IPSWICH, England - But for a twist of fate, Danny Karbassiyoon might have been playing soccer for a college team in front of a few thousand fans last year rather than performing for English Barclaycard Premiership champions Arsenal before 68,000 at Old Trafford.
In the summer of 2002, Karbassiyoon, 20, was not initially invited to Adidas' ESP camp, which annually showcases the nation's top 100 high school players for coaches and scouts. Even when another player dropped out at the last second, giving Karbassiyoon his spot, the Roanoke, Va., native thought, at best, he would earn a college scholarship with a good showing at the camp.
"Actually, I was thinking of college soccer before," said Karbassiyoon, interviewed at Ipswich Town's Portman Road training ground, where he currently is on-loan from Arsenal. "I went to ESP camp, the Adidas thing, and I went there obviously with hopes of getting seen by, I guess, the top schools in the U.S." Instead, Karbassiyoon won the camp's golden boot award, impressing Arsenal scout Steve Rowley so much that he offered the young American striker a two-week tryout with the Premiership giants.
"He called me over, and I went on trial, and they offered me a [two-year] contract," Karbassiyoon said. "That camp pretty much changed the plans of my life." It helped also that, with an Italian mother and Iranian father, Karbassiyoon was able to secure a European passport to get his English work permit. Since then, Karbassiyoon's career has taken off. He has gone from sitting the bench with Arsenal's reserves as a forward to earning regular playing time as a left back. In his Arsenal debut in November, Karbassiyoon came on with 10 minutes left against Manchester City in the Carling Cup and scored a dramatic last-minute match-winner off a pass from fellow Gunners prodigy Cesc Fabregas.
Arsenal loaned him to Ipswich Town in December for a one-month spell (extended to three in January), and Karbassiyoon has become a regular contributor for the Coca Cola Football League Championship leaders in their push for promotion. He has played in six matches so far for Town, starting four. "It's amazing," said Danny Beamer, director of the Roanoke Star Soccer Club and Karbassiyoon's youth coach on and off for the last 10 years. "He deserves it. He's a great kid, he works extremely hard, he's unselfish. He deserves every minute of it."
Karbassiyoon's development since moving to England has been tremendous, according to Beamer, who visited Karbassiyoon at Arsenal's training center last year. Beamer said he has noted vast improvements in Karbassiyoon's quickness, toughness and creativity. Karbassiyoon agrees. "Personally, I think I've come a long way," he said. "Whereas last year I was struggling with the reserves pretty much trying to get into the team - and I was left out of the team sometimes - to making my debut this year at Arsenal and scoring a goal at Arsenal, to coming out on loan to a team that hopefully will get to the Premiership next year."
That's a big jump for a kid who, admittedly, was in awe of his teammates after moving to Highbury, where Arsenal brought him straight into training with the likes of Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole. "I just got there the day before preseason. The preseason - everyone's together. They don't break up really until the season starts. So we're all together, and it's a really, really cool place to be," he said. "I was star-struck for half the season. But now I just see them all the time, and plus, you kind of want to get their spot, so it's to a point where you're just like, that's where I want to be. You just kind of see them as someone I want to get past."
Although Karbassiyoon remains the only Arsenal player to come from a United States youth system, another American, Frankie Simek, plays with the North Londoners. Simek, a central defender and right back, has lived in England since age 12 but still talks with an American accent. Karbassiyoon said he and Simek sometimes joke that half of Arsenal's reserve team defense is American.
Both recently moved out on loan, with Simek's departure to Queens Park Rangers preceding Karbassiyoon's move to Ipswich Town. Karbassiyoon said the atmosphere has been especially good at Ipswich Town since his arrival there, which coincided with Ipswich knocking off Wigan to move into first place in the League Championship standings. Ipswich manager Joe Royle possesses something of a reputation for getting teams promoted, and the team's form - 66 points from 33 matches - has the whole city abuzz.
"Yeah, it's quite cool," Karbassiyoon said. "A difference between the [Arsenal] reserves to getting to play for the first team is each game counts for three points, and it's important - it's really important - especially for a team like Ipswich, [which] is aiming for promotion. After each game, if we win, you know, on the bus it's just everyone's happy, singing, going crazy. It's a good atmosphere to be around, and it's something I enjoy. Sometimes, I just sit around looking, thinking, 'This is awesome.' These guys are hopefully heading to the Premiership next year, and it's a good enough reason to be excited, you know, so it's really cool."
Karbassiyoon's next big goal is to represent the United States in a full international and hopefully play in the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Although he has played a few times with the U.S. U-18's and U-20's, he is now too old for the U-20's, and he will be too old for the U-23's by the next Olympics. Danny Beamer believes a call-up from Bruce Arena has to be coming soon.
"I've talked to some of the coaches," Beamer said, "It's really surprising to me that they haven't at least brought him in to take a look at him." Karbassiyoon hopes that, by continuing to see regular first-team action in a good English side, Arena can't help but notice him. "That's one of my biggest goals ever since I've been a kid, to play in the World Cup. Ever since World Cup '94 in the U.S., [which] is pretty much when I started watching the World Cup, I've watched them all, thinking, 'I'd love to be there,'" he said. "Hopefully if all keeps going well, I'll get a chance."
In the meantime, Karbassiyoon can focus on the task at hand for Ipswich, and he already has plenty of thrills to reminisce on, including a trip to Old Trafford with Arsenal on December 1 for a Carling Cup quarterfinal against Manchester United. Although Arsenal lost that match, 1-0, the crowd, according to Manchester United's official match report, was "the biggest League Cup crowd outside a final for many a long year," and the players kept them entertained throughout.
"It was amazing. 68,000 people were there, and 64,000 of them were Man U fans, so it was quite intimidating," Karbassiyoon said. "I came on in that game, and the entire crowd - the 64,000 Man U fans - were chanting, 'Who the F-ing 'ell are you?' as I was coming on, so I was like, 'Well, this is nice.' It was quite intimidating, but it was fun."
Mike Hanzel is a freelance writer who covers soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com