'For as long as you can': How one indoor-outdoor journeyman keeps his soccer dream alive
During a road trip with the Tacoma Stars last season, Derek Johnson estimated he nodded off for an hour or so after his adrenaline leveled off and before the 3:30 a.m. wake-up call to catch the team flight.
The Stars, a professional indoor team in the Major Arena Soccer League, played in Dallas on Friday night, flew to St. Louis the following morning and landed five hours or so prior to their match against the aptly nicknamed Ambush that Saturday night. The players frantically scrambled to find something to eat and time for a quick power nap before kickoff.
Luckily for Johnson, he’s used to running on very little sleep.
He’s good enough to make money. He’s just not good enough to make enough money.
A full-time real estate broker, Johnson plays for the Stars on weekends from October through March, then for the Seattle Sounders’ U-23 team the rest of the year. He juggles work schedules – the forward once set up a house showing from an Ontario, Canada, locker room prior to a match – as well as the unique challenges of transitioning from indoor to outdoor soccer then back again.
Welcome to life in the lower reaches of the U.S. Soccer pyramid. Major League Soccer may be comparatively booming, but down below, wannabe pros hustle to keep their tenuous careers afloat.
“I don’t have a lot of downtime, I’ll say that,” Johnson said, deadpan.
Johnson grew up in Tacoma. In a lot of ways, it’s remarkable the 24-year-old has even made it as far as he has in this sport. He played at the Division III level in college at nearby Pacific Lutheran.
That could have easily been that if not for coach Darren Sawatzky, who saw something in the dogged young forward others didn’t. Sawatzky signed Johnson first to the Sounders U-23s then the Stars, pulling double duty himself when not moonlighting as the coach of Guam’s national team.
Johnson, Sawatzky says, is a tweener: “He’s good enough to make money. He’s just not good enough to make enough money. … Is he an MLS level attacker? Probably not. But he could definitely play in the USL.”
And so for now, Johnson takes games wherever and whenever he can. The indoor and outdoor games are distinct in the styles of play and the skill set they demand.
“I was a big basketball kid, too, and there are a lot of similarities,” Johnson said. “It’s a mental game in that there are a bunch of cues and triggers. It’s so high speed that you have to have really trained decision-making in order to pull things off.”
Adds Sawatzky: “It’s frantic. It’s chaotic. These players have to be technically sound in tight areas. Their mental processes and speed of thought are even more important.”
The biggest difference, Johnson says, is in conditioning. Indoor matches are played in shifts, similarly to hockey. They involve lots of sprinting. Outdoor games, in contrast, are a marathon, and it takes awhile to regain the flow after months apart.
There’s the contrast in sheen, as well. Even if the U-23s are three rungs below their parent club in the Premier Development League, they still exist under the Sounders’ umbrella. There’s a level of professionalism and expectation that comes with that.
The Major Arena Soccer League is a bit more unkempt.
Conditions vary wildly. Sawatzky recalls a road trip two years ago that started in San Diego and in front of a crowd around 6,000. Two days later, Tacoma played in a dilapidated arena in the warehouse district of Sacramento sprinkled with what felt like only a few dozen fans, one of whom snuck out of the stands to set off an air horn behind Sawatzky.
“Can you imagine Brian Schmetzer being attacked by a guy with an air horn jumping out of the stands with an air horn?” Sawatzky said. “That’s sort of what you get with the indoor game.”
Still, it’s evident in the enthusiasm of his voice that the coach loves it. When players of his generation were coming up in the 1980s and early-‘90s, this was all there was.
A young Serbian midfielder named Preki played for an earlier iteration of the Stars. Schmetzer did, too. Almost every coach of note in Seattle’s proud youth soccer scene represented either the Stars or the semi-pro outdoor teams in the era before MLS.
Hybrid players like Johnson might be uncommon today, but they have plenty of predecessors.
“It’s funny, man,” Sawatzky said. “With the Sounders, I remember listening to a few guys bitching about the money that they made.”
This was around the time of the 2010 MLS Collective Bargaining Agreement, and though the league minimum was just a shade more than $20,000 at the time, the players complaining all made six figures.
“I remember looking at these guys: You don’t even understand,” Sawatzky said. “You’re not Lionel Messi. You’re not going to make $25 million a year. We didn’t make anything. We made what these indoor guys are making now.
“The guys that play for me play for the love of the game. … Our veterans have to work a hell of a lot harder just for the chance to play in front of three, four, five thousand people.”
Johnson harbors no grandiose illusions. If he grew up dreaming of playing for the U.S. men’s national team, now he just hopes to ride out his playing career as long as he can.
At 24, with no wife and kids, “my world can still revolve around soccer.” He can work for 60 hours a week before you even factor in his coaching lessons, close real estate deals from far away locker rooms, but eventually, he knows he’s going to have to scale it back.
“It’s fun for as long as you can do it, but everybody comes to a point when they have to decide where they want this to go,” Johnson said.
In the meantime, he’s just grateful for the opportunity -- even when his sleep schedule pays the price.