The road to soccer in the U.S. is straight — and very narrow. Even some of the most passionate and skilled players follow the same journey. They begin with youth clubs, enter into high school, and immediately try out for a college team.
However, the long-standing question for athletes and their parents remains: Is moving directly from high school to college the best choice for every player. For Ethan Hackenberg, who joined our Men’s First Team before his H.S. graduation, the answer was quite simply, “no.”
“I chose to do a gap year program between high school and college because I believed it would give me the experiences needed to grow not only as a soccer player on the field but as a young adult living on my own,” Ethan shared with us.
It’s that desire to veer from the traditional soccer path that led to an opportunity with ETURE Sports, an established player development program in Valencia, Spain. ETURE’s program, along with other gap year programs, is designed to offer an alternate route for players who aren’t convinced of their collegiate soccer path.
The immersion-based gap year program gives players, like Ethan, the ability to live, train, and participate with professional staff and work within the soccer clubs throughout Valencia.
However, Ethan has taken a slightly different path than most American/local players for some time. Here’s more about Ethan’s soccer journey:
Before the gap year
For most American/local players, in the fall high school soccer is played, and the summer before heading off to college is spent just enjoying the time with friends and family.
I decided not to play high school soccer after my freshman year. I made the decision because I believe it was in my best interest. I wanted to be the best player I could be, therefore I went to the highest level of soccer I could find. I believe it was worth it. Instead of going to parties and football games I was training 4 days a week and had 1 or 2 games on the weekend. Sure, as a teen the ‘normal’ stuff sounds fun, but if I had the opportunity to go back, 100Xs I would choose soccer over and over again.
Then, last year, with the Men’s First Team being announced, I knew I was going into the gap year already. Yet, that season with the first team was some of the most important football I’ve played in the last couple of years. It was the first time I really got my name out there at the next level. It was taking that next step.
I also believe playing with adults is important to guide you to the next level like college. or pro, or whatever it may be. It really got me ready to play abroad, even though the style of play was a little different it was better to be faced with the physical challenge as I was still in high school when I first stepped out playing against and with former pro-players, collegiate players, and just top-level guys.
The path to getting recruited and signed in Spain
Much like in college athletics, enrolling in a gap year program requires a recruitment process. It wasn’t an easy journey for Ethan, but it was one that taught him how to navigate finding what worked best.
At first, getting signed was a tough process. There were players from all over, like Albania, England, Romania, Argentina, Spain, and the U.S. all competing for a spot on the first team. I went on trials with about three different clubs before I ultimately found the right fit with ETURE. After I agreed to sign, I still needed my ITC (International Transfer Form). That took about a month to get so I could compete in games before then.
Once everything was approved and signed, there were still a few hurdles I had to overcome. Of course, there was a communication barrier, and at times it was really tough. I was really the only one that didn’t speak Spanish right away, so going to a class and learning the language was really important. Luckily, I had a friend there who was originally from Idaho and now lives there with his family who also helped me with the language barrier.
The difference between Valencia and Pittsburgh
We can immediately imagine the drastic differences between Valencia and Pittsburgh in culture and landscape. After being recruited by ETURE, Ethan also learned the variations (and similarities) or soccer styles.
My time in Valencia was cut slightly short due to the COVID-19 crisis, but I still had the chance to learn the many differences between playing in Spain and here in Pittsburgh.
One of the biggest differences is the style of play. In Valencia, they play more possession-based without a true “star player” to play around. Really, every player on every team could be a star player but they perform better as a true team with everyone together.
There’s also nothing even closely related to high school soccer teams. It’s all club sports and there are different rules in the youth league. Because of the focus on club teams, many players you’re coming against are getting paid because they were loaned from bigger to smaller clubs.
One similarity between Valencia and Pittsburgh is that there are a bunch of teams in a close area all competing against each other. However, in Spain’s four leagues with ages 16-18, there is promotion/relegation, unlike in the U.S.
A week in the life of a gap year
Ethan’s experiences weren’t solely based on the gap year program’s strict training and class schedule. He and his teammates adventured to the beach, into the city, and through other parts of Europe during their downtime. They also spent their time off the field traveling to champions league games.
A standard week was pretty crazy. Mondays would usually start with one training in the morning and then class. After class, we had free time to explore. Tuesdays we would have one practice, class, and then another practice at night. Then, on Wednesdays we had two trainings and class again. Thursdays we would go to the gym, class and, then have free time again. Once Friday rolled around we would have one-to-two training sessions, but no class. The weekends were spent on the field during a game, or we would go to the beach or La Liga games.
Ethan marks his gap year in Valencia as a one-of-a-kind experience. “I would encourage as many people to play abroad. It’s one of the most unique experiences in the world,” he shared. It gave him and the other athletes a chance to develop emotionally, mentally, and physically before determining the next steps in their lives.
For Ethan, that’s starting his college career at Coastal Carolina (D1) this fall.