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.
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.”
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