Danny Karbassiyoon’s path to the Premier League wasn't so different than many others, except for the fact it started in rural Virginia. The conundrum of Karbassiyoon’s meteoric career is that his experience was much like that of 99 percent of the world’s professional players, but it is similar to less than one percent of U.S. soccer players’ careers.
Actually, Karbassiyoon fits into an even more exclusive percentile, considering he made his way into the first team at Arsenal when the club was at its peak, compiling a 49-match unbeaten streak over a two-season span in 2004 and 2005.
I recently asked Paul Mariner, a coach who brought Karbassiyoon to Arsenal, if the odds of this happening were something like one in a million.
“More than that,” Mariner said. “No one else has done it, have they?”
Mariner, a former Arsenal striker, has observed plenty of talented players since moving to the U.S. in the late ‘80s. He considers Karbassiyoon unique.
“He had everything,” Mariner said of Karbassiyoon. “He was technical, he could shoot with both feet, he was fast, he had game intelligence.”
Mariner and Bob McNab, also a former Gunner, discovered Karbassiyoon at the Adidas Elite Soccer Program in Wilmington, N.C., in 2002. Karbassiyoon had been a placed on a “waiting list,” but, called in on short notice, quickly impressed and was awarded the Golden Boot.
The next thing Karbassiyoon knew, he was training with Arsenal, then turning down collegiate scholarships to sign a pro contract. The whirlwind ended quickly amid knee injuries, though, and by the time Karbassiyoon was 22, he had retired as a player and been hired as a scout.
Another difference between Karbassiyoon and others who have had similarly low-profile careers is that he was able to write about it, and well.
Karbassiyoon began writing “The Arsenal Yankee” after an uncle asked him to describe how he had scored a goal against Manchester City in a League Cup match. There are YouTube videos of the goal, and everything looks quite simple, the kind of goal you often see scored at the top levels of the game. But quite a lot went into the sequence, and Karbassiyoon takes the reader through all the setups, subtleties and split-second decision-making that make it happen. The book helps you realize, also, the scoring play is the culmination of an incredible amount of dedication, skill-honing, plus tactical awareness.
As advanced as Karbassiyoon might have been when he arrived at Arsenal in 2004, he had a steep learning curve to match his teammates. “Off the ball, I had come to Arsenal as a kindergarten student, and had learned enough to be graduating with a Master’s in off the ball movement,” he writes, before finishing a pass from a 16-year-old Cesc Fabregas against Manchester City in October 2005.
As a youngster, Karbassiyoon probably spent close to the proverbial “10,000 hours” working on soccer skills. His story illustrates that making it on the European stage requires not only dedication, but also luck, as Karbassiyoon’s career comes crashing down following a knee injury sustained in a reserve match against Southampton.
But there are intangible requirements, as well. And Karbassiyoon, and other scouts, have been searching for another “Yankee” to make it, whether at Arsenal or another of the world’s elite clubs.
The latest candidate is Christian Pulisic, who has earned a starting role at Borussia Dortmund. Karbassiyoon has transitioned into becoming a sharp-eyed scout, but he has only been able to find two prospects from CONCACAF to perform for Arsenal’s first team: Joel Campbell and Gedion Zelalem (currently on loan to Rangers).
“I brought over three or four on trial in the past decade,” said Karbassiyoon, now based in London. “You identify talent and when you bring them over it’s not so much to see if they are good enough; he’s good enough to sign, unless something crazy happens. The difficulty of scouting is finding someone 5-10,000 kilometers away and suddenly throwing them into the mix, where they are adjusting to life away from home and many difficult things. You kind of assess everything and, from having played there, I know the standards they have and I’ve seen the players who were offered first team contracts and guys who were released, so I have a good idea why guys are making it.”
The competition for places is extraordinary at the top clubs. When Karbassiyoon was released after two seasons with Arsenal, he was the No. 3 left back, behind Ashley Cole (now with the Los Angeles Galaxy) and Gael Clichy (Manchester City).
“It was kind of a double-edged sword being there at that time,” Karbassiyoon said. “I was humbled and honored and proud to be training with the Invincibles and playing with some big names. But, obviously, breaking in with the first team was that much harder. The first year was very difficult for me. They were unbeaten, then the following season the team went quite unchanged and, if anything, we improved. So the odds weren’t in my favor.”
Karbassiyoon did as much as possible to prepare, maximizing his athletic prowess and attaining a 4.2 GPA (4.0 scale) in high school. But he still wasn’t quite ready for the pro game, he said.
“I wish I had all those answers before I went,” Karbassiyoon said. “I hope this book can help a kid going on trial over there, or if he’s going college. Or it can help if you’re doing something outside of soccer, just to know it’s about working hard and having goals.”