Behind the Scenes of the Lansing Ignite Tryouts
January 30, 2019
Featured Photo Credit: Scott Oberlander
How do you close out a tryout for a pro team where you will likely be dashing the dreams, at least temporarily, of many of those trying out for you? At the recent Lansing Ignite closed invitational tryout, Head Coach Nate Miller chose empathy.
“Really respect you guys making the effort, respect the journey you guys are on, I know it’s tough, and it’s not always fair to be sure. There’s a lot of things that come into play. It’s not just a straight line, either you are good enough to play in the USL (or you aren’t). You guys know it’s not like that. There are a lot of things that make it possible,” said Miller, in the video that the team released afterwards.
The road to becoming a pro soccer player is not an easy one. When asked to expand on his comments, Miller explained some of the challenges facing the players stepping on the field at these tryouts. “A lot comes into deciding whether to sign a player or not. For example, if you are an international player, it’s a lot harder. If you are coming off an injury, it’s difficult, and maybe you have been out for a year and haven’t had the training environment to sharpen you. Also, what one coach values might be different then another – that is a big part of this whole process. I think the most important aspect is that there is probably more supply of USL quality players then there is demand – there just aren’t enough roster spots. So, I am looking for really, really specific things to make us the best possible team.”
At least two participants at the camp could speak to these challenges directly. James Vaughan is a former AFC Ann Arbor midfielder from England, and was at the closed tryout. Due to USL League One rules, Lansing can only sign up to 7 international players. As GM Jeremy Sampson has stated before, 6 of those spots are already taken. This means a player like Vaughan has to truly impress to make the team. “Making it to the professional ranks is incredibly difficult, any athlete in any sport can contest to this,” Vaughan said. “But for an international in the US it is even harder. You aren’t competing for 25 spots, you are competing for only 7, this makes the margin of error even smaller.”
Julian Birge, a former Alma College midfielder, now an assistant coach there, had to deal with the bad luck of hurting himself before participating in the open tryout. “It’s really hard to replicate in-game fitness when you’re just training on your own or not with a competitive team,” Birge said. “So I was trying my best to get into the best shape I could, and last Wednesday, I rolled my ankle during an indoor game, which basically meant I had to rest it for a week and wasn’t able to train at all. So not only was my ankle still not quite 100%, but it hindered my fitness a little bit as well.”
In an already crowded field, with limited spots, there isn’t much room for a coach to project how a player might have played if they were fully fit. Those playing through injuries like Birge have no choice but to power through and hope they stand out. “My plan is to play to my strengths and work as hard and smart as I can. Hopefully there will be some opportunities to win balls in the air and I can get myself in some good positions on the field and in both boxes. (I also want to) try to get touches, while also getting the ball off my foot quickly,”
Coach Miller’s Approach
With several player reveals coming weekly from the team now, it’s clear that a good chunk of the Ignite roster has been filled. This open tryout is a chance for the Ignite to fill out the depth in their roster, and give local players the chance to show what they can do.
“I think it’s important to uncover every stone,” said Miller. “There is a big demand from many people to come and try out. So, there is no reason not to have an opportunity for local and regional players to showcase what they can do. I think, in a lot of ways, players themselves are able to self-evaluate and get clarity as well. For me, it’s not very hard to give any player who wants to be seen an opportunity to be seen, so we do this in the best way possible.”
The biggest way to be seen and stand out is to be that guy that can fill out the depth at multiple positions rather than just one. If you are someone that can only play right back, and the team already has signed multiple right backs, your chances of making the squad are slim. Miller was looking for versatility from those trying out. “One very valuable player quality is flexibility. Can you play more than one or two roles on a team? I signed a player that can play six-to-seven positions – that gives a lot of value to building a great roster. So, during the tryout, we played guys – and communicated to them – out of what they think is their position because we think they have quality but wanted to see them in a position of need for us. ”
A Closed Tryout Success Story
Before the open tryout began, at least one player had already moved one step closer to making the team from the earlier closed tryout. James Vaughan, quoted earlier, got the message from Miller telling him he would be moving on to the team’s preseason camp.
Vaughan credits some of his success at the tryout to staying within himself and showing the best version of himself in a limited amount of time. He was also fortunate that he got to show off one of his best attributes, set pieces. “I have to give a lot of credit to Coach Miller because at most tryouts you just play a game and their decision is based off of that. However, a great part of the trial was when the coaches told us we were going to run set pieces so they were able to see a side of us as players which may not have been able to be seen by just playing a game.”
It’s the small things that can sometimes play to your favor as well. Vaughan said someone he knew from a previous combine was also at this tryout. “It was nice having a familiar face from the jump, which can always help to take a certain edge off,” he said.
Vaughan’s work is far from over though. At the preseason camp, he will be playing with the players that have signed with the team, as well as other hopefuls, to see how well they are able to work together. Vaughan described himself as “over the moon” when he got word that he was invited, but he still remains cognizant of how hard he will have to work to get a contract offer, especially given his international status.
The Most Interesting Man at The Tryout
The list of tryout participants contained a multitude of players, ranging from ages 16 to 33. There were local players, as well as some from the west coast. There was also a former arena football player, a lawyer, and a member of the Lansing City Council. Actually, the last sentence was all the same guy. The most interesting man at the Ignite Open Tryout had to be Brian T Jackson.
Jackson’s athletic background is incredibly diverse. As well as playing soccer growing up, he also played football and ran track. Due to soccer and football taking place at the same time, he ended up choosing what was the more prestigious sport at Sexton High School, football. From there, he was able to get a scholarship to Western Michigan for football (he also continued to run track). He continued on with both sports at Indiana State University. He was eventually able to make it into the Arena Football League for two seasons before continuing on to earn his law degree. Jackson was also elected to the Lansing City Council in 2017. Despite his success in life and in sports, Jackson never forgot about the sport that was his first love growing up. “I always wondered what would have happened if I had focused my athletic career in soccer and not other sports,” said Jackson.
When news of Lansing Ignite hit, Jackson’s excitement level grew. “I always maintained my fitness and athleticism and secretly hoped that I could play competitive sports again.” He signed up for the open tryout quickly after it was announced.
With not much time, and an incredible amount of professional and family responsibilities, Jackson’s days of preparation for the tryout could only be described as hectic. “My training routine differed each day. I balanced my family life, legal practice, City Council, and training by working on each of those everyday. A typical day for me while I trained started at about 6 a.m. when my 5 month old son wakes up. I would care for him as I worked on legal work for my firm. Some days, I had court in the morning and left the house early. At about 9 a.m., my 3 year old daughter wakes up and I make her breakfast. After breakfast, I generally took her to the YMCA,” he said.
“After the YMCA and lunch, I usually go to a PLAY place in East Lansing with my kids and try to work on City Council related matters or respond to constituent emails as my daughter played and my son hopefully slept.
After all that preparation, Jackson ended up satisfied with his performance. The tryout consisted of 3 “small field” games, and one 11 v 11 game. Jackson was able to play the full time in each of these games, showcasing his fitness. He thought he was able to perform best in the 11 vs 11 game. “I was able to play more into my strengths and run in the open field (in the 11 v 11 game). I tried to use my size and strength and be physical around the ball. I was the oldest and biggest player trying out, and think I was able to hang with the youngsters for the most part.”
Now, Jackson and everyone else must wait to see if they will get contacted by Coach Miller. For some, a dream will be one step closer to fulfillment. For some, it will be a rejection that hopefully can be learned from. And for others, this may be the final rejection they endure, as they decide to give up on the elusive goal of becoming a pro. Everyone knows how hard this is going in though, and the regret of not trying at all is always worse than the sting of being turned down.
One More Time