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In a newly stable MLS, life remains unstable for career journeymen

MLS has gotten bigger and richer in recent years, but life is the same for most of the league's players.

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"We're definitely lucky to get to play soccer and do what we've always been passionate about and loved," declares Major League Soccer defender Ty Harden, who has been on five teams in five years, about playing in the league. But for him and hundreds of players like him, there's nothing glamorous about their chosen careers.

"At the same time, it's a job and there are a lot of parts and aspects that we don't love to do and are difficult," he adds. "People kind of forget that sometimes. Fitting into a team and realizing that we're people with families and other concerns as well is definitely understated."

As a league, MLS has evolved repeatedly since its inaugural 1996 season, but there's one constant that's withstood the test of time: The journeyman.

They're dependable, but not indispensable; serviceable, but not essential; utilitarian, but not an obvious necessity. Although they rarely stay in one city for more than a year or two, the league has long relied on career-long journeymen to push onwards and develop.

Yet, as MLS is gradually becoming more glamorized and star-studded, the blunt reality and taxing life for journeymen remains. Their lives are riddled with instability, as the future is perpetually clouded with uncertainty and obscurity. Atiba Harris, who has played for six different teams across an 11-year career, can wholeheartedly attest to this.

"It's a challenge because in this profession every day is a grind," the Saint Kitts and Nevis native says. "You never know what tomorrow might bring. You could be starting one day and then next week you're on the bench or not even in the 18. You could even get injured and wonder where your future is, but you hope the club shows trust in you and you can have a prosperous career."

Unfortunately, most MLS players have careers full of unfulfilled contract options and trades. As quickly as a journeyman might fall out of the graces of one coach, they'll be pigeonholed into a new style of play simply for the sake of employment.

While just one isolated example, Quincy Amarikwa dealt with this firsthand during the 2015 season. Frank Yallop, the then-coach of the Chicago Fire, traded the 27-year-old striker to Dominic Kinnear's San Jose Earthquakes. It was an unexpected move, but if he had wanted to play, he had no choice but to seamlessly integrate tactical nuances of Kinnear's system into his game.

"I think the biggest thing that you have to get used to is the coaching style and philosophy when you get traded," says Amarikwa. "You're kind of coming in blind and don't have an understanding of the expectation of the coaching staff as well as the style of play. One coach might expect you to be a hold-up target striker and stay central, and then all of a sudden you're with a new team where they expect you to get in behind and drift out wide."

Amarikwa is no stranger to such occurrences, as he's had five stints with four different clubs across a seven-year career, but the other primary on-field adjustment is simply getting used the tendencies and habits of new teammates.

Harden, who has played for five different teams spanning his eight years in MLS, was quick to point out how acclimating to a new environment is often overlooked by fans.

"You're kind of coming in blind and don't have an understanding of the expectation of the coaching staff" -Quincy Amarikwa

"A fan hears that a player is getting traded to their city and they go, ‘Oh, this guy is great. He's done well in the league, is proven, and has experience,'" he says. "It takes time to get used to playing with the guy next to you and develop that experience with those around you so they know your habits."

"Knowing exactly what your role is takes time," the defender adds. "It's really understated how difficult it can be coming in during the middle of the year since teams are formed and cliques are formed and the way the team play is established. Guys are used to playing next to a certain person and when you come in and disrupt that, there can be chemistry things and subtleties and differences between one coach's expectations and another."

At the same rate, journeymen understand that trades and other mechanisms are just a part of the profession that become easier to cope with as time passes. In a way, it's all the nature of the beast that is MLS, and each journeyman essentially becomes numb to the on-field trials and tribulations.

One element that never quite gets easier, though, is the loss of friendship. With cross-country road trips, daily practice and the inherent amiable makeup of athletes, MLS players develop close bonds. Tight-knit locker rooms lead to family-like environments and a trade can cause those connections to dwindle literally overnight.

New England Revolution right back Jeremy Hall, who is with his fifth club in seven years, highlighted just how difficult abandoning those friendships can be.

"I'm coming from Toronto, and I was really close with a few of the guys over there," he says. "One of them was Andrew Wiedeman, who [is with] Ottawa [Fury FC] right now. It's sad to leave some of those friendships, but you still catch up and get together in the offseason or when you travel to other cities. It's not like it's lost forever, but, having said that, you're coming to a new environment. That's exciting, but you certainly miss the old friends."

As much as those relationships are yearned after, MLS players still encounter a little trouble in terms of making friends when entering a new locker room in a new city. There might be cultural or language barriers that accompany a move from, say, Orlando City SC to the Montreal Impact, but it's not the worst thing by any means.

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone from the third-string goalkeeper to the striker with vast amounts of European experience share soccer as a passion, so there is always that similarity on which to fall back. For journeymen, though, there tends to be an entirely different element at play: a family.

Tyson Wahl of Columbus Crew SC, currently playing for his fifth team in 10 MLS seasons, called attention to how strenuous a trade can be on a journeyman's loved ones.

"It presents a ton of challenges and is probably the biggest sacrifice we have in our life as professional athletes," he says. "Growing up as a younger player when your life is just about you it's very easy because you're pursuing your passion and focused on yourself. But then as you get married or you start a family, if you're dragging them around the country to follow your dreams, it can present some challenges. It's one of the sacrifices you have to make, though."

On a more personal level, Harris recalled when the Vancouver Whitecaps selected him in the expansion draft, forcing a move away from FC Dallas on the tail end of his wife giving birth to their first child.

"As you get married or you start a family, if you're dragging them around the country to follow your dreams, it can present some challenges. It's one of the sacrifices you have to make, though." -Tyson Wahl

"That move from Dallas to Vancouver was when I had my first born in November of 2010 around MLS Cup," he recalls. "It was hard getting picked up in the expansion draft to Vancouver and getting passports and all was a real hassle."

Just like Harris, Harden experienced firsthand how difficult a trade can be for a journeyman. In late June of 2015, the San Jose Earthquakes sent the 31-year-old to the Chicago Fire, causing his whole family to move their previously comfortable roots.

"I started packing my house immediately, started making plans to get [to Chicago], when my wife Emily and my son were going to come," Harden says. "I don't think people realize how quick it happens and overnight your whole life changes. We went from settled in a house in the Bay Area with our family and friends and work, to going to Chicago where we literally didn't know a single person."

"We had to do it within four days and in the scheme of sports that was like an eternity. Nobody ever gets that -- it's usually eight hours or 12 hours and you're gone. I don't think people realize how quickly life can change and it takes to adjust and settle in."

With all of the ups and downs in mind, journeymen are still immensely happy to play the game they love for a living. Such a small percentage of players in the U.S. and abroad get to play in front of thousands and hear supporters groups chant their names.

Yet, that doesn't make the lifestyle of moving around from city to city on an annual basis any easier. Journeymen, although basking in the glory of professional sports, are only human, too.

"Most people, when they're looking at professional athletes, they're saying how lucky we are we get to play a sport, it's a fun living, you shouldn't be complaining, and stuff like that," Amarikwa says. "I don't think they realize that athletes have the same dreams, worries and concerns for their families just like any normal person who has a regular job. It's a lot more than you realize until you're a part of the whole swing."

Nathan Sturgis, who has played for seven MLS teams over the last 10 years, echoed Amarikwa's sentiments without any reservations.

"When you're in the league, there are other things besides soccer that you care about and you have going on," he says. "Family is obviously a big part of that and for anybody, no matter what profession you're in, moving around year to year is hard. The instability of living year to year and never knowing what your contract situation is is tough. When you're living that every day, it's tough."

Some players understand and accept the system that they're playing in, but Harris -- who has been traded four times and selected in an expansion draft once -- sees it a different way. "How can you be loyal to one team and then today or tomorrow you can be traded to another team," he asks. "I thought it was very unprofessional in how teams go about that and a player should have a say so you can be faithful."

The trades allowed by MLS's single-entity structure have been controversial from the league's inception, but they're probably not going anywhere. And while they create a difficult lifestyle for players, these journeymen carve out long careers, and they do it without bouncing around multiple countries.

"I'm certainly proud of how far I've come," Sturgis says. "This is my 10th year in the league and I'm very proud of being able to play that long and what I've accomplished. Bouncing around to a bunch of teams has allowed me to live in some cool cities and meet a lot of different people along the way. There's definitely a lot of positives you can look at."

"When I hang it up I'll look back upon all my experiences and view them in a positive way. For any player you would like to establish yourself in a team and do really well. I don't think anyone really sets out to go from team to team every year, but at the end of the day as long as there is a team out there that wants you and values your ability, you're very thankful for that."

And even as MLS improves, these players aren't going anywhere.

"In our league, because it's growing, you have so many good players coming from abroad and overseas and whatnot," Hall says. "With our league there can be world class players or coaches coming in, and then for whatever reason you don't fit into the system that coach wants. We're good players, but you just have to find new scenery."


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