Fall soccer is kicking off in Alexandria, Virginia. Team carpools are getting organized; family schedules are being arranged to ensure kids can attend multiple practices per week and games on the weekends; coaches are dusting off practice plans; and we wanted to take a moment to ask, where will this soccer season take us?
In a new series called, My Soccer Journey, ASA explores the soccer pathways of former players and coaches. It is ASA’s goal to continue educating our community about the opportunities soccer can provide and the doors that can be opened through the beautiful game. You never know where one one experience on the field may lead.
We begin our series with a former ASA coach and a former ASA Reds player, both with soccer journeys that have led to Swansea, Wales, albeit in very different ways.
Levi Houapeu began his journey playing soccer on the streets of his hometown in the Ivory Coast. His first organized soccer experience was with Watkins Mill High School after moving to the United States when he was 12 years old. From there he joined Potomac Soccer Club and played in Maryland’s ODP program (he also ran track in high school to stay in shape for soccer). Before going to college he played one season with DC United’s U20 team, coached by Dafydd Evans and Tommy Park (ASA’s Executive Director!).
At the same time, but half a world away, Ian Wilson began his storied career with the local recreational team in University Park Maryland (coached by his dad) at the age of 5. By 11 he had transitioned from rec to the local travel club, College Park Gunners, where he played in the National Capital Soccer League (NCSL), like many ASA players do today.
Although passionate about soccer, Wilson wasn’t always the best player on his team. He attended Dematha Catholic High School where he made the Freshman team his first year, then the JV team his sophomore and junior year. His hard work and grit paid off and he captained the varsity team his senior year while earning all-county honors. At age 19 he began playing for DC United’s U20 team. His season with DC United did not overlap with that of Houapeu’s.
Wilson said, “Ultimately you really have to love the sport if you want to make it far. There will always be politics and things that you can’t control. You can control your own work ethic. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of repeating good habits and using determination to remove bad habits. I swear by juggling. If juggling with a soccer ball is easy for you, juggle a tennis ball and vary the height of your touches. Juggling helped me make a massive jump in my overall game.”
In today’s diverse ASA community there are many players with youth experiences much like Ian and Levi. Although close in age, and with high school experiences in the DMV area, the two do not meet each other before heading off to their respective colleges.
Houapeu earned a full athletic scholarship to play Division 1 college soccer at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). While there he led the nation in points during the 2009–2010 season and earned America East Midfielder of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year honors.
At this same time, Wilson attended Salisbury University, a Division III school where he worked tirelessly for four years to move from a spot on the bench to ultimately captaining the team his senior year. While at Salisbury, the team advanced to the NCAA tournament three of Wilson’s four years.
After four years in college, with degrees in hand, their soccer journeys could have come to a close…
Post Graduation—Keeping the Dream Alive
After graduation Wilson began coaching at ASA(!) and playing with a local team in the Washington Premier League (WPL). He attempted to go pro a few times (via open tryouts) before moving to Peru to learn Spanish. He played a bit in Peru before moving to Duluth, Minnesota to tryout for a National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) team at the semi-pro level (the team happened to be coached by another former ASA coach). “In Duluth, I made the team but broke my ankle shortly thereafter and I thought for sure this was the end of my playing career. I coached out the season as an assistant in Duluth and then did another season as an assistant coach for my old university.” (Wilson then moved back to Peru).
Meanwhile, after college Houapeu was drafted in the third round of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft (41st overall) by the Philadelphia Union. His Union career was over before really getting started with a serious injury in September 2011. The team released him at the end of the year. Over the next few years he played for ASA’s pro level team Reds United as well as with Baltimore based Christos FC.
Are you noticing the parallels in these journeys? Professional and semi-professional endeavors for both Wilson and Houapeu, travels and trials that involve soccer, and finally, an injury resulting in a major setback for each.
Summer of 2017
In July of 2017 ASA hosted a combine with Coach Dafydd Evans, head coach at Swansea University. Coach Daf and the Swansea University team were visiting the United States to scrimmage local teams during their summer offseason and to hold a combine tryout.
After rehabbing his foot while in Peru, Wilson had been training in Lima with the reserves of a 1st division pro team. He was eventually released from the reserves due to visa complications. “I gave Daf a call and he told me to come back to DC to try out with Swansea University. Literally within a week I was on a plane back to DC and ASA’s combine.”
Similarly, Houapeu was contacted by Coach Daf prior to the combine. “We spoke after he watched me played with Christos FC against DC United in the US Open Cup earlier in the summer,” Houapeu said.
Both Wilson and Houapeu attended the tryout and were offered spots on the Swansea University team. By fall, both were enrolled in master’s programs and had made the move across the pond. (Read about the structure of Swansea Futbol Club). Houapeu said, “The decision to move abroad was an easy decision. Getting to play football (soccer) while obtaining a master’s degree is something that my family was very supportive of.”
The Swansea Experience
“It has been a great experience so far,” said Houapeu. “Playing football for 10 months while in school is great. We play lots of league games and that’s super awesome. I enjoy the routine, school in the mornings, practice in the evening, and games on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
The coaches are great, as well as my teammates…. The weather not so much!”
Wilson said, “Car alarms go off in my apartment’s parking lot because of the wind! Chicago has nothing on the windy city of Swansea. I’m living on the beach, playing soccer and thoroughly enjoying my time here. We train at Swansea City AFC’s training grounds and every once in a while I spot an actual pro. There’s a fantastic football culture here and our grass pitch is absolutely class. This is what I love — new experiences, culture and getting to go through it all while playing my favorite sport.”
Throughout their parallel careers these two experienced similarities and many differences, but two common threads are both the joy that soccer has brought to each and the many experiences across cultures.
“My experience with the sport has been nothing but a joyful time from playing football on the street of Ivory Coast at a young age where I had to learn all my skills on my own to becoming an All American in NCAA D1 to signing in the MLS,” Houapeu said.
Wilson said, “I’ve now been to 20 countries and 46 US States. In most of these places I’ve carried a soccer ball with me.”
It is staggering to consider all of the teams, coaches, games, training sessions, individual choices and experiences that led two 28 year olds from the DMV to a soccer team together in a small country in Europe, at the exact same time.
The real question is, where will this soccer season lead them?
“Actually,” Wilson says, “Levi and I competed against each other in the WPL and we didn’t realize it until recently. Levi had been trash talking me to his teammate in French while we were playing and little did he know that I am actually fluent in French. I responded accordingly. The thing is, Levi and I didn’t know each other until we came to Swansea. Now, we are roommates.”
Thank you Ian and Levi. What incredible stories — we can’t wait to watch your journeys continue to unfold. We hope they lead back to Alexandria one day!
When asked what their advice for youth players would be both men had similar feedback. “My advice is to work hard and make sure you are prepared for any opportunity that may come,” said Houapeu. “Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone to test your skills.”
Wilson said, “I would encourage you to play pick up as often as possible with whoever, whenever, wherever. This will help you understand why so many people love the sport. And of course, juggling. It is important that if this is something that you want, you must reach out to as many coaches as you can to create opportunities for yourself. Get your parents to start filming your games and get coaches to come and watch you play. Don’t be afraid to use your own coaches resources.”