KENYA BROWN - Friday, July 13, 2018
Jonny Campbell has not let the doubters stop him from reaching his goal of becoming a professional soccer player as he is currently living the dream in Cambodia.
The defender may not be a household name to many stateside who track the progress of Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie or others toiling in leagues across the European continent, but he has followed his own path as he is one of the rare Americans to test his abilities in Asia.
To understand Campbell's soccer odyssey, one has go back to his roots in Johnson City, Tennessee. While the state is not exactly a hotbed for soccer, it is where he first learned of the beautiful game that would take him out of the state and across the Pacific Ocean.
"In Tennessee, soccer wasn't the most popular sport and like many other American kids, I grew up participating in almost every sport I could. I started playing soccer when I was very young and it was a sport that I never became tired or bored of," Campbell told Yanks Abroad. "As I became older, I joined a club team that traveled to different tournaments in the US and that's when I really started to fall in love with the sport."
It was also around that time when the now 26-year-old began to follow the sport outside the US borders, with Arsenal of the English Premier League catching his attention. Arsene Wenger and the Gunners, with the players from the famed "Invincibles" like Tony Adams, Patrick Viera, and Dennis Bergkamp gracing the television screen. However, it was one player that Campbell had his eye on when he was younger.
"Sol Campbell was the center back for the club, so I loved to watch him play, because he was such a great defender as well as a beast of an athlete. But, of course I also liked many other players who were not defenders such as, Ronaldo El Phenomeno, Thierry Henry, Bergkamp, Zidane, and many others. But, Sol Campbell was by far my favorite center back during that time period and of course we also shared the same last name, which made me like him even more," he said.
The towering English defender would not be the only one to get Campbell's admiration as a well-known midfielder from the Czech Republic would eventually sign with Arsenal.
"As I became older, I fell in love with Tomas Rosicky after the 2006 World Cup, when he joined Arsenal, because the style of football he played. The way he could orchestrate the midfield was incredible and he was always finding forward passes and gaps to exploit. Off the ball, he worked hard and always had a knack for a perfectly timed sliding tackle. For me, he is my favorite footballer and I wish he hadn't gone through so many injuries during his career, because I believe he would've been one of the best," said Campbell.
Then at 14 years old, Campbell would then be faced with a decision that did not have the drama like LeBron James' announcement that he would take his talents to the Miami Heat or Antoine Griezmann's Razzie-worthy documentary telling anyone who cared that he would stay at Atletico Madrid. It was at this moment that he chose to focus on soccer full time.
His decision was based on several reasons: the world's love for the game, his personal experience playing the sport, friends and teammates he would meet and, most importantly, Arsenal.
If only Arsene Wenger had dispatched scouts to Tennessee, Campbell could have been gracing the Emirates Stadium wearing the Arsenal red as he faced Tottenham Hotspur in the North London derby.
However, the 6-1 center back would go the college route and play four years at East Tennessee State University where he and the Buccaneers won two Atlantic Sun Conference championships and made an appearance in the NCAA College Cup tournament in 2013.
With a degree in logistics and supply chain management under his belt and a fairly successful college soccer career on his resume, it was time for Campbell to take the step up to the professional ranks.
There was just one problem - no one outside of Tennessee knew much about Jonny Campbell.
"Once I graduated college, I thought I might have some opportunities come up after having a really good senior season as an outside back, but I didn't. I had to learn quickly how the American professional football world works and that was- if you don't have a well-known name already or played at a top division one school, then more than likely you won't have an opportunity in the US to play professionally after graduating," said Campbell.
But the lack of notoriety did not deter the aspiring professional as he headed to Spain where he trained for three months with UD Alzira, a team in the fourth division based in Valencia. He would make stops in various cities such as Philadelphia, Orlando, Charlotte, Miami and Seattle playing in the Premier Development League and United Soccer League. He would go anywhere if a team gave him a chance to play.
That is when an unexpected opportunity to play for a team in an exotic locale was presented to him while he was trying out for the Seattle Sounders.
"I met a friend in at the Seattle Sounders preseason in 2015. He had played in Thailand before, so he and I stayed in touch after being let go by the Sounders" said Campbell. "In 2016, I decided to take a risk, and check out Thailand football towards the end of the year, with the same player I had met in Seattle Sounders preseason, previously."
"I had left for Asia with no contract or plan, but only a friend who had played there previously and had a few connections. No agent, no research about Thailand, no plan, just a dream to continue my professional career after not continuing my career in the USL in 2016."
That gamble paid off for Campbell as he would sign a contract with Chachoengsao Hi-Tek FC, the Fighting Fish, of Thai League Three. And his single season with the team proved to be a personal success as he played 26 games and scored two goals during their 2017 campaign.
After a strong season in the Thai league, perhaps it would have opened doors for Campbell to move up to a team in the country's second or first division. But then another unexpected opportunity would present itself - this time on the Thailand-Cambodia border.
"The choice to come to Cambodia was solely made, because I had met the head coach the year before in Thailand on a trip to the Cambodian border to fix my visa. We stayed in touch throughout my season in Thailand and after the season had finished he became the technical director at PPCFC," Campbell explains.
That meeting led to him getting an invite to Cambodia for a preseason tryout with Phnom Penh Crown FC (PPCFC) and later a contract allowing him to play for the capital team this season.
When Campbell decided to make the move to PPCFC, he was not just joining a run-of-the-mill team. He was joining the standard bearers in the Cambodian league as they hold a record six league titles. They also play at one of the best grounds in the country, the RSN Stadium.
While Jonny has only been playing with the team, nicknamed the Lion of the Capital, for a few months, he has a keen eye on the development of soccer in Cambodia. It's not on par with the likes of Japan's J. League or the Chinese Super League, but the games are competitive and teams have to put up a good fight to stay in contention for the league title.
"I believe Cambodian football is growing, but at a slow pace. The level of the top teams in the Cambodian Metfone League is similar to the USL level, but then the bottom teams are far from it. The teams that can pay better than others are the strongest teams in the league, because that's where all the top Cambodian players move to," he explained.
"Then, if you combine Cambodian players with five strong foreign players that's the makeup of most teams here. The technical ability of players in Southeast Asia is usually very good, but a lot of players lack the physical attributes combined with their inconsistency of making the right decisions while in possession. I think both of these aspects of their [Southeast Asian players] game will improve with time as many Southeast Asian countries are attracting better coaches, foreign players, plus starting to learn how important gym sessions and the physical side of football is."
Despite being one of the big teams in the league, PPCFC have found it a bit difficult keeping up with their rivals this season. Campbell has been an integral part of the team, but some results have not gone their way as they lie currently in fifth place in the standings with 21 points, 12 behind leaders Boeung Ket.
He is quite aware as to what problems have prevented the team from being higher up in the standings and hopes they can be addressed as they enter the second half of the season.
"Honestly, we need the results to go our way in the second half of the season. We played both of the top teams Boung Ket and Naga in the first half of the season and in both games we received a red card around the 60th minute. I felt our play against both teams was very good and we deserved at least a draw during those two important matches, but that's football," said Campbell. "Our team is made of up a lot of young exciting Cambodian players, but we sometimes lack the experience to finish our chances and close out games, etc."
"Now, we must take one game at a time and focus on consistently performing at our best in the second half of the season which will lead to us winning and climbing the table. Scoring goals was our Achilles heel in the first half of the season, so we hope to start scoring, which we ended up scoring five goals in our last fixture of the first half of the season."
Away from the field, there is always concerns whether a foreign player can adjust to life in a country that has a culture and customs that are totally different from what they experience at home. This is especially true in Asia. However, Campbell appears to be settled and enjoying life in Cambodia
"Cambodia is very similar to Thailand, so the adjustments were very small for me. I had become used to the lifestyle from living in Thailand the year before," he said. "In Cambodia, they use a mix of USD and their own currency which is Cambodian riel. It was extremely easy to learn though, because riel is basically used as the cents when living in USA except it's all bills instead of coins."
"Definitely, many strange experiences, but when you live in Southeast Asia the strange experiences become normal experiences and a part of everyday life. You adapt to the lifestyle changes, culture changes, diet changes, etc. A lot of motorbikes (small motorcycles and scooters) on the road, a lot of toilets have no toilet paper and only a water sprayer, random livestock just casually walking down the road, stray dogs everywhere, street vendors on every corner, laid back and lazy lifestyle, driving is insane in Asia, because no one follows the rules and much more."
It appears that the Science Hill High School alum is enjoying his life as he fulfills his dream of playing professional soccer. But one question comes mind when thinking of everything he has gone through to get where he is now. What keeps him going when any other player would most likely pack it in and take another career path?
"Throughout my life, I've always had the mentality that if you believe in yourself, work intelligently and diligently, then you can accomplish anything in life. I've been doubted about my football career many times in my life by coaches, friends and people in general, but instead of taking that as a negative, I turned it into a fuel which drove me to continue improving and climbing to the highest level of football that I've accomplished so far which is the USL and the Cambodian Metfone League," he said.
"I want to show everyone with a dream, not to be afraid to chase it, because anything is possible even when the odds are stacked against you. I'm from Johnson City, Tennessee, a small city where football isn't the most popular sport, but I've continued to chase my professional football dream and definitely feel like I've found a new home for my professional career in Southeast Asia."
He also finds inspiration from two close family members.
"My father and grandmother have been my role models throughout my life, not because of their ambition, but because of their kindness and selfless love for people. They've always supported me and I want to be able to support them one day through continuing to succeed in my football career," he said.
"My faith in God is also a major reason why I continue to pursue football, because I know that this life is important for us to love and enjoy every precious moment. I've been given a major opportunity to play football professionally and inspire people to pursue their passion, which also allows me to share my positivity, love and encouragement to everyone who follows me."
Campbell is steadily making a name for himself in Cambodia and PPCFC fans surely cannot miss him when he is on the field with his long hair and the No. 99 printed on his jersey.
It is no secret that a player could end up anywhere in the world just to play the game. But Campbell said he is happy with where he is right now.
"Obviously, football is crazy, because you can end up anywhere in the world. But, my preference at the moment is to stay in Southeast Asia, because I have been shown so much love from the supporters in Thailand and Cambodia," he said. "Many coaches here, appreciate my style of football as a center back, because I'm not just an athletic center back, but I also possess technique which helps me play out of the back. A lot of foreign center backs in Southeast Asia are brutes that are strong and good in the air, but lack the technical skills on the ball."
"Therefore, I believe my athleticism combined with my technical ability will help me advance my football career to a much higher level in the future. I would love more than anything to break into some of the top leagues in Asia, and of course Europe or anywhere in the world, but right now I must focus on continuing to improve myself as a player, so that when the opportunities come, I'll be ready to take them."
Europe will always be the dream destination for American soccer players, but Campbell is quite persuasive on anyone taking their chances on playing in Asia as he has found some positives on making the move to the Far East.
"I have loved my time in Asia, so for any players in the US who are interested in taking their career to Asia, I would fully recommend it. There are many great opportunities in Asian football for foreign players, and it's a nice relaxed lifestyle, but of course there is always a lot of added pressure on foreigners (foreign quota limit), so you're always expected to be at your top level," he said. "Also, be prepared to battle with other foreign players, because there are only a small amount of foreign spots available in each team, depending on which Asian country (foreign spots vary, usually between two to five per team)."
"Overall, Asia is a great place to enjoy your football, live a relaxed lifestyle, explore, travel and save money."