Little-known 'Fafa' Picault gets his shot to impress at USMNT camp

John Dorton-ISI Photos

After impressing with St. Pauli this 2. Bundesliga season, Fabrice Picault is getting his shot to impress Jurgen Klinsmann. Paul Tenorio has the scoop from Miami.

MIAMI SHORES, Fla. – Fabrice “Fafà” Picault was eating dinner in his favorite Italian restaurant in Hamburg, Germany, when his phone lit up with an unknown number.

Picault, a New York-born, Miami-raised forward, almost didn’t pick up. When he did – and boy, is glad he did – it was the most unexpected voice on the other end of the line: U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, to invite Picault to U.S. camp this week in Florida.

To many U.S. fans, Picault came out of nowhere.

A 25-year-old forward hardly on the radar of even the most diehard U.S. men’s national team follower, the former NASL striker started to gain some attention this year when he scored for FC St. Pauli in the 2. Bundesliga in Germany. Klinsmann sent out a congratulatory tweet, and the buzz kicked off.

For Picault, however, there was nothing quick about his rise.

That phone call from Klinsmann three weeks ago was the culmination of a long journey, one that included stints in the second-division NASL as well as stops in Italy and the Czech Republic before finally landing in Germany.

It’s every day, every night no rest in your head, you just keep pushing toward a goal and try to see the light at the end of the tunnel even in tough times.”

- Fafa Picault

“Maybe to some people I’m just popping out of the blue,” Picault said on Wednesday at U.S. national team camp, his first-ever call-up with the U.S. senior team. “It doesn’t seem overnight to me. … It’s every day, every night no rest in your head, you just keep pushing toward a goal and try to see the light at the end of the tunnel even in tough times.”

Picault was raised in Miami and went to high school just about an hour south of where he is training this week with the national team. He hasn’t yet even seen his family since joining up with the U.S. team in the Miami area, but it’s ironic that a career that took him so far from home has brought him back so close for his biggest opportunity yet.

Picault has never shied away from taking the hard way. He sought out opportunities overseas and fully embraced the challenges that come with moving to a new culture and new country. Picault, who is of Haitian descent and was called up by Haiti in the past, speaks five languages: English, Creole, French, Spanish and Italian. He’s working on his German fluency now.

His linguistic skills represent not just his intelligence – he was reportedly a target of Ivy League schools during his high school years – but also a winding career path that always stayed just slightly under the radar.

At the age of 16, Picault made his first major venture in soccer, leaving home to play overseas in Italy with Cagliari’s reserve team.

In 2009, Picault was identified by former U.S. U-20 coach Thomas Rongen and called in to U.S. under-20 national team camp. He didn’t make the U.S. under-20 World Cup team, but Rongen recalled Picault standing out for his personality and willingness to find challenges outside of his comfort zone.

“He’s one of the better kids I’ve worked with in terms of personality, being a teammate, all the things you check off as a coach that are very important,” Rongen told FourFourTwo. “He had good pace and physically had attributes that stood out. He had a great mindset, as he’s proven now in Europe.”

Picault returned from Italy in 2012 and signed on with the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies. He played 19 games but was released after the season. The Fort Lauderdale Strikers picked him up in 2014 and he quickly became a fan-favorite, leading the team in scoring with 12 goals.

He headed back overseas to Sparta Prague in the Czech Republic for the 2014-15 season before joining St. Pauli this season on a one-year deal. Picault started to come on with St. Pauli late in the season after a switch from the wing to a forward role, scoring four goals in a six-game span.

That run caught Klinsmann’s eye.

“He took the route to Europe and fought his way through and came through now in St. Pauli with a coach I know really well,” Klinsmann said. “He told me already, ‘The kid is a fighter, he wants to show it and prove it.’ … It’s a process he’s in that takes time. You’re not going to Europe and being a superstar from one day to the next. You have to work your way through for a couple years and every year you have to get stronger, otherwise they send you home.

Hopefully we see here a Fafà that gives a first impression to the national team program … but also takes it as a next step in his career.”

- Jurgen Klinsmann

“Hopefully we see here a Fafà that gives a first impression to the national team program … but also takes it as a next step in his career.”

Picault is not the prototypical forward in terms of size, he’s listed at just 5-foot-8 and 140 pounds, but he brings good pace up top and has solid technical ability. Rongen also said Picault’s tactical awareness is one of his major strengths.

Klinsmann called Picault a “hungry goalscorer” and praised his instincts and ability to read the game. Those instincts have finally started to pay off in the biggest way possible: a chance to don the Stars and Stripes on Sunday against Puerto Rico.

It might be mistaken for an out-of-nowhere ascent, but Picault values the call-up that much more because of the many unseen steps that came before this “sudden” rise.

“It’s been a long road,” Picault said. “A lot of work was put in. I’m just glad to start to see the fruits of my labor, and I’m hoping for a lot more.”

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.