Meet Heath Pearce, the US footballer who turned $1,400 into 35 international caps

It was the end of the summer and a young 21-year-old American, Heath Pearce, was stranded in Scotland living with an agent. By day he was running on the streets and training with Greenock Morton, a club in the Scottish Third Division; by night he was waiting on a response from a complete stranger who had claimed he could get him a deal at Rangers, one of the heavyweights of the Scottish game. Every day the agent would come home and bring Peace a six-pack of Scotland’s drink of choice, Irn-Bru, to keep up his spirits.

“I was just kind of lost in this world but it was the risk that I was willing to take,” Pearce remembers. “And after about a week there I was just like, ‘I have got to get out of here.’ I had about a week left until I needed to get back to college for the season.”

Yet within five years Pearce was battling for a starting spot in the United States national team at the 2009 Confederations Cup, where the Americans upset Spain to reach the final. It was quite the journey.

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The future US international was raised in Modesto, California, a blue-collar, agricultural town 90 miles east of San Francisco. Modesto has a large immigrant population, so Pearce grew up around lots of football-loving Portuguese, Middle Eastern and Mexican families. He played the game himself, showing enough quality as a teenager to receive an invitation to attend the IMG Academy in Florida, an elite institution which would one day count Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley among its alumni.

After two and a half years at IMG, Peace broke his leg and was cut from the academy. To his surprise, he received more offers to become a kicker for college American Football teams than he did to play soccer. In the end he relied on a favour from former IMG coach John Hellinger, who recommended Pearce to the University of Portland.

Hellinger told the youngster he needed to change positions from defensive midfielder to left-back. “He basically said to me at one point, ‘if you want to make it, this is what your commitment has to be, you need to become a left-back. Left-back is your spot’,” Pearce says.

The coach at the University of Portland was Clive Charles. who had helped to produce the likes of Kasey Keller and Steve Cherundolo. Pearce, in his own words, was “light years” behind his peers when he first arrived, and initially found it difficult to adapt to a new position.

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“I then went on a crash course very quickly and started studying the position… and then eventually you know blew past all of them, whether through dedication or whether through natural talent. Then I started to think, ‘wow I think I can make a career of this.’”

Pearce was desperate to turn professional in the months before his senior season, but MLS didn’t feel he was ready. He earned $700 that summer by scraping stucco off windows and dressing up as a frog mascot, visiting schools to warn youngsters about the dangerous of flooding. After his parents agreed to match his wages, Pearce set off for Europe to pursue trials with professional clubs. He drafted a template email and sent it to every agent he could find on FIFA’s website.

“I got two responses,” he says. “One of those was a real agent and one of those wasn’t a real agent, and I ended up going with the one who wasn’t a real agent – not that I knew that at the time.”

That’s how Pearce ended up in Scotland, drinking Irn-Bru while waiting for his break. With only a week to go before the start of his college team’s pre-season, Pearce – running short on money as well as time – decided to send out the email one more time. It was a good decision: he received a response from an agent in Denmark and soon found himself on trial at top-tier club FC Nordsjaelland.

After “a blinder of a week”, Pearce received an offer. It wasn’t as much as his scholarship at the University of Portland, though, so he decided to turn it down and return to college, but when the club improved their terms after one semester, he signed the contract and moved to Denmark.

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“Game two [for Nordsjaelland] was at home and I absolutely murdered a guy for 90 minutes on the left,” Pearce says. “I got moved to left-midfield for that match and I absolutely crushed this guy, to the point that I was like ‘I am a thousand times better than this person who’s playing against me right now.’ And the downside of that is I took that confidence to the next game and got subbed at half-time – but it was the first moment to me where I was like ‘oh man.’ It was almost like I got out of my body, where I saw how good I could be or what my potential was.”

Pearce went on to become a regular at left-back, with his performances impressive enough to earn him a call-up to the senior US squad for a 2005 friendly against Scotland in Glasgow – the same city in which he was sleeping in a stranger’s house little more than a year prior.

“It was incredible,” he says. “These were all players that I was starstruck by just a few months prior. And here I was, a first-year professional getting a chance to train next to them and then play next to them. It was probably a moment that I can replay in my head over and over again and never get tired of.”

After three seasons in Denmark Pearce was ready for a new challenge, so he moved to Hansa Rostock in the Bundesliga. But from the very beginning the defender could tell it wasn’t a good fit.

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“The club itself had a very old-school East German mentality of discipline, where it’s ‘what we say goes and what we say is absolute.’ And I came from a background within my family that was to question everything you know. Not question everything in a disrespectful way, but ask questions and know you can be an active part of the conversation.”

“I don’t think that [questioning coaches] really helps ever,” he continues. “Most people don’t like to be questioned. I remember one time Bob Bradley pulled me aside at Soldier Field and basically told me to stop being so damn insecure. And there was some truth to that. I mean, sometimes questioning comes from a point of insecurity; other times it comes from wanting to know more and do better.”

After a poor campaign in the Bundesliga, Hansa Rostock were relegated. Pearce stayed put for two and a half seasons in total, but he featured in just 34 games in that time. Eventually forced to look for a new club, he returned to his native country with FC Dallas after a move to Bursaspor fell through.

Despite his struggles in Germany, Pearce’s international career was far from finished. He featured regularly under Bradley throughout qualification for the 2010 World Cup, racking up 18 caps in two years. That was enough for him to make the squad for the 2009 Confederations Cup, in which the US lost narrowly to Brazil in the final. A year later he was included in the 30-man preliminary squad for the World Cup but ultimately didn’t make the cut; the following summer, though, Pearce played against high-profile opponents in England, Spain and Argentina.

“It was just a really unique experience to hit three of those teams in like a three-week period,” he says. “I was going player to player asking to trade jerseys with them. I ended up getting David Silva’s, which is fantastic, but before that I went after Sergio Ramos I went after Marcos Senna, I went after Xavi. Every single one of them told me the same thing: that they promised their grandmother the shirt.”

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Pearce played five more seasons in MLS with Chivas USA, New York Red Bulls and Montrael Impact, before a brief stint in Sweden with IFK Göteborg. However, long before his playing career was finished he was preparing for life after football, building the skill set required for his current job as a Lead Creative at Copa90. The brainchild of Pearce’s former team-mate, Jimmy Conrad, Copa90 tells stories about football around the world, with a particular focus on global fan culture.

“When I was younger I could never write a story because my mind would take me on a journey that my hands couldn’t keep up with, or my fingers couldn’t keep up with,” Pearce says. “So when it came to creative writing I would speak into something that could record me, or I would have somebody help me write.

“When I came out of college I was pretty poor at interviews – I said ‘am’ and ‘like’, and I was very slow. As I started to try to develop that as a skill, people started to take notice and say, ‘you know what, I like interviewing that person, because he gives me more than a soundbite.

“When I got to my early 30s I realised that my national team career was probably behind me. And playing the game sort of felt more like a job because of injuries and what not. So it kind of felt like the natural transition where I thought, ‘I can continue playing for another five years or I can put those five years into something new, and be five years ahead of that same kid who’s going to be leaving the game and have zero experience in media.'”

Pearce now spend his time interviewing the likes of Franck Ribery and travelling to places such as Marseille. If his broadcasting journey is anything like his playing career, it will follow a non-traditional path and feature plenty of twists and turns along the way.

Meet Heath Pearce, the US footballer who turned $1,400 into 35 international caps
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