KENYA BROWN - Thursday, July 31, 2014
Mike da Fonte's dream of one day playing for the U.S. national team has led him to pursue his pro soccer career abroad where he spent two seasons playing in the lower leagues in Portugal.
Now a free agent, da Fonte is looking to take the next step in what he hopes will be a long and distinguished career.
Portugal is known for developing some of the best soccer players in the world. From the likes of the legendary Eusebio, Luis Figo and Rui Costa to the current FIFA World Player of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo, fans have had the privilege of watching them display their skills in stadiums around the world.
It was the Iberian country where da Fonte would head for his first venture in his professional soccer career.
According to the New Yorker, who finished last season on loan with Pedras Salgadas, the move from playing in the United States to Portugal was an eye-opening experience.
"It's gone very well," he told Yanks Abroad. "I've learned so much since being in Portugal and the game in Portugal is so much more advanced and technical that your game is brought to another level."
Before making the move to Europe, the 23-year-old spent time in the college ranks at Bryant University in Rhode Island before transferring to Longwood University in Virginia. He also spent time with USL Premier Development League side the Westchester Flames. The right back credits his time with those teams in helping him to prepare for life in the Portuguese league.
"They helped a lot because in college and PDL the game is very physical and it really got me ready for the pros because there's so much contact," said da Fonte. "Most people don't understand how physical a sport soccer is but college and PDL definitely got me ready."
While playing with the Flames, da Fonte was discovered by an agent who was quite impressed with his performances. After coming to an agreement, the two would head to Portugal where da Fonte went on trial with Olhanense. However, the team's dire financial situation prevented them from offering da Fonte a contract. However, he would go on to sign his first professional contract with third division side SC Espinho just in time for the 2012/13 season.
While the team finished in fourth place that season, da Fonte saw a great deal of time on the field as he played in 23 games and scored one goal during the campaign.
When talking about playing his first professional game on European soil against FC Cesarense da Fonte said he was anxious, but he would eventually calm his nerves and get on with the job.
"I found out before the game and I was really nervous at first because everything I had worked for my entire life and all the sacrifices I've made have led up to this point but then I thought this is the same game I've been playing all my life and to not treat this game any different. So I just went out there confidently and played that game for my family," he said.
As for the level of play in the Portugal's lower league, da Fonte said it was very high compared with where he was playing in the U.S. league system.
"The level of play is really high as many players in the division have played in the first division for the top teams like Benfica, Porto, Sporting, and Braga. So the quality is always there," he explained. "In Portugal they like to play more one, two touch, quick passing and moving off the ball. So for this I really enjoying playing and learning the game better there."
Having been in Portugal for the past couple of years, da Fonte realizes he would not have made it if not for the support of his family, especially his father who has been a huge influence in his pursuit of becoming a professional soccer player.
While many youngsters look up to some of the world's top stars in the game he gives all credit to the man who introduced him to soccer when he was just a little boy.
"He got me into soccer when I was three or four and ever since then he would drive me to every practice or game no matter what and always critiqued my game after every game and practice and he taught me that if you want something you have to go out and earn it," he said. "The one thing that's stuck with me all these years that he told me was every minute you're not practicing someone else is. That may be the biggest motivation I have in my life to work harder and train better than the next guy. "
"The biggest lesson he's taught me is that if you want something you have to go out and earn it. Nothing will ever be handed to you in life and for that I'm so thankful because I've worked for everything I've got and I continue to work as hard as possible every day because I know where I'm going to go and no one is going to stop me."
The advice that da Fonte's father has passed onto him has come into good use, especially considering that he is an American playing over in Europe where there are still many who believe they cannot play the game. However, he takes it upon himself to prove the skeptics wrong about his ability to play.
"They're actually really surprised once they find out I'm American because they have this idea that Americans don't really know how to play the game," said da Fonte. "But I don't say anything to them beforehand about where I'm from. I just got out and prove myself like every practice or game of my life and once they find out I'm American they almost can't believe it."
As da Fonte continues to learn and improve his game, he also has set some lofty goals for himself. One of those goals is getting a call up to the U.S. national team. Like many other Americans, he watched the team's run during the 2014 World Cup and that has only inspired him to push harder to accomplish his dream.
"That is honestly one of my biggest motivators," he said. "It's all I can think about. To be able to put on that jersey and listen to the national anthem while my family and friends watch me play for our country would be my biggest dream come true and I'm going to do everything in my power to realize that dream."
While da Fonte's dream of getting a call up to the national team will take some time, he right now has his sights focused on achieving his short-term goals. After playing on loan for Pedras Salgadas from GD Chaves during the 2013/14 season, he now has his sights set on joining another team to keep that dream alive.
"My personal goals this upcoming season is to continue to grow as a player and learn, as well as do everything I can to help my team," he said. "I really love to push myself as hard as possible, so I'm just going to take this season as a spring board and push myself to the top whether it's in Portugal or any other country."