CHRISTOPHER MCCOLLUM - Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Giuseppe "Joe" Funicello had a modest but respectable professional career. He struggled at times, succeeded at others, eventually going from the the seventh division of England to the Europa League.
His playing career behind him, he is now helping other players reach the promised land on the other side of the ocean.
Joe was not one of the better known Yanks playing abroad, and despite his promise, injury and missed opportunities derailed him from several good chances of climbing more prominently onto the American radar.
While Joe was excelling in high school, Giovanni Savarese came into the Funicello family's restaurant in Westport, Connecticut. Savarese had recently taken over the youth development program for the MetroStars, and liked Funicello's potential. As a result, Joe began training in the MetroStars system, which shortly after became the Red Bulls system, joining the likes of Edson Buddle and future U.S. National Team stars Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.
Despite training well with the first team and performing well in reserve matches, Funicello was deemed expendable in the new Red Bulls system, and he decided to take his talents overseas. Through trial and tribulation, Joe went from sleeping on couches and playing in the seventh division of English soccer, to spreading highlight videos of himself around the internet, trying to garner attention.
One of these videos caught the attention of a viewer, who contacted Joe and told him that there would be a trial arranged in Switzerland, for a fee. Joe jumped on the opportunity, paid the fee to the agent, bought the plane ticket, and arrived at the stadium. Unfortunately, the coach had no idea who Joe was, and it turned out that the deal was a scam. Back to England and sleeping on couches, Joe eventually moved back Stateside where he spent a season playing for Real Maryland.
At long last though, Joe's perseverance paid off, when an opportunity took him to Iceland's second division with Thor. He excelled in the truncated Icelandic season, and earned a move to Mareihamn in Finland's Premier League in 2010. His impact on Mariehamn was immediate, keeping them in the top division and earning the respect of his teammates. During the offseason, he was named captain and he led the team through the following pre-season.
Unfortunately, Joe didn't realize some of the cultural differences in being captain in America, versus being captain in Finland for an old school coach. Taking the concerns of his teammates' about the team's playing style to the manager ended up being the death of his career at Mariehamn, and he went from being the captain of the team to no longer dressing for games. Despite interest from other teams in the league, Mariehamn refused to sell him, seemingly as punishment. Finally though, after looking like the year was going to be a waste, he was released and immediately signed by VPS. With new wind in his sails, Joe was more ready than ever to make his mark. In one of his first practices with the team, he tore a ligament in his ankle. To show his loyalty to the team for signing him, he refused pay for the final portion of the season, expecting their patience with his recovery. He was released at the end of the 2011 season, having never played a game for VPS., and short two months of pay, his gesture of goodwill unreciprocated.
Out of contract, Joe went back to Iceland to play for Thor, and finally made his impact. After sleeping on couches in England, playing for seventh division amateur and semi-pro teams, being caught in an agent scam in Switzerland, put in the doghouse by his coach, tearing ligaments in his ankle, he made it back to Thor just in time to play in the Europa League. He slowly, subtly, carved out a modest career for himself. After a season and a half in Iceland, he was moved back to Finland to play for Jaro. Joe finished the 2013 season, and at the age of 26 with contract offers on the table, decided to hang up his cleats.
Retirement was an easy choice; Joe was at the peak of his competitive drive during his first spell in Iceland. After finishing his final season in Finland, that drive was gone. He was coasting, resting on his laurels. He was doing what he always resented other players for: Taking up a roster spot despite not having the passion that trialists had, being told that they were good enough but there wasn't a spot for them.
Joe decided to turn his attention fully to helping other players achieve their dreams of playing pro. Since 2012, he had utilized his contacts in Scandinavia to host small player combines to bring attention to college and semi-pro players who weren't seen as good enough for Generation Adidas contracts or the first two rounds of the MLS draft. SoccerViza was born as a way for Joe to use his contacts in the soccer world to help the underdog achieve his dream.
One of the first combines in 2012 sent Josh Wicks to join Funicello at Thor. From the same combine, Ben Gordon, Chris Tsonis, Mark Lavery, and Sam Archer went on trial in Iceland. Tsonis eventually signed a pro contract with Fjlnoir this past February, making him the second signing from the 2012 combine in Florida.
With Joe's playing career now behind him, there's far more time to devote to SoccerViza, and it has taken off. More participants, increased quality, and more interested coaches from the Northern reaches of Europe. After the November, 2013 combine, Sean Reynolds was signed to FH in Iceland, where one of his first games pitted him against Spartak Moscow. Brandon Scott and Nate McCann were both offered trials, with Scott turning the trial into a one-year contract with Leiknar Reykjavic in Iceland's second division.
Prior to last year's combine in Florida, Brian Gilmour joined the SoccerViza family as a talent scout, splitting time with his second division club Ayr United in Scotland. Gilmour grew up in the vaunted Glasgow Rangers academy from age 9, signing his first pro contract when he turned 16. His became a story that was nearly the opposite of Funicello's, having opportunities that others could only dream of; playing in the U-19 European Cup against Gerard Pique and Juan Mata, playing in the U-20 World Cup, playing for the Scottish Cup, playing in the UEFA Cup, all before Americans can legally drink. Unfortunately, the glamor of professional soccer at such a young age did more to harm Gilmour's long term prospects than it did to help them, and though his talent is still there, he failed to capitalize on it when it mattered most, thinking his career was guaranteed. Gilmour recognized this in hindsight, and found common ground with Funicello when they played on cross-town rivals in Iceland. Gilmour liked the idea of SoccerViza, and now attends the combines in order to offer another professional perspective, to bring new contacts from Europe, and to share his experiences with prospective pro players to warn them of the pitfalls of resting in their comfort zone.
Working close with Joe on the business end is the Event Coordinator and COO, Steve Cenatiempo. Steve helped lay down the bedrock for consistent quality. Himself a standout at the University of Connecticut, helping to lead the Huskies to the 2005 Big East title, he is unique among the SoccerViza staff as having top tier college experience, something that allows him to relate to the mostly college-groomed participants that SoccerViza draws to combines. Having played soccer at a high level, but spending his time after college working in the professional world, he brings a business-minded approach that is securing SoccerViza's future as a platform.
The SoccerViza staff prides itself on motivating players, and each combine brings a new motivational quote to live by. The most recent one in Danbury, Connecticut was about sleep, or the lack of it. "I have a dream that I value more than my sleep," and the message during the first day seminar was that you have to want it more than you want anything else, that you must be willing to lose sleep in order to train, in order to pursue opportunities. It worked for some of the players, with Fylkir offering trials to the University of Maryland's Matt Oduaran, a Nigerian-American striker who has seen interest from the Super Eagles, as well as time with the D.C. United reserves. Going with Oduaran is Jamaican-born Ocane Williamson. Two other players have also received inquiries as well, but are unconfirmed at this time.
In all, it was a complete mix of players, coming from schools as small as Sacred Heart and as large as the University of Connecticut. The University of Maryland was represented, as was Georgetown, Duquesne, Albany, Buffalo, along with the New York Red Bulls and DC United academies. Players from Detroit City FC and the Atlanta Silverbacks were present, among an assortment of other players with experience in the PDL.
The competition level was high, with the pace lightning quick, and it became evident that some of the better looking players on paper were surpassed by some of the players who believed in Joe and Brian's message that in order to thrive, you need to be hungry for it, hungrier than the next guy on the field vying for the same position. It was typical of the American athlete prototype that is looked for by smaller European clubs, but there were also moments of grace on the ball, and clinical finishing.
The odd time of year for the March combine allowed only a handful of the interested teams to send representatives, as most transfer windows are closed or the season is too close to feel comfortable trying out a new player. The summer combine in the middle of the open transfer window is expected to garner far more attention from foreign clubs, with Joe looking to expand SoccerViza's reach into Denmark and Scotland, as well as to begin examining the South American and Asian markets.
When asked by Yanks Abroad what motivates the SoccerViza staff to provide the services that they do, whether there is financial incentives from drawing players to the events, or the desire to push players into contracts in order to represent them, Joe, Brian, and Steve categorically denied any motive related to profiteering.
While it's a for-profit business, it's not pushed the way it could be to get rich off of. For Joe, it's the opportunity to help kids who were in his situation find a better, quicker outcome while avoiding the traps he fell into. For Brian, it's the opportunity to push kids and show them the errors of his mistakes so that they don't repeat them.
Steve points to the small enrollment cap, only 60 players per combine, comparing it to other combines that take near limitless population pools to put in front of a handful of coaches. Joe points to the low price for attendance, with the bulk of fees covering the operational expenses of exclusive facility rental, travel and lodging for staff and visiting scouts, insurance, and special staff such as athletic trainers, photographers, and other technical personnel.
Between games, Joe and Brian offer advice to the players, sometimes in small groups, sometimes one on one. They're confidence boosts, Brian says. Or they're about being focused, Joe says. Regardless, it's advice that they feel will help them standout better to the coaches observing from the sideline. It's in this manner that so many players come up to Joe after the event, and reach out to him afterwards regardless of being signed or not.
In the vast, endless landscape of the United States where the existing infrastructure simply cannot accommodate full-scale scouting of amateur players, Joe is being seen as a sort of Soccer Moses, traveling across the country to round up his players, and lead them through the hurdles to Europe. Everyone loves a good underdog story, and Funicello is creating them on a regular basis.