KENYA BROWN - Monday, July 7, 2014
Jake Keegan is not a household name among the number of Americans plying their trade in Europe, but he hopes to change that as he helps First Division side Galway FC make its way back to Ireland's top league.
The New York native has only been in the professional ranks for a short time, but he seems to have adjusted quite well.
"I have enjoyed each step of the transition to becoming a professional player," he told Yanks Abroad. "The disappointments at first taught me valuable lessons and helped me to appreciate the later successes that much more."
"The biggest adjustment would be that the game is now a business. Coaches are fired more quickly than they would be in college and often times players are let go quickly if the performances are not good enough." added Keegan. "Although results are important at any level, at the professional level the pressure to produce dramatically increases. It becomes vital to be able to deal with that pressure in the correct way or you will be left wondering what could have been."
Before the 23-year-old forward headed on his European odyssey, he spent four years playing at Binghamton University and stints in the USL Premier Development League with the Jersey Express and Westchester Flames respectively. Keegan credits the time he spent with those teams in helping him make the transition to the professional level.
"My time both at Binghamton and the Westchester Flames really helped to shape me as a player," he said. "I was having a bit of trouble finding a PDL team to sign with prior to the 2011 season. I went to a tryout for one and emailed a bunch of others, but it was coach Gus [Skoufis] at Westchester that gave me an opportunity to prove myself in the league. I had a great season in 2011 it really became a turning point in my career. I think it was then that other people started looking at me as a potential professional prospect."
"My time at Binghamton did so much for me both as a player and a person," Keegan continued. "From day one as a freshman, coach [Paul] Marco had 100 percent belief in my abilities as a player. This in turn instilled a confidence in me that I may not have had beforehand. As a striker confidence is so vitally important because you are not going to score every chance you get. You need to be able to move on from failure and take your next chance with the same confidence as the previous one."
After Keegan finished his college at Binghamton, where he scored 28 goals, he would be selected by the Philadelphia Union in the MLS Supplemental Draft last year, making him the first player from his college to be picked by an MLS team.
However, he would spurn the opportunity to sign with the Eastern conference team for a chance to trial with Israeli Premier League side Maccabi Haifa. The opportunity to try out for one of Israel's famed teams came when their youth team was on tour in the United States.
"They set up a friendly against my PDL team at the time, the Jersey Express. Instead of playing with the Jersey Express I actually got the opportunity to play with the Maccabi Haifa team. I scored a goal in the match and did well enough for them to bring me in for a trial with the club about a month later," he said.
Despite the Greens not offering Keegan a contract, he said it was a great experience to just be around the team as it exposed him to a higher level of soccer.
"It was definitely a valuable learning experience for me. I had never really been exposed to a level or speed of play even comparable to what I saw in Israel," he said. "They are probably the biggest club in Israel and had a couple of players who had previously played in the English Premier League. It truly was an eye-opening experience and it helped me to realize truly what it would take to become the player that I wanted to be."
After Keegan's trial at Haifa, he would sign with German side 1. FCA Darmstadt. He made quite the impression while playing for the team as he scored 10 goals in 10 games. While pleased to have contributed to the team, he remains realistic about having to make an impression
"Whenever you are new to a team it is so important to make a good first impression. That goes double when you are playing in a foreign country," said Keegan. "In Germany, American players for the most part are a completely unknown commodity. American players generally have a reputation of being hard-working and athletic, but not too much else is expected. I was happy to be able make a good contribution to the club during my time there."
Keegan would only spend a few months in Germany when he got the chance to trial for Galway FC in Ireland. It is not unusual for players to move to other teams in the middle of the season, but having played so well Darmstadt, the moved seemed rather strange.
However, as Keegan explained, his Irish background and the league's schedule fit in well to his move to the country.
"I come from an Irish background and decided it was the best move for me at the time. One factor that played into it was the fact that although the German season was halfway through, Ireland plays a season similar to that of MLS in that it runs from March to October. I decided that if I wanted to move then it would be best to move and get into the team from the beginning rather than during the middle of the season after the German season had ended," he said.
The chance to play for the Tribesmen would not have been possible if not for the help of Westchester's communications director David Harris. Keegan would get in contact with Harris, who then sought out teams in Ireland seeking to sign new players,
"David was in contact with Liam Buckley who manages St. Patrick's Athletic about the possibility of me coming to Ireland to play for him," Keegan explained. "I didn't end up trialing with St. Pats as Liam decided to sign different players, but he passed my info along to Tommy Dunne who manages Galway FC. Tommy then gave me the opportunity to come to Galway on trial."
After signing with Galway, Keegan would go on to make his debut for the team in a 1-0 loss to Longford Town on opening day. Four days later, he would score his first goal for the team in a 2-0 win over Mayo League in the first round of the EA Sports Cup.
Keegan has been integral part of the team's push to finish atop of the league, scoring six goals in all competitions this season. They currently sit in third place, four points behind leaders Shelbourne FC.
While Keegan is pleased with his contribution to the team so far, from a personal standpoint, he feels he can do more to improve his game.
"I am always trying to find ways to improve on some of the weaknesses and even the strengths in my game," he said. "As a striker, the timing of your movement is so important to your success. This involves both your own movement and the tendencies of your teammates. As the season has progressed I feel like I have gotten a better understanding of the guys around me and hopefully that will help lead to more success in the second part of the season."
Besides life on the field, Keegan has many good things to say about the city of Galway itself as well as the fans who come out to Eamonn Deacy Park to support the team.
"Galway is a great little city that is located right on the ocean. It has some unbelievable scenery and is a great place to live," he said. "The Galway supporters have been great. There is a real interest and buzz around the team. The people really want the team to do well and bring the team back to where it was back in the historic Galway United days.
"It has been great meeting some of the supporters around town and I especially appreciate the USA chants that they regularly sing at matches. I cannot thank them enough for the way they have welcomed me both into the club and the country," added Keegan.
Keegan is quite happy playing in Ireland and hopes to continue to improve and reach his potential as a player. He also has set some lofty goals for himself as his playing career progresses.
"In the end I want to play at the highest level I possibly can, wherever that may be. I am really enjoying my time in Ireland and I could see myself spending a good deal of time here. At some point though, I would like to return to the U.S. to play," he said.
"The game is constantly growing and with all the new clubs coming into the MLS, NASL and USL Pro, I expect things to only get better," he added. "For me, the goal would be to eventually break into MLS, but the level in all three leagues is excellent and I would consider myself lucky to get an opportunity to play back home."