Real Salt Lake: Jonny Steele has traveled a long road to RSL
Even in a straight line, it's a long way from Belfast to Salt Lake City.
But Jonny Steele took the scenic route.
From England to Puerto Rico, Rochester to Vancouver, the heavily tattooed 26-year-old midfielder from Northern Ireland has played any place that would have him over the last eight years, suiting up for a dozen different teams during a frustratingly nomadic search for his big soccer break.
And now that he has finally landed a prime opportunity with Real Salt Lake having turned down a contract offer from the club two years ago he vows not to let it slip away.
"When I look back at it, I wish I would have come here to start," he said. "But obviously I don't want things to focus on me not coming here before, because that's negativity. I'm here now, and now it's time for me to prove to the fans and prove to everyone here the coaching staff, the players that I'm willing to be here and I deserve to be here."
It's possible that Steele will get his chance right away, as a replacement for injured Will Johnson on the left side of the midfield in the season opener against the Los Angeles Galaxy on Saturday night, though rookie Sebastian Velasquez also is a top candidate.
Either way, the story of how a guy managed to get another chance from the team he once rejected is sure to endear him to fans.
"I was young and stupid," he said.
Steele thought that signing with a minor-league Vancouver team instead of RSL (for a higher salary) would give him an entrÃ© into Major League Soccer when the Whitecaps joined the league in 2011.
But it didn't work out that way, and Steele was shipped to FC Tampa Bay during the 2010 season, left to continue to a journey that began in the youth system of the Wolverhampton Wanderers in England and continued through seemingly every minor-league outfit in North America.
Steele played for the Syracuse Salty Dogs, the Rochester Raging Rhinos, and the Carolina RailHawks (twice). He made stops in Kansas City, Puerto Rico, Philadelphia and Baltimore. He won the Most Valuable Player award and won a championship with Puerto Rico in the USL First Division in 2008, even while mixing indoor seasons with the outdoor ones for several years.
"Six months in one city, you had a day off, and then you were in camp for the next one," he recalled. "Sometimes they overlapped. Indoor would overlap if you got to the playoffs, so you would miss the start of [outdoor] preseason â¦ it was just crazy, man. But I love the game and it's my dream to play soccer, so I'm going to do whatever I can to do that."
"It could be worse," he added. "I could be stuck in Ireland."
Steele was just 16 years old when he had the chance to leave his native country and its long-simmering religious troubles for Wolverhampton (his hometown of Larne is just outside of Belfast). His first shot at MLS came when RSL coach Jason Kreis was still a player with the Dallas Burn in 2004.
Dallas coach Colin Clarke was a fellow Irishman who gave Steele a shot, but the player couldn't quite measure up and commenced his march through the minor leagues after a failed trial. He spent one season back in Northern Ireland when he fathered a son, Jaydan, who now lives with his mother in Philadelphia, which is happy coincidence where RSL will play on the weekend in August when the boy celebrates his sixth birthday.
"That's the reason I stayed in America," Steele said, "you know, because he was in America, so I wanted to be a father figure to him and not just â¦ "
Steele trails off.
He sensed coming into training camp with RSL that this was his last shot, his last opportunity to seize what his pals in Ireland and millions of others call the American dream. The last chance to prove to his idolizing son that daddy could make it big.
"It was either make or break this year," he said. "If I didn't get into MLS, then I probably would have went home to Ireland to be closer to my family. But I came in with the mindset that I was going to win a contract and be part of the team, and I think I've shown Jason and the rest of the staff that I'm willing to work to do that."
Kreis couldn't disagree.
Though Steele has been slowed by a knee injury during the last half of preseason training camp, the coach said Steele is "coming back into things a little bit." He's a hard worker, willing to do the dirty work, with what he believes is a "decent left foot."
Veteran midfielder Kyle Beckerman said it's clear Steele "knows what it takes to be a professional" even if he doesn't always understand his Irish brogue.
"They're always giving me a hard time," Steele said.
And those tattoos?
Steele jokes that they're an addiction, possibly a hundred of them, adorning nearly every inch of his torso and arms. Most of them pay tribute to friends and family members, his son, and his God.
Well-inked goalkeeper Nick Rimando is "trying to catch up to me," Steele said, teasingly. "He's got little baby tattoos."
And Steele has a four-year deal and a shot at the big leagues exactly what he always wanted.
"Now, it's up to me to keep myself here," he said.
Long Road to RSL
Midfielder Johnny Steele played for a dozen teams in eight years before landing with RSL:
2004 Syracuse Salty Dogs
2004-05 Kansas City Comets (indoor)
2005-06 Rochester Raging Rhinos
2005-07 Baltimore Blast (indoor)
2006 Ballymena United
2007 Carolina RailHawks
2007-08 Philadelphia Kixx (indoor)
2008-09 Puerto Rico Islanders
2010 Vancouver Whitecaps
2010-11 FC Tampa Bay
2011 Carolina RailHawks
2011 Syracuse Silver Knights (indoor)
2012 Real Salt Lake