Seventeen-year-old American Jacob Labovitz navigates Europe in search of a pro soccer career

[READ THIS ARTICLE IN THE WASHINGTON POST]

His scoring barrage spurred local dominance, helping Langley capture its first soccer state championship last spring. His motivation, as it turns out, drew sustenance from a more global vision: Jacob Labovitz wanted to thrive in Europe.

Labovitz explored the idea with his family as a 16-year-old sophomore last winter, just weeks before he spearheaded a 20-win season that granted the Saxons soccer supremacy. The precocious striker had heard about Marbella United FC, an American-run soccer academy in southern Spain that competes in premier amateur league play and participates in professional tours around Europe. He wanted to take a risk. He wanted to get better.

“Pretty much all of my life, just watching everyone on TV in Europe, it’s just very appealing,” Labovitz said. “If you want to go pro, that’s the way to go.”

And off Labovitz went last summer, equipped with a student visa that granted him temporary stay in Spain. He was set for daily training and online classes at Marbella United, an extension of the US Soccer Academy LLC established by Richmond Kickers founder Bobby Lennon.

Labovitz wasn’t Langley’s only soccer prospect to pack his bags for Europe. His friend and Loudoun Soccer Club teammate Sam Golan signed a two-year scholar contract with Brighton & Hove Albion FC last August. Golan, a sophomore center back for the Saxons last spring, plays for the BHAFC U18 squad in the Barclay’s U18 Premier League, England’s highest level of academy football for the age group.

While Golan moved to England’s southern coast with his parents, Labovitz trekked to Spain’s southern coast by himself. His would be a more peripatetic journey, one marked by trials in five different countries.

“I knew my family wanted what was best for me, and I was trying to go pursue a dream,” said Labovitz, a first-team All-Met who scored 26 goals for Langley last year. “It makes it a lot easier knowing that they want it for you, too. It definitely was extremely hard, but you know it will pay off one day.”

In Marbella, Labovitz began each day with flexibility and agility training, then completed a two-hour morning session of soccer drills. Online classes through a University of Nebraska High School curriculum followed, and the day would finish up with either another soccer session or strength training.

Those evenings in the weight room added considerable bulk to Labovitz’s frame, while periodic games against other youth academies around Spain enhanced his skill beyond measure. The Iberian juggernaut has long cultivated some of the world’s sharpest players, a reputation burnished by its 2010 World Cup triumph and victories in each of the last two UEFA European Football Championships.

“Being in Spain, the technical aspect and how comfortable they are on the ball is second to none,” Labovitz said.

Labovitz, who turned 17 in September, used to lament being one of the youngest players in his age group growing up. Even as he thrived in club competition, the prolific attacker knew he would be even more dominant if he were born just a couple months later.

But that experience of facing older opponents proved useful in Europe, where Labovitz was the youngest player at nearly every stop. Players generally ranged from 17 to 23 among the Spanish academy teams he faced, and the opposition was often much older during his tour in Hungary last month.

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Labovitz enjoyed a productive March playing against academy teams in the Netherlands, though it was his one-week stint with Debreceni VSC, a professional Hungarian team based outside Budapest, where the young American made his most meaningful impact. Like his previous stops, Labovitz wasn’t able to play in games without a European passport, but his impressive showing while training with Debreceni’s reserves piqued the club’s interest in his future services. Even against some former first-team players who competed on Debreceni’s 2010 UEFA Champions League squad, Labovitz held his own and showcased his uncanny nose for goal.

Not bad for a teenager living alone in a strange country and without a firm grasp of the language.

“Getting lost is just the worst,” Labovitz said. “You’ll end up in a place where a tram doesn’t come back for another hour and you’re just kind of stuck there. So that’s probably the most confusing. You take one bus and it leads somewhere else.”

Hungary could represent Labovitz’s best avenue to a more permanent stay in Europe. His great great grandfather was Hungarian, giving him the chance to obtain a Hungarian passport that would grant clubs based in the EU the opportunity to sign him. Labovitz returned to the States earlier this month, but he continues to study Hungarian with the hope of demonstrating intermediate fluency on the citizenship test sometime in the coming months.

[At 17, Christian Pulisic does what no one has with U.S. Soccer and in Bundesliga]

Obtaining that passport is key for many American soccer players aiming to hone their craft overseas. More and more players see it as the best path to make the U.S. men’s national team, especially since national team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has repeatedly emphasized his preference for players enduring the grind of top European competition over players sticking to the less demanding rigors of Major League Soccer. It’s no coincidence, then, that one of Labovitz’s top aims is to someday suit up for his country.

“My goal is to be on the national team in a few years,” he said.

The European fast track to national team stardom is currently being blazed by Christian Pulisic, the 17-year-old American phenom making waves at Borussia Dortmund, the second best team in Germany’s top flight. Pulisic, who last month became the youngest player ever to score two goals in the Bundesliga, has a grandfather who was born in Croatia. He signed with Dortmund after his Croatian passport arrived last July.

Labovitz, who spent a week earlier this year training with third-division club VFL Osnabruck in the outskirts of Dortmund, is four days older than Pulisic. He played against the standout midfielder once during an Olympic Development Program tournament in Pennsylvania about four years ago.

“That kid’s amazing,” Labovitz said. “It’s just his technical awareness, and his speed on the ball is amazing.”

Labovitz doesn’t reach Pulisic’s soaring quality, but his scoring instincts rank him among the best to come through Northern Virginia in recent years.

“He has a tremendous work ethic, a real positive attitude, and then just goal-scoring,” said Loudoun 98 Red Coach Mark Ryan, who coached Labovitz during the three years before he went to Europe. “He can score 35-yarders, headers, volleys, tap-ins. So he has the ability to score a range of different types of goals. He’s always done that wherever he’s played.”

Labovitz trained with D.C. United’s U23 squad for a couple days when he returned home earlier this month. He’s also playing for the U19 team at Annandale United FC, the club run by Langley Coach Bo Amato. He doesn’t know how long he’ll be home or whether he’ll return to Europe at all. The only thing clear to him now is his dream.

“I’m not sure what will happen,” Labovitz said. “I just want to go pro as soon as I can.”

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