Getting to the Professional Level
Interview With Wells Thompson
Wells Thompson plays in the NASL for the Carolina RailHawks. In a ten year professional career he played in over 150 games for the New England Revolution, Colorado Rapids, and Chicago Fire in Major League Soccer, as 25 games for the Charlotte Eagles in the USL Premier Development League. Wells played college soccer at Division 1 Wake Forest. As a high school player he earned an All-North Carolina first team selection as a junior and senior as well as an all-conference and all-region selection.
Your pro career didn’t start until age 22, which is common in this country, but relatively rare in European leagues. What is your opinion on players here going to college before turning pro?
I think a lot of it has to do with the culture and the development of the game in this country. Historically players would go to college first, but now more players are ready to step into the professional environment at a younger age. This impacts the college playing model and I am not sure what that will look like in the future. I think the US would like to look more like the development model you see in Europe, but college definitely helped me as a player.
I was a troubled kid, involved in drugs and alcohol to the point that I was either going to jail or I was going to kill myself. My parents intervened and hired guys to take me away to a correctional facility for a year and a half. That stalled my development a little bit. When I left I was back in high school and no one was recruiting from it so I was fortunate to have grown up in the college town of Wake Forest, which the coaches knew me. They invited me as a walk on and that was how I got the chance to play college soccer.
Being a student athlete gives you a lot of responsibilities. Wake Forest is very strong academically so we spent a lot of time on school work, which affected the amount of time I could train. On the other hand, it helped prepare me for what happens after soccer, because it will not last forever. I was very focused on soccer at the time, and Wake Forest did a great job of creating a professional environment, but you are looking at other things too – having a social life for example – which impacts your soccer development.
So for the lower paid players in the MLS, what does their future look like? Do they plan for it or are they just taking each day as it comes?
I have no idea what I am going to do when my soccer career ends. I’m 32 now and I realize my time is nearly up. When I was in my rookie year playing for the New England Revolution I was asked that question all of the time and it made me think about it – how I would provide for my family and so on. Guys in the league understand that the career is short and the natural next step for a lot of them is to go into coaching. We work camps and clinics and it becomes something that we enjoy to do. For others the game has been such a huge part of their life that they want to get away from it. Having a college degree is a huge help and without soccer there is no way I could have gotten into Wake Forest to get one from there.
When you played in the MLS how much control did you have over your future?
I don’t think I really had any control: the team could trade me at any time. There are not many guys in the MLS who stick with one team for their entire career. Brad Davis or Logan Pause who played 11-12 years for the Chicago Fire – those guys are very rare. The natural tendency for a player is that if they are not getting enough time on the field they want to go somewhere else where they will get more time. After my third year with New England I had a meeting with the coach and it was kind of a mutual agreement that we would part ways if I could go somewhere else. The same thing happened in Colorado when the new coach came in I wasn’t in his plans so I needed to go.
Looking back I am not sure that I made the right decisions regarding being patient enough and sticking it out, but ultimately you don’t have much control. There are so many players in the league and so many foreigners wanting to come over and take your place so you are not in the best position to have control.
Did you have an agent or anyone looking out for your interests?
I’ve had two agents in my career – one for five years who did some good things for me. He had hundreds of players though so if I went to him he would be helpful but it’s not like we were best friends! I also would always consult my family because they were close to me. My faith is also very important to me so I would talk to my Lord Jesus too. You talk to guys on the team who have been in the league for a while and know the ropes. When I was drafted to the league there were a bunch of veterans who had been there for a long time and Steve Ralston became a good friend who would help me a lot.
How much of a split is there in the club between the lowest paid and the senior or ‘celebrity’ players? Did this affect the team/training?
The professional atmosphere is very different from college or anything you are used to growing up. At youth level you are all the same age and from the same place, speaking the same language. At the professional level there are guys who can’t speak the same language, others who are ten years older and have kids half your age, and it is tough to bond with them sometimes. There were older guys in New England who I frankly didn’t get along with, but there were others like Steve who I loved and were always there to help out. Whenever you put money in the situation it makes it hard.
At Wake Forest they created a family atmosphere and you are playing for each other. At the professional level there are times that you are playing for yourself and your career, so it is hard to balance you versus the team. We all wanted to win. Everyone at that level hates to lose and that can become a common bond that pulls you together.
At which ages did you feel like you most improved as a player? What improved at each stage?
It’s hard to remember playing as a kid, but I definitely improved a lot at college, thanks to the coaches I had. As a kid I just went out and played, but they helped me understand the game better and to see that it is a thinking man’s game. As I have gotten older I have seen that more and tried to apply it to my game instead of just instinctively played. Looking back I wish I had been more of a student of the game when I got drafted. In the last few years I think I have really improved on a tactical level and thinking more about coaching later in my career. Coaching is so different from playing and understanding what it takes to become a coach has helped my playing.
Now that you are in your 30’s, what do you do differently to keep playing? Has your playing style changed?
I think I am a little bit smarter: I used to pick up a lot of yellow and red cards when I was younger. As a young kid I relied on my speed and determination and played with a chip on my shoulder. More recently I have become more of a leader and learned how difficult that role can be. Like life in general – leading is one of those things that is so easy to say but so difficult to actually do. I’d say I am more of a complete player now, but I have lost some of my speed so I have had to rely more on my understanding of the game and my own strengths and weaknesses. My touch is better now too so I think I would beat the 24 year old me as I have that better awareness of what is around me.
You are coaching players as well as playing. How much of a passion is it to you?
The greatest thing about coaching is that you can impact people’s lives. Billy Graham said outside of parents that coaches are probably the most influential people in kids’ lives and I truly believe that. Looking at my own troubled background – the recovery I went through was not just for me but so that I could give back to other people. It is way better to give than receive and I find so much joy from not just coaching a kid but having a relationship with them and helping to guide them to become a good person. Soccer becomes a tool that you can use to ultimately change a kid’s life. I started an academy and I run camps and do individual training.
If I could go back in time to the 16 year old me I would beat the stupid out of myself! At that time I had no idea what life was, and lived to get high and chase women. I have a 19 month old son now and I am beginning to understand and appreciate what my parents did for me and what I put them through. At the end of the day I want kids to know that there are people out there who care about them and if I can help them avoid the mistakes I made I will have achieved something.
How are you training at the moment over the winter and balancing that with your coaching?
I just had ear surgery so am taking some time off to recover from that at the moment. I struggled this year with a back injury so my plan is to keep that healthy by going to physical therapy twice each week. Once my ear heals in a few weeks I will start to ramp up training in time for the start of the season in the spring. I’ve never taken four weeks off in my life so I am dying to get back on the field and start running. As a 32 year old you have to find ways to motivate yourself and balance it with your family and other responsibilities, but there are other guys who play for the team and other teams and we will get together to work out and play pickup games.
I had hoped to do the USSF B license this December that is put on by MLS for players, but with my injury I couldn’t get it together. If I decide that coaching is my future I would like to take that. I always want to get better as a player and being injured sucks. It gives me more of a hunger to get back out there. As a professional athlete your body is your moneymaker and I want to work this offseason so that I am not just prepared but a better player than I was before.
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