Commentary

Insights on European scouting of U.S. youngsters by 'Arsenal Yankee' Danny Karbassiyoon

By Mike Woitalla

Daniel Karbassiyoon jokes that Arsenal kept him from going to college twice. The first time, at age 18, he signed with the English Premier League club, in 2003, despite being courted by top programs in the ACC and Ivy League. The second time came after injuries ended his pro career at 22 and he had returned to his home state of Virginia.

Karbassiyoon, after a few dark months of contemplating life without soccer, was heading to Virginia Tech. Then came the phone call from Arsenal, offering him a job as the club's North and Central America scout, a position he held until recently moving to London, where he now scouts prospects for the Gunners in England.

Since Karbassiyoon began scouring the USA for talent, the scouting by foreign clubs of young U.S. players has increased dramatically. It’s one reason why Karbassiyoon wrote the book, “The Arsenal Yankee: A young American's journey from soccer in the States to one of the world's greatest teams.”

“When I was 17, I had no idea what I was getting into and what to expect at a trial, what life was going to be like,” he says. “And when I signed at 18 I certainly would have enjoyed some sort of handbook.”

At age 20, Karbassiyoon achieved what no other American had done before, or since. He scored a goal for Arsenal, a 90th minute gamewinner in a 2-1 League Cup win over Manchester City. Two weeks later, he went the full 90 minutes in a 3-1 fourth-round win over Everton.

But Karbassiyoon, who as a teenager was sidelined for more than a year with a bad knee, couldn’t overcome injuries, and managed to play only 12 more competitive games, at Burnley and Ipswich.

He had, however, left an impression during his time at Arsenal, whose instincts paid off as Karbassiyoon connected the club with an 18-year-old Costa Rican Joel Campbell in 2011 and Gedion Zelalem, who left his Maryland home shortly before his 16th birthday to join Arsenal in 2013.

Zelalem, who debuted in the Champions League and FA Cup in 2014, played on loan with Glasgow Rangers in 2015-16 and for the USA at the 2015 U-20 World Cup.

“I’d watch anywhere from under-13, maybe under-12 sometimes, all the way up to MLS games, senior national team games, World Cup qualifiers, Gold Cup … It was a pretty broad spectrum across a giant region,” says Karbassiyoon. “The Development Academy made things a lot easier.

“For the most part I was focused on younger guys who have European passports and were good enough to come over.”

The European Union passport is crucial, otherwise European teams can’t import players before age 18, and in the England’s case, non-European Union players must meet the rigorous requirements of a UK work permit. Karbassiyoon himself was able to sign for Arsenal because he had dual American and Italian citizenship, thanks to his mother.

“I would see a lot of talented players that maybe I would have brought over for a trial, but they didn’t have [EU] passports,” he says. “A kid like Gedion ticked all my boxes on the soccer side and also had the German passport. It was just a much easier transition.”

Karbassiyoon heard of Zelalem as he did about hundreds of players, through a coach who contacted him. In the case of Zelalem, who moved from his native Germany to Maryland at age 9, it was Olney Rangers coach Matt Pilkington.

“Unfortunately, 99 percent of the leads won’t be good enough,” Karbassiyoon says. “I try to do my best to -- it’s hard to respond to absolutely everybody but I use my network to ensure I’m not missing anybody, especially if someone sends me a message that says this boy I know who plays for X team in L.A. and he’s 14 years old -- I’ll for sure make phone calls to people I know out there who know what he’s like, as opposed to just the word of a guy who sent me a Facebook message.

“Video has become so accessible and so commonplace that if I hear there’s a there’s a boy with European passport who's lighting it up, ‘send me a video.’ If the kid does seem interesting, then I'll contact the guys I know either in that region or people I know who might know a coach of his.”

Karbassiyoon says Arsenal never put a number on how many players he was expected to recommend: “But there is pressure, especially if rivals continuously sign guys who end up being successful. A lot of these other clubs are also interested, so players are leveraging clubs against clubs.”

The key for him was making the right call on whether a player was worthy of a trial.

“The standard we have and maintain at the club is very high,” he says. “If the kid does excite you, often you’re calling once a month or once every couple weeks the coach or parents and seeing how’s he’s developing, how he’s coming along.”

In the case of Zelalem, Karbassiyoon watched him in training “three or four times, four or five games, all before the Dallas Cup. At that point, we arranged the trial.”

The way an Arsenal trial works is the player gets a fitness test to get a baseline and becomes a member of his age group for a week or two, and training everyday.

“With Gedion, he started with the 16s, got bumped up to the 18s, and for the last days trained with the U-21/reserves,” says Karbassiyoon.

One imagines it can be a daunting task to impress at a trial where your “teammates” know you could be taking their spot.

“It’s a very strange dynamic because you’re there to take someone’s job," he says. "When I went on trial, the other players immediately asked what position I played. When I said ‘forward,’ and the player asking is a forward, he’s suddenly not as warm as he was 15 minutes ago.”

But Karbassiyoon says that players sabotaging a trialist’s performance isn’t the norm:

“I wouldn’t say so. For example, if I have the ball and trialist is open and he’s the best option, it’d be stupid of me to go out of my way to make a bad decision on my own part to make sure he doesn’t do well. It plays out naturally. They’re all trying to be as efficient on the ball as possible and do their best and impress the coaches.

“To go out of your way to make another guy look bad, you don’t see it often. I may have seen it, a player going a session without getting a pass, but at a state or regional tryout, not at Arsenal.”

In deciding whether a player deserves a trial, the scout must also judge the player beyond his soccer skills:

“How will he deal with adversity? If you’re bringing in a kid from Southern California, he’s used to 350 days of sun and in London you’ve got cold and rain and more rain. It gets dark early in the winter and the food’s different and the kid's away from his family. How they deal with situations that aren’t comfortable is massively important. If the player doesn’t work out, you have the club selling him at a loss.”

On how U.S. soccer talent has evolved, Karbassiyoon says, "Certainly the overall level has increased, even since I started scouting [in 2007]. The next step is starting to create those very, very special players who world powerhouse countries create."

For young American players who are courted by foreign clubs, there’s the daunting decision of whether to move abroad, or pursue a career in MLS, or get a college education.

Karbassiyoon was an excellent student. Stanford was another college that courted him. His parents, both chemical engineers, met in grad school. His brother is a computer engineer. How would he, if one day he had son with an option between going pro or college, advise?

“I am kind of the poster child of, ‘You could get injured,’” he says. “But I think I would handle it like my parents did and leave the decision up to the boy. I was just as passionate about soccer as I was about getting good grades. I realized at the time that I could always go back to school, but I would never have the chance again to play soccer at that high a level.”

Karbassiyoon hasn’t gone back to school, but it’s worked out well for him.

“The sport has opened door after door and presented me with more opportunities than I could have ever imagined,” he writes in “The Arsenal Yankee.” “Of course, things may not have worked out the way I’d wanted them to from a playing standpoint, but I have no regrets and will always look back fondly on my time as a young kid trying to navigate my way through England’s incredible football world. … Though I’ll never be able to do some of the things I’d set out to do in my youth, I still use that belief and confidence across all facets of life.”

The Arsenal Yankee: A young American's journey from soccer in the States to one of the world's greatest teams.” By Daniel Karbassiyoon (2016) $19.99

9 comments about "Insights on European scouting of U.S. youngsters by 'Arsenal Yankee' Danny Karbassiyoon ".
  1. Ric Fonseca, May 25, 2016 at 3:51 p.m.

    A very nice story indeed, yet I couldn't bring myself about to fully accept what this young man achieved had he not come from an upper class setting, that is having two professional parents in the science field and from what I've surmised in reading this nice piece, from the East coast(???) and his parents allowing him to pursue a pro sports career. Yes, it is a sort of sports-oriented Horatio Alger kind of story, he goes, succeeds albeit for as short time, is injured, thinks about going back to college, relents and gets a call to work for an EPL team, yes kudos young man, you've made it. BUT, could these opportunities be made available to say some young man from So Cal or the not so nice parts of Jersey or Boston, or Miami, Charleston, Chicago, or even Oakland, CA? I hardly think so. OK, then some will chastise me for perhaps even throwing the baby out with the bath water, but it is a very hard fact of life, especially futbol life! And yes again, he's penned a guide for a potential young futbolero thinking of going to try and crack the EPL or Euro leagues, while at the same time throwing caution to the wind? Well, Karbassiyoon doesn't think "school" is suited for him, fine and dandy, good luck young man, but what about those who don't go to Europe with a a nice Cross pen in their pocket, or the blessing of their upper middle class parents? Could this be open to a kid without the means? Very probably not. But, play on, I say!

  2. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, May 26, 2016 at 10:12 a.m.

    In other words, his experience doesn't fit your one size fits all view of the world so you have to denigrate him. Pathetic.

  3. BJ Genovese, May 25, 2016 at 5:05 p.m.

    Danny got the golden boot at that tourney because the word was already out that an Arsenal scout was looking at him. Was he a good player.. Yes. Were there better players overlooked because they were Americans without the ability to get a passport like Danny... Yes. Are there still many kids today that are better than kids getting chances overseas... stuck here to wither in American soccer at the collegiate level.. yes. His only job is to look for kids in the US that have the ability to obtain a EU passport. Gideon Z and Joel C for example. It just annoying as hell that anyone can come here and get on the US national team that has played or has the ability to play overseas. The fact is that it needs to change for player trying to get overseas to learn to be better players.

  4. BJ Genovese, May 25, 2016 at 5:20 p.m.

    “The Development Academy made things a lot easier.

    “For the most part I was focused on younger guys who have European passports and were good enough to come over.”

    The European Union passport is crucial, otherwise European teams can’t import players before age 18, and in the England’s case, non-European Union players must meet the rigorous requirements of a UK work permit.
    So here is the heart of the problem.. He says DA's make it easier. You know what that means... these people are only looking at DA's. Its all about easier when we really need people who are willing to identify harder in the US. The second statement is even more telling. If you don't have a EU passport they will never take you because they wont even look your direction... unless you make the national team and play a certain percentage for the USMNT. Its a awful cycle that is doing no good for guess who.... the players here... in the US... that are trying to be soccer players. Its almost like we need a whole separate system for the kids that cant get a EU passport or on with a DA for numerous reasons that exist... If you kids is a great natural athlete.. just go play another sport because it will kill you to see your player excel in everything... make everything... then watch a DA player or kid with a EU passport get every opportunity over them. Even after they were identified numerous times for there skill on the ball.

  5. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, May 26, 2016 at 10:14 a.m.

    Brazilians, Argentines etc. don't have EU passports for the most part yet they produce some pretty decent players. You can say that about most of South America actually.

    We need to continue to improve our own development system rather than rely on Europe. You can't blame Arsenal for focusing on kids with EU passports. They can't legally sign an U-18 players that doesn't have one. They didn't make that rule!

  6. R2 Dad, May 25, 2016 at 5:54 p.m.

    Yes, good story, I'm glad this guy made it through and has a life for himself in soccer. But the process he describes is so exclusive and impossible to scale that we should focus on other avenues in order to give american kids a shot at playing professionally. MLS and the academy system are not going to grow enough quality players to make a difference. Once training compensation/solidarity is in force, our local NASL and USL teams will act as catalysts to create an Out-Or-Up system that will strengthen MLS and give our kids more opportunities. I would like to see quality professional coaches retire to these lower leagues, take an equity position in a team, and grow the local game. I think the local game has to strengthen to give us the soccer culture Pirlo sees as missing here in the US--right now we don't have that. But once we do, kids won't need to go to Europe--the career path will be here.

  7. Daniel Clifton, May 26, 2016 at 9:29 a.m.

    I am really enjoying reading these comments about the American Developmental system or the lack thereof. Ric's comments are telling: What if this young man had not come from an upper middle class family. This is what is wrong with the American Developmental system for soccer - Pay to Play. I believe we are going to have to look to the professional clubs to develop youth, MLS, NASL, USL, and any other professional league that may spring up. The Developmental Academys are just more of the same old system that doesn't work - pay to play. Why in the world should the development of youth soccer players depend on the player's parent's income? R2 Dad's comments about how to change this system with the use of the professional leagues at the lower levels is a step in the right direction.

  8. K Michael, May 26, 2016 at 2:05 p.m.

    Our DA system isn't perfect but it IS evolving positively; the new u12 age expansion with 40-50 new academies for this younger age group means the net IS being cast wider. The Pay-to-Play conundrum IS a known issue in the Academy, believe me; but there is only so much money to go around. That, too, is changing; more revenue to our pro leagues will trickle down. Once a decent Solidarity pay system becomes more entrenched, this problem will go away fast. Keep this in mind as well, NO academy anywhere in the world makes the special player; they are crafted at age five with a worn out ball being kicked and collected off the side of the house or apartment; in the basement, or the yard, the multitudes now playing footie at recess instead of other sports. THAT is where "special" comes from.

  9. Richard Brown, June 10, 2016 at 1:36 p.m.

    Some might find this interesting.

    How schools of excellence in England work to get around the rules I got this from a coach of the school in bury some years ago.

    It really depends on the club.
    The only criteria that has changed is that they can only take on children under 16 from no more than 10 miles from the club.
    I saying that though, top prem clubs have now established 'Locality feeder clubs' which are either sponsored clubs already established or new club set-ups which incorporate a different area to the main club. From these 'clubs' the best players are taken for trials.

    This is one of the main reasons why top clubs like Arsenal and Manchester United now 'invite' young players for trials from other countries or indeed fund overseas feeder clubs in areas where there is no restriction on distance from a catchment point of view.

    As for the age at which players can be members of Schools of Excellence the clubs are bound by the new FA Child Protection Scheme sponsored by GOAL. I could easily say that its this or that age, but I know that even as young as 6 years old, there are instances of these 'talented' players playing for 'certain funded amateur clubs' which are the link to these Schools of Excellence.

    In my opinion, you can go to the FA Site and get the official line if you want, but that is only the superficial word - the actual way is far from that.

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