Posted On February 4, 2021 by PUSC
By Judy Farah
While the Covid pandemic has unfortunately sidelined youth soccer teams in the Sacramento region and all of California, two former players from Placer United are currently enjoying an exciting soccer career in Europe. Izzie Lueken, a graduate of the University of San Francisco, is playing for Mislata C.F. in Valencia, Spain and 17-year-old David Harrison is in Germany on the Borussia Emsdetten team. Both had challenges getting to Europe during the Covid shutdown but are now immersing themselves in exploring a new country and learning different styles of play than in the United States.
Lueken began playing soccer when she was 4 years old and has “been in love with the sport ever since.” She came to Placer United in 2011 and played at the club until she graduated Folsom High School in 2016. Lueken went on to play four years in college where she had the chance to compete against some of the best teams in the country. When her college career ended, she knew she wanted to continue to play. Her college coach arranged for her to play in a tournament in Valencia, Spain in April 2020 and be seen by professional coaches from teams outside the U.S. but unfortunately it was cancelled when Covid hit.
“I was devastated, but still wanted to do everything I could to try and be seen and get the opportunity to play internationally,” she said.
With her coach’s help, Lueken was able to join some Zoom sessions watched by international coaches. Izzie focused hard, attending the Zoom sessions several times a week from April until June 2020. Eventually, one of the coaches from Mislata C.F. expressed interest and invited her to Valencia. She arrived in October and is currently training with her new team, trying to learn the language and enjoying the view from a different part of the world.
“The thing that kept me going is knowing how much I love soccer,” Lueken said. “It is always hard work and I try to keep pushing myself through the setbacks and challenges. But I love the game. I love the rush I get when I am on the field. I have started a new chapter in my life completely out of my comfort zone.”
Harrison was a junior at Del Oro High School in Loomis, California. He also started playing soccer at age 4, but also played basketball and volleyball. He played four years of recreational soccer before joining Placer United.
Harrison took a different route to play abroad. He went through a program called The Talent Projekt. He was selected after he applied by sending in a highlight reel. Harrison and 13 others from across the United States moved to Germany in September and joined team Borussia Emsdetten in Germany.
What was it like to send your then 16-year-old son to Europe during a pandemic? “It was incredibly difficult,” father Lance Harrison admits. “He wanted to become a professional soccer player in Europe. It would be a better opportunity for him to develop.”
Placer United, which typically has about 600 kids in their club, has a strong reputation of developing talent. Some of their players have gone on to be drafted by MLS, play in the USL, the NWSL and youth national teams.
“Our main goal is to get players to play at the next level, to create the best training environment possible with the best coaching staff possible to have these kids have their dreams come true to play at the next level, whether that is with college, professional or national teams,” said Ron Benjamin, Director of Coaching-Girls, Placer United.
Lueken and Harrison aren’t the first Placer United players to compete in Europe. Other members have played in Norway, Sweden, Italy and Israel. But Leuken and Harrison are the first to play abroad during a pandemic.
Harrison had to wear a mask on the 9-hour flight from Atlanta to Frankfurt. When he arrived in Germany, the country had shut its borders to all travel from the U.S. but he got through on a student visa.
“We were through the worst of it but since we’ve been here we have not been able to properly eat at restaurants as everything is take out, and we have not been able to go see any of the remarkable things that Germany is known for because much of it is closed,” Harrison said.
“There was a lot of doubt and uncertainty throughout this entire process,” Leuken said. “I was unsettled by all the unknowns and questioned whether leaving the country to play soccer was worth it,” Lueken said.
It took a while for David to get cleared to play in games, but as of this writing he has played in three and has three assists and one goal. Harrison and his American teammates are adjusting to different ways of playing soccer. They have multiple coaches for biometrics and speed, for yoga, aerobics and nutrition. Instead of going to the match in uniform, everyone goes to training in street clothes and changes into uniforms provided by staff. After practice, everyone showers and changes back to street clothes. As for the difference in play?
“It is far more aggressive play over here with the referees letting much of the physicality play on and not calling a foul,” Harrison said. “The speed at which the game is played is also much faster. The ball is played quickly after it is received and every player on the field knows where they’re going with the ball before they even get it. The build up from the goalie through the back line is almost always allowed but as soon as the back line attempts to play a ball to the midfield, that’s when teams press hard. Finally, individually every player is very technical with the ball, no matter what position. You will never find a player playing in our division who is slow, can only use one foot or one who has slow decision making. Everyone can pass, dribble, shoot and hit long balls with both feet.”
Like many youth soccer clubs during Covid, Placer United hasn’t had any matches in California. They’ve held Zoom training sessions and are now doing non-contact training outdoors using social distancing, masks and use sanitizing stations upon arrival.
“We’re trying to be creative with our training sessions to keep the kids excited and motivated,” Benjamin said.
Lueken is grateful that Placer United helped prepare her for her pro soccer career.
“I loved my time at Placer. The competitiveness, the coaches, my teammates, the joyful environment.”
Coach Benjamin said it’s been a tough time for youth soccer with kids unable to play, but added: “We always tell the kids that the challenges in life make you stronger.”