En­tire towns re­volve around one team, and if you don’t do well all the time then they’ll re­place you with someone who will. I think every kid should live over­seas at some point just to see how much we do have in the U.S. and how much we should ap­pre­ci­ate it. There’s so much more op­por­tun­ity here than any­where else in the world.”

Con­vey also ex­pressed hap­pi­ness that his ho­met­own has ad­op­ted its own MLS soc­cer club and said he hopes Phil­lies, Eagles, Fly­ers and 76ers-crazed fans give the Uni­on a fair shake in one of the coun­try’s premi­er sports towns. If they do, he said, then the dreams of many kids just like him can be real­ized should they pur­sue soc­cer as a ca­reer. He spoke of the sup­port of his par­ents, who still live in the area, as well as his soc­cer-play­ing sib­lings (older sis­ter Kelly was an All-Amer­ic­an at Penn State, while young­er broth­er Tim was a de­fend­er at Geor­getown) in help­ing him real­ize his own am­bi­tions.

“I’ve learned that whatever you put your mind to you can do and do well,” he said. “Both in Philly and in Amer­ica, people can have a good life and make a good liv­ing play­ing this game. Its pop­ular­ity is grow­ing and will only help fu­ture kids if it con­tin­ues to grow. The most im­port­ant thing is to en­joy it, and don’t rush in­to turn­ing pro when the time isn’t right. Trust me, you aren’t miss­ing out. Use that time to get older and stronger and real­ize if it’s what you want.” ••

End­Frag­ment

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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