Photo: Earl Gardner
Yosef Samuel stood out against Jacksonville Armada with his movement and quick feet. PSP talks to the only member of the Philadelphia Union Academy still training with the first team in Florida. Samuel talks about how he joined the Union academy and what he hopes to achieve this season.
PhillySoccerPage: How’d you get to the Union academy and how long have you been there?
Yosef Samuel: I’ve been here for a year and a half now. I’m originally from Atlanta and I used to play for a club team named KSA. And [the Union] watched me play in a few tournaments like Disney and nationals. Then most of the players I was used to playing with graduated because they were a year or two older than me, so I decided to come and try out for the Union. And they were looking for me, and it worked out perfect.
PSP: So where have you been playing? More of a striker role in the academy or outside midfield like you did against Jacksonville?
YS: I’ve played left mid and right mid and striker.
PSP: Where did you play coming up through the youth ranks?
YS: Most of my soccer time has been as a forward, on my last club I played forward. But when I came to the Union I started playing left wing and right wing, and the coaches liked me there and I learned a lot. I felt very comfortable, and now it’s my favorite position.
PSP: How come? I talked to Earnie Stewart right after he became the Union’s Sporting Director and he told a story about wanting to be a striker and having a coach explain to him that he belonged on the wing, and how that was hard for him to accept at first.
YS: When you get the ball, you’re already facing the player. You see the whole pitch, and you pick what you want to do and try to do it as fast as you can. The reason I like playing on that side is that I’m assisting, not always trying to score the goal. And I love dribbling, making combinations and passing to whoever is open, then try to take the shot. And I watch some players who play my position, and they’re always trying to make the assist or score. And I feel like that position is already me, like who I am in person. I don’t always want to go for the goal, but I also want the assist. Coaches will say sometimes that I pass too much, they want me to go and get the goals as well. So when I started playing [on the wing], that’s when I learned when to pass or shoot. The position, it fits me perfectly.
PSP: Has it been an easy transition to the wing? Do you see strikers making runs and think, ‘Oh, I understand why he’s making that run’ because you played there?
YS: My old coach, he used to yell at me because I’d go back down too much, to defend. He’d say, ‘Just stay forward! When you get the ball, go to the goal. That’s all I want you to do.’ And on the wing, you have to do a lot of running back and forth. And I like that. I don’t mind defending.
But attacking [from the wing] was easier for me because it’s easier than striker, when you have somebody on your back. And you don’t see who’s coming behind you. As a winger, you’re already facing them so it’s easier to take them on.
But playing on the wing, the defensive responsibilities are a lot harder. It took me a few months to get adjusted to balancing both of them out. But it was good to know the balance between those two, because you’re trying to make yourself work as little as possible, but still working. Like, you know your position so well that you don’t have to do too much on defense so you can have energy on offense.
PSP: In the game against Jacksonville, it looked like you were very comfortable on the ball, and comfortable as the first guy off the ball. But what was it like playing at that level when you aren’t around the ball?
YS: For the first few days, I was playing with Fabinho, who was left back and I was left mid. And we were connecting a lot, because he was talking to me, telling me where to be, who to get. And after that, it felt really good because when you have that partnership, he’s helping you and you’re helping him too. Whenever I’m without the ball, I don’t want to be a weak link.
PSP: How are you learning these things? Is it the coaches talking to you? Watching video? You just figure it out?
YS: The most important part is knowing the guy behind you, and just talking to the guys around you. They all want to win, and they want you to do good. You can watch a lot of videos, and the coaches can tell you where to go, but if you have that guy who is behind you telling you, ‘Do this, do that!’ you don’t need all the other stuff.
Fabinho knows all this stuff to make me better defensively. I find it very helpful, and that’s some of what I want to take back when I go to the academy.
PSP: What are your goals for the season? Right now you’re playing with the first team, you’re getting minutes, you’re seeing how fast the game is at that level. Where do you think you are now and where, reasonably, do you think you want to be in October?
YS: I definitely want to be in the first team, but that’s the coaches’ decision. I’m just taking it day by day and give it 100 percent in every practice and every game. I’ve been here for two preseasons now, and I feel like I’ve grown a lot from last preseason. And every day, I’m just trying to show the coaches what I got, and try to not leave anything in the tank.
PSP: But on a more individual soccer level, from the skills you have now… when you look at what you can do now, and you look at the guys you admire, what from them do you want to add to your game this season?
YS: I’m kind of a player that… is decent at everything. When you watch players, often they have very good speed or very good technique. And they use that one advantage to the fullest, and they just kill you with it. And they have that killer instinct to just go at a player. And the best of them just go at players and make something happen. And that’s what I want to learn. To have that killer instinct when I have the ball. Just go at players with no fear, and make something out of the play.
PSP: Are there times when you’re playing that you’re ‘in the zone’? And you look across the field at the guy that’s guarding you and you just know you can beat him? You have that confidence, you know you have that killer instinct, even if it’s just for that play or that half. Have you been in that place before?
YS: I definitely have. I feel like this training camp, I’ve felt like I’ve been in my zone, because I feel very comfortable playing with these guys and showing what I have, either dribbling or fighting for the ball or defending. I’ve kind of been in that zone now, and I just want to keep it up and keep showing the coaches.
I feel very comfortable right now playing with the team. It’s been great so far.
PSP: Does this preseason feel relaxed? For a guy like you who didn’t play in the first team last year, are the established guys all pushing for you, for you to succeed?
YS: Yeah, yeah, they are. Because they know me and I’ve played with them a lot, they all know what I have to offer, and they know what I need to do. They know me pretty well, so they’re always trying to push me to get better. It feels like they’re always helping me try to get into the team.
PSP: Do they feel comfortable not only giving helpful criticisms but also joking around and ragging on you a bit so you feel like you’re part of the team?
YS: Yeah, definitely. When I don’t do something right, they let me know. And when I’m doing something good, they let me know too.
I remember Sebastien [Le Toux], the first day of practice, I think the field wasn’t so good so I was being hesitant about passing the ball hard. And he came up to me and told me a few times, and I still didn’t do it right. So the next time he let me know! And then I started picking it up and doing well. And after that, he kept saying, ‘Good job! This is how you should be playing all the time!’ He was setting me standards.
PSP: I feel like you’ve got a positive mentality, in that you can take something like that from Sebastien and work with it instead of letting it get you down. Have you always been able to do that, or have you had to work on making sure you don’t get in your own head?
YS: It’s weird, but I love when coaches yell at me. I remember when I was younger, my coach tells me, ‘Do I have to yell at you to start playing?’ And in a game, if I’m not playing well, he’d just yell at me, he won’t hold back at all. Everybody’d hear it. Then the second half comes, and I’m doing way better. It’s weird. It actually helps me. I kind of slap myself and say, ‘Wake up!’ Nobody’s going to yell at me for no reason.
And I feel like I’m the biggest critic of myself. So if somebody says something to me, I’m already thinking worse to myself. ‘You gotta pick this up! You’re really not playing!’
PSP: When you look back, is there anything a coach has said to you that has really stuck with you, or made the pieces fall into place in terms of how to approach the game?
YS: Before I came to the Union, I was with the same coach for six years. He’s been kind of like a father figure, a coach, and also a mentor, And he’s my trainer too. So whenever I’m in Atlanta, I’m in his house trying to learn something, trying to train with him. And throughout my soccer career, he’s been there every step. He’s been helping me a lot.
One of the reasons I made it this far is because of him. I remember days in the summer when we used to train for six hours, and he’d be the one tossing the balls for me, or making me dribble through cones until my legs didn’t work anymore. It’s weird because when coaches or people say, ‘You have natural dribbling ability.’ I’m always like, ‘That’s not natural! I trained six hours dribbling through cones.’ When people say, ‘You’re a good dribbler.” I always think of my coach and think, ‘Well, I have to be! I have to improve after dribbling three hours through cones.’