MICHAEL ADUBATO - Thursday, July 11, 2019
Estonia may not be the place where one would consider launching their professionsal soccer career, but it's where Eric McWoods has landed as he aspires to make it to the highest level.
In the northeast corner of Estonia is the Republic's third largest city; sitting just across the river from Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation. This city, Narva, with a population of just over 56,000, dwarfs in comparison to St. Louis, the home of the blues and also a young American who moved 5,000 miles from that home in order begin his dream of professional European soccer.
Eric McWoods was given an opportunity to play so far from home in a city where almost 90 percent of the population is ethnic Russian, far outnumbering the five percent of Estonians and certainly the only American in town. But a dream is a dream and sometimes you have to do crazy things to chase it.
"You know the whole YMCA kids league," the former Xavier University striker told Yanks Abroad, "Well that's how I got started in the game."
"It was kind of funny because nobody in my family played soccer growing up. (One day) my mom asked me if I wanted to play soccer? I guess that's how I started.
A little boy kicking a ball at the local YMCA was spotted as one to keep an eye on. He then went on to play for a club that played in state cups and regional tournaments.
"I was pretty decent in high school. I was all-American, scoring 80 something goals in four years, so I had a really good high school career."
His alma mater is Kirkwood High School in St. Louis. Although the school had a good team and played in district championships, St Louis soccer was very competitive at that level.
"We were one of the top teams in the state, but not one of the best teams."
A successful high school athletic career often leads to being recruited by a good college and McWoods was no different.
"I went to Xavier University in Cincinnati for 2 years. Unfortunately, things didn't go as planned so I ended up transferring to UMKC which is the University of Missouri - Kansas City."
Like Xavier, UMKC is also a Division One school.
"But it's the western conference and it was weird going from the east to the west, but I had a good two years there. From there I went through the whole draft process thing and found out about PSC (Pro Soccer Consulting) and that's how I ended up here."
PSC is a place where soccer players looking to move into the professional ranks get to show what they have in front of scouts from teams that are mostly in Europe.
"I didn't hear about PSC and my mom asked if I wanted to try it out. I was just planning to do the USL route, but I talked to a bunch of coaches and scouts and they told me that it would be best if I went overseas to play. If you get the opportunity to play overseas, they said, you should so that's how all that started."
Having only graduated from college last May and then playing PDL over the summer, he continued training with one of his coaches in order to stay sharp as he waited for the PSC opportunity, which was two months away in November.
"Overall, it went well," the five-foot-nine attacker continued. "It was a case where you had to showcase yourself during the 12 days and I'm happy I did so. I did quite well and from that my team here in Estonia, Trans Narva, offered me a contract.
There was also a team in Malta. I know Malta is a very beautiful place but I ended up taking the offer from Narva because my agent said that it was better for my career because it's my first year and that if I do well here, it will propel me forward. He advised me to take this also because if I was to go to Malta, I would have been gone in May when their domestic season ended. (The Estonian League plays during the summer and runs until the end of November.) Here I have a whole year to develop and also play against some good level Europa League teams too. That should be great fun."
Narva won the Estonia Cup and also finished top four last season so will be in the qualifying stages of the Europa League. Their first game will be this week against Buducnost, from the Montenegro league.
Although qualifying for Europe will be tough and claiming any kind of silverware a miracle considering the teams that they would go up against, McWoods has already got to hang a medal around his neck at the end of May when Trans played and beat the defending league champions Nõmme Kalju FC, in the Estonia Cup final.
Although the pinnacle of a soccer career for many is to play overseas and especially in Europe, McWoods is still a bit surprised that he was given this opportunity.
"I think like me, most guys who play soccer in the states, the dream is to play in Europe. To be honest though, I always thought that I would end up playing in the states in the USL and perhaps a higher level. I never thought I would come over here although it's always been a dream of mine to play overseas.
This is one of the smaller countries over here but there are guys who played international. I didn't hear about Estonia until I spoke to my agent about it. I looked it up and said to my agent, yes, why not."
Comparing the game in the US to overseas, or at least in his adopted country of Estonia, the St. Louis native had this to say.
"There is some talent here. Its crazy over here. Soccer over in Europe is just a hotbed compared to home in the states where we have football, basketball and so many other sports. Here the main attraction is football and I just think that its pretty amazing, the level of talent, the guys you meet and the different coaches you have to adjust to, but coming over its something that you really have to adjust to. Playing overe here has made me a better person; its made me more open minded. I'm also developing in terms as a player. I've always had the physical aspects, being fast, strong, but to get more of the technical and tactical side of the game I don't think that it's something that I could have developed at the same pace back home.
As with many sports in the US, Europeans would say that the American players are more athletic but just athleticism doesn't win games. Coaching is a major factor and the coaching styles can be somewhat different from the two continents.
"It's a lot different. I didn't think it would be like that but over here it's very technical, very relaxed like with time on the ball. Its always about trying to stay as relaxed as possible, moving the ball, refining your technique every single day. Back home in the states it was always working with weights and running, running and running. Over here everything is with the ball which I think is pretty cool and makes more sense.
Although he is playing well for his team at this time, Eric understands that as a young player on his first professional contract that he has quite a way to go in order to improve and potentially move to a bigger European league in the near future.
"I think for me, in order to make that next big jump I have to be more clinical. I know I'm going to create chances in a game whether playing on the wing or playing up top but I think the next big step for me is finishing. Once I do that, they will allow me to make that next big jump. Physically I feel like God gave me everything that I need but now for me, it's just the finishing.
And it is apparent that he has been working on this aspect of his game when he rescued a point for his team over the weekend against Kalju, a team from the capital, with a second half strike. This was his third of the season.
"I know that in this second half of the season the goals will come because I am doing well in practice and I know I'm gong to generate the chances."
The winger/striker is just at the beginning of what could potentially turn out to be a long and successful career both at club level and perhaps in the red, white and blue of the national team one day. He knows what he is capable of. But more importantly, he knows what he can be capable of with a lot of hard work.
Estonia is not a bad place to get a professional soccer career started. And in the Europa League, scouts will be watching.