BRIAN SCIARETTA - Tuesday, April 23, 2013
After turning 18 last month, U.S. U-18 forward Ben Spencer signed a four year contract with Norway's two-time defending champions Molde FK.
Spencer had been training with Molde FK for several months and the club was impressed with the New Mexico native. While FIFA rules prohibit clubs from signing foreign players before their 18th birthday, Molde wasted no time to ink Spencer on Friday, soon after he was eligible.
2013 will be a busy a year for Molde who will be looking to get back on track after a slow start to the Tippeligaen season and qualify for the Champions League group stage for the first time in its history. For Spencer, he is looking forward to the task at hand in his first professional season.
"It's been a very good few months," Spencer told YA. "I think I am fitting in quite well. The transition went rather smoothly. It's always great to be on a winning team. It's also good because all of the players develop a winning mentality. Having the chance to qualify for Champions League is also very exciting for the club and myself. It's an event that every player dreams of being a part of."
Spencer has developed his game in the United States where he has been part of developmental academies and the youth systems of both Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake in MLS. Despite the opportunities domestically, Spencer elected to begin his professional career abroad.
The key factor in his decision making is quality of coaching in Europe as well as the high quality games in which Molde's youth players get to participate; most notably the prestigious NextGen tournament that features the best youth teams in Europe.
"I've always wanted to play in Europe," Spencer explained. "I thought it was the best route for me to get into a bigger country [and] club. I also thought the development for younger player was better in Europe than in the MLS [with] ore meaningful games and possibilities for young pros. An example the U-19 team of Molde will be in Next Generation and the reserve team is in the 2nd division of Norway."
Also, one of the allures of playing with Molde is the opportunity to play under head coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Solskjaer, 40, played for Molde from 1994-1996 and was so impressive there that he earned a transfer to Manchester United and played there until his retirement in 2007.
From 2008-2011, Solskjaer coached Manchester United's reserve team before getting the opportunity to return to Molde as the team's head coach. In his first two seasons coaching at Molde, he lead the team to their first ever Nowegian titles since it's founding in 1911.
For Spencer, the opportunity to play under Solskjaer is terrific opportunity to learn from someone who excelled at his position. At Manchester United, Solskjaer scored 91 goals in 235 Premier League games and the 6'5" Spencer believes he can learn a great deal from his new coach.
"My time with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been fantastic," Spencer said. "He's a fantastic coach and being able to work with such a world class striker has been great for me. Learning how to play my position from one of the greatest forwards in Manchester United history is amazing. I am learning as much as I can from him."
After signing his contract on Friday, Spencer is now one of the youngest players on Molde's team. Earning minutes will be difficult because Molde are a talented team expected to contend for another title. The club, however, will be playing in many games across Tippeligaen, Norwegian Cup, and Champions League qualifying competitions.
First team minutes will be difficult to earn for Spencer but he is confident of his chances.
"I am going to try and work extremely hard to earn a spot on the team," Spencer said. "I hope to play this season and I know it's going to take a lot of hard work but I'm ready to take the next step. We play a lot of games throughout the season so I believe there will be chances for me."
What's also noteworthy of Molde's acquisition of Spencer is that there is a growing contingent of Americans on the team. Josh Gatt has been a key part of Molde's first two Championship winning teams, but in 2013 defender Sean Cunningham has rejoined the club after spending last season on loan to Stabaek. Over the winter, American goalkeeper Ethan Horvath also played with the club.
Molde's American contingent is close knit and since all are young players, they have helped each other through the adjustment of moving to a foreign country at a young age.
"I have become friends with all three of them," Spencer said of Molde's American quartet. "It's definitely nice to have a few Americans here with me. The language barrier isn't too big of a problem though. Almost everyone speaks fluent English which made the transition much easier. I think American players in general are very hard working and have a good winning mentality."
In addition to Molde, Spencer is also actively part of the US U-18 national team and recently took part in a series of games against France and Romania. Along with Spencer, that team includes players like Zach Pfeffer, and Russell Canouse who are all playing professionally in Europe.
For Spencer and these players, the big jump will likely come later in the year as the U-20 national team starts its cycle in preparation for the 2015 U-20 World Cup.
"I think our U-18 team is a very exciting age group with loads of talent," Spencer concluded. "It's nice that we will be able to play together throughout the U-18 cycle all the way into the U-20 team. I hope to stay in the national team. Playing in the U-20 World Cup would be a great honor and something we as a team definitely look forward to."