From Kabul to Chester, former soccer pro gets second chance with Philly Union

It was always my dream to play professional soccer, but never the plan.

Shortly after joining WHYY as the new South Jersey reporter in April, my editor made me an unexpected offer: “Do you want to represent us at a Philadelphia Union fantasy camp?”

“Obviously,” came the answer. It so happens my day with Philly’s Major League Soccer team would be my second stint playing pro.

We were presented with customized jerseys upon arrival at the Union fantasy camp. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

The first was with a team in Kabul, Afghanistan. Yes, you read that right. I ended up there after graduating from Williams College in 2012, working for a telecommunications company where I had a connection through a classmate.

It wasn’t quite as posh as my time with the Union, which included carpeted locker rooms, a top-of-the-line gym, drills with Head Coach Jim Curtin and a customized jersey I now wear everywhere. But it was memorable for other reasons.

My journey to Central Asia was spurred by another interest of mine: Having come of political age during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, I had spent years fascinated with the politics and history of the region.

Ferozi FC were winners of the 2013 Kabul Cup. I wore jersey #12. (Courtesy of Nick Pugliese)

Kabul, a sprawling city in the foothills of the Hindu Kush Mountains, was an intense sensory and emotional experience. More pronounced than the five-a-day call for prayer was the constant blaring of horns as cars raced across pockmarked streets.

Vendors hawked an astonishing array of wares — spices, cell phones, pomegranates, birds — at huge open-air markets.

And anxiety about getting caught up in a suicide attack was tempered by Afghans’ warm sense of humor and emphasis on hospitality. It put you at ease, made you want to linger wherever you went.

Vendors line up along the Kabul River. (Courtesy of ESPN)

That’s how I recall the city now, but at first, I experienced little of it. Due to safety concerns, my company imposed severe restrictions on its expatriate employees. A few dozen of us lived in a jumble of modified shipping containers behind thick blast walls. We were allowed to venture out only to a pre-approved list of restaurants and cultural sites. Otherwise, our glimpses of the city were through the windows of a van on the way to work.

There was one rare exception: soccer. I had played on the varsity team at Williams, and when my Afghan co-workers learned I had a background in the sport, they invited me to join the company team.

Boys play soccer in the ruins of Darulaman Palace in 2013. The palace was destroyed during decades of war but recently restored. (Courtesy of ESPN)

My first time back on the field post-college was a rush. I apparently played well enough to draw the attention of a teammate who was also part of a professional outfit in the city. He urged me to try out for the team, Ferozi Football Club.

As my frustration with my living situation grew, so did my urge to play. I began sneaking away from work to attend tryouts and games. I eventually got caught, but by the time I did I had landed an offer to play center midfield for Ferozi.

The terms: $300 a month and a room in a small residential complex alongside two of my new teammates. I was the club’s sole foreigner.

Getting banana smoothies after a day of futsal. (Courtesy of Nick Pugliese)

Thus began my first stint pro. Now, before I’m accused of embellishing my athletic gifts, let me say here that professional soccer in Afghanistan is not the same as professional soccer in the U.S. I am no MLS talent.

But I had a hell of a lot of fun. We played in historic Ghazi Stadium, built in 1923 and a witness to the highs and lows of human potential. It hosted the country’s first international soccer friendly against Iran in 1941, a jazz concert by Duke Ellington in 1963 and public executions by the Taliban in the 1990s.

We won our first tournament, the Kabul Cup, in a penalty kick shootout, and were runners-up in the 2013 Kabul Premier League a few months later. In between, the Afghanistan national team won the South Asian Football Federation Championship, the soccer-loving country’s first international title. Thousands of people took to the streets in a rare moment of national celebration.

When I wasn’t playing for Ferozi, I was usually at a local park playing a variant of soccer called futsal. This particular venue, a converted basketball court, featured un- and under-employed kids from every socioeconomic stratum — window-washers and thugs, middle-class boys and eccentrics.

An afternoon of futsal at Kabul’s New City Park. (Courtesy of Nick Pugliese)

I was so intrigued I made a short documentary about two of the people I met there. You can watch that film here.

Together with my Ferozi teammates, my friends at the park became my cultural and literal guides as I endeavored to learn the local language and the city.

My time in Afghanistan lasted about 18 months. I left around Christmas 2013, partially to relieve my parents’ stress over my time there and partially to avoid the potential for violence looming over an upcoming national election.

Shenanigans in the Kabul’s New City Park. (Courtesy of Nick Pugliese)

When I came back, I had the storytelling bug, and I channeled that energy into landing my first journalism job. I covered municipalities in North Jersey for The Bergen Record newspaper for a couple years before moving to the paper’s New Jersey State House team.

I’m now excited to learn a new medium, radio, while serving as WHYY’s correspondent in South Jersey.

Which brings us back to the day at the Philadelphia Union fantasy camp. As soon as I stepped into the Union’s recently renovated Power Training Complex on the Chester waterfront, all those old fantasies of making it big came rushing back.

Competitors from the media warm up for the day’s activities. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

It was just so cool to see how “real” pros live. When we arrived at the locker room, there was a player getting a trim at an in-house barbershop.

We donned our personalized jerseys and then headed to a movie theater-style film room where Head Coach Jim Curtin ran us through a few game highlights. He blew my mind when he revealed each player wears a GPS-enabled monitor during games that allows the coaches to track his heart rate and distance traveled in real time.

Later, they can use that data to reconstruct game scenarios. Players strap on virtual reality goggles and are transported into a 3-D simulation of the action.

Philadelphia Union Head Coach Jim Curtin explains a drill on the team’s practice field in Chester. (Nick Pugliese/WHYY)

We did some creative cross-training in the gym and then headed out to a pristine grass practice field for a brief scrimmage. I’m not above boasting: I scored a goal. I screamed on the inside, trying to act nonchalant on the outside.

It was an awesome experience and not one I’ll take for granted, no matter how many times I get a taste of the pros.

I love my job, but if you’re looking for substitutes, Jim, you know where to find me.


Editor’s note: The Union are currently near the top of the MLS’s Eastern Conference and do not need Nick’s help.

You can write to Nick at npugliese@whyy.org or on Twitter @nickpugz. If you’d like to learn more about his time in Afghanistan, you can. He documented his experiences on a blog, Nick Plays Football in Kabul. Besides his own documentary, he also was featured in a segment on ESPN’s SportsCenter.

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