This interview first appeared on Club Eleven.
We met Jean-Christophe Koffi for lunch on a cold and rainy afternoon in downtown Bethesda. He approached us with a mix of cool confidence and nostalgia as he walked through the streets that once bore witness to his high school days. With a warm smile, he removed the jet-black shades that covered his eyes and shook our hands firmly.
For Koffi, returning to Bethesda is like visiting an old battlefield from which he emerged victorious. In a town notorious for its wealth, Koffi was able to rise through the ranks of an elitist youth soccer system tailored to suburban kids and accomplish the dreams he envisioned as a child in Ivory Coast.
In our conversation with Koffi, he chronicles his journey from playing barefoot in the streets of Ivory Coast to signing for the New York Red Bulls and training alongside players like Giuseppe Rossi in the MLS. He also offers advice to young players and gives an inside look into the American youth soccer system and the daily life of an MLS player like himself. Lastly, he shares his opinion on how to improve U.S. soccer, with all eyes set on catching up to European nations.
You grew up in Ivory Coast, so at what age were you first introduced to soccer?
The first time I got introduced to soccer I was very, very young. I would say probably when I was two years old at school. In my neighborhood all the kids played, all my friends played. We had this field right in the middle of neighborhood where we would go everyday and we would just play for hours.
What was your experience like playing in your home country? Did you have a team you were a part of or was it just in the neighborhood?
No, it was just in the neighborhood. We would make teams by ourselves and play. We would play in a really small field — concrete too. Sometimes we played with no shoes, but it really didn’t matter we just wanted to play.
When you were in middle school you moved to the United States. What was it like joining the youth soccer system here in the United States after not really having played for a club at all back home?
When I first got here I went to a French international school in Bethesda because I didn’t really speak English at first. I went there for a year and a half and I joined the team there. That was my first real team, but it was MSI Soccer [Rec Soccer], so it was at a very low level. I had no idea what it was. I wasn’t really familiar with the soccer environment here, but I just wanted to be on a team to play.
How many goals were you scoring?
Oh (laughs) I was scoring like at least five goals a game. But it was fun I’m not gonna lie — I think every part of my journey has been.
Where did you go next?
So then I switched teams to this team in Virginia. The name was TAP Barça. I played there for a year and a half. It was like a travel team basically. We traveled to the Dallas Cup, and we had a lot of tournaments everywhere. That’s when DC United scouted me, during that one year and a half. They told me ‘we want you on the team.’ They didn’t want me to try out or anything. At first my old coach didn’t want me to leave, but I went to one DC United training session and the environment was very professional. It was something I had never been a part of and that excited me.
Was it easy to transition do you think?
It wasn’t easy, you know, it wasn’t easy. Back home I didn’t play with cleats, so playing with cleats for the first time here took me at least three years to adjust to the touch. So that was a part of it, like playing with kids who were used to playing with nice cleats. But obviously I was talented enough to be a part of that team so from there I just started developing tactically.
So learning the tactical aspect of the game was important for your development.
Yeah I had never played on a serious team or been coached before I got to the United States. Like nothing tactical, just get the ball run and shoot. That transition was very important for me and I thank DC United. I give them a lot of credit because they are the ones that showcased me developed me and turned me into the player that I am today. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have gotten a full ride to UVA.
Yeah you were even ranked No. 54 prospect in the 2015 class. What was the recruitment process like exactly?
Well when I was sixteen DC United wanted to sign me. We had a talk but my dad didn’t want me to sign at that age. He wanted me to go to college. Duke hit me up, UVA, Penn State, UCLA, all these schools were inviting me to come visit. And then the first school I visited was Penn State. I really liked the campus. Then, the week after that, I went to UVA and they both gave me the same offer. But UVA is a way better school in terms of academics and soccer. My parents also really liked the structure of being a student-athlete there, so that was very important for me.
Looking back do you think it helped you to go to college for those few years or would you have liked to sign as a sixteen-year-old?
Honestly, I love where I am today but I feel like I could have been way further if I signed earlier. For example, Tyler Adams on my current team, signed at sixteen years old and now he’s like what? Nineteen right?
Yeah and he’s going to Germany in January.
He’s nineteen and if you see this guy play in training, he’s in insane. I just feel like for where I’m trying to get I wish I signed early, but I’m not really too concerned about that right now.
So what would your advice be for young players who have to choose between going to college or signing early?
I think it depends on your family values and if you really think you can make it. If your parents value school then you should probably go to college, but you should also consider what is important to you. If you have the opportunity to go pro at a young age you should definitely take it because you have more time to develop, you can have a longer career, and it would be easier for you by the time you make the first team.
You had the opportunity to sign since the age of sixteen as well as throughout your time at UVA. Why did you sign now with only a year left before your graduation?
My parents are diplomats and my dad got called back to go to Africa this summer, which meant we lost diplomatic status and I had to go get a visa for school. I had already done three years at UVA so my dad really wanted me to finish that last year. But also all the players in my class went pro. For example Edward Opoku, Derrick [Etienne] — who already signed three years ago — you got Pablo Aguilar, Jeff Caldwell… at least four, five guys that were very important to the team, so I felt it was time for me to go.
What was the MLS signing process like?
I started talking to agents after the fall season last January. A lot of them contacted me and I met with a lot of them. I sat down with my parents and was like ‘who do you think would be the best agent for me in the long term and where I’m trying to go.’
How did you end up deciding on an agent?
So in my case specifically, I looked at agents with a lot of contacts with MLS teams. Like I said, I needed to get a visa and eventually get a green card so getting an agent that was gonna help me contract wise and teamwise was important. We decided to go with James Grant Agency. They have a lot of contacts.
Did you only hear from the New York Red Bulls or did you hear from other teams as well?
At first I was supposed to sign with DC United because they owned my homegrown rights since I played four years in their academy. I talked to my agent and my family and thought that going to DC United wouldn’t be the right fit for me in terms of the style that I play and in terms of how many midfielders there are on the team. Just me being a young player and being in an environment that would push me to get better and we didn’t think that was the right for me. So we had to get my rights traded from DC United to another team. New York Red Bulls showed interest, Real Salt Lake, Montreal Impact, Minnesota United.
So why the New York Red Bulls?
New York Red Bulls was the team where I wanted to go to because they completely fit my style of play, which is a lot of transition and a lot of pressing and closing people down.
What has training with the Red Bulls been like?
The training is intense it’s like 110 miles per hour every day.
Can you describe your regular day as a professional?
Everyday we have to be in the locker room by 10 a.m. so I wake up at 9:15. I get to the facility, eat breakfast, say hello to the guys, stretch a little bit. I do hot tub and bath tub before training. Training is very intense, like sometimes we make teams from the beginning of training and stay with those teams until the end of practice and keep points so everyday is competitive and everyday is a fight. Everyday you have to come ready and 100% focused. And it’s also stuff off the field that you have to do to be ready for these sessions.
How have you been adjusting to this new step in your career?
Red Bulls is one of the best teams in the MLS who have an insane amount of talent. From top to bottom everyone is the best at what they do. For me it’s gonna take a little bit of time to adjust because coming from the college level is not easy.
A lot of people criticize the youth soccer development system here in America, and many blame it for the United States not qualifying to the 2018 World Cup. Now that you told us about your experience as a player in this system, is there anything that you think can and should be changed?
I think the academy level is fine. We just need to take soccer more seriously at the youth level. Then, once players make that transition to the college level, it needs to be a full season instead of only fall and spring seasons. Because when we get in we only play for like what? Four months of games? And then you have a month of not really doing anything. And then after you come back for the spring you only do fitness which doesn’t do as much to improve your game. Players should be playing, playing, playing. There’s so many breaks while kids in Europe are always playing all year round.
Another criticism for the youth development system here is that it is a pay-to-play system. Many talented players around the country simply don’t have the money to even have a shot at becoming a professional.
Yeah definitely, and no player should be paying to play. There are enough MLS teams at this point. They have enough money to get their academies going and investing in them. Kids are the future of the league basically, so you should be putting everything into developing them so that the league keeps growing.
Around the world sometimes the MLS is viewed as a ‘retirement league’ especially because of veteran players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney, Bastian Schweinsteiger and David Villa choosing to come to the league in the twilight of their careers. What do you think about this perspective on the MLS?
I don’t think it’s a retirement league.
You don’t think it hurts the league?
I don’t think it hurts the league. I think it helps the league a lot. It helps grow the sport in the United States. Even if people see it as a ‘retirement league’ statistically it’s not really true.
How important is it to have those players as role models?
I think it’s very important. It’s really important to see the highest level of soccer, and being around it and being able to replicate it or work on it. For example on my team there is this player called Giuseppe Rossi. As a 31-year-old he played in La Liga for Villareal. He played against Messi, Eto’o, Iniesta, Xavi, all these guys. Played for the Italian National Team, played with Balotelli, Pirlo, all these guys. And he’s just training with us right now. He’s not on the team or anything but he’s training with us, and he’s the best player I’ve ever seen in my life because of the things he does. The level in Europe is just so much different, so much different.
What have you been able to learn from Rossi so far?
(Laughs) I don’t think I’ve learned anything yet because the things he does are literally absurd. He’s a different type of player. It’s a different level. You just can’t explain it, you just have to be in Europe and play in Europe to get to that level.
What do you think it would take for the U.S. to develop players like that?
There’s too many sports in the U.S. you know. If we were anywhere else in the world the main sport would be soccer, so everybody in the country would play. In Europe they are willing to invest in their clubs and the academies which makes it so much easier. Kids start playing at a young age, but here kids play five different sports growing up. They don’t focus on just soccer. I think it’s gonna be hard but slowly it’s gonna change. I think the World Cup coming here should be a big boost for the sport.
Finally, what are your goals for 2019?
Make my debut for the first team, come into the preseason and play well, show the coaches what I can do, and hopefully, get chances to play a lot. I wasn’t able to play before I got my visa and I just got my visa, so I just wanna play. That’s my goal for 2019.
Interview by Pablo Bayona Sapag.