Dom Dwyer and the Making of a Champion
The 2014 Major League Soccer season saw a race between Englishmen, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Dom Dwyer, for the league’s Budweiser Golden Boot.
The two strikers came from drastically different backgrounds within the game. Bradley Wright-Phillips is the son of Arsenal legend, Ian Wright, and began his journey with Manchester City. The New York Red Bulls striker made his Premier League debut whilst Dwyer was still at high school. He would go on to make 260 appearances for five clubs in England, and earn five caps for the England U20 team. His career had suffered a couple of stutters before a move to Red Bull Arena, and the chance to be on the receiving end of assists from the likes of Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry.
Dwyer’s beginnings were much closer to those of Wright senior. A Norwich academy player, released at a young age, that would go on to gain his experience in non-league football. Unlike Wright, he wasn’t snapped up by an impressed league team, but rather went off to the US to study and try a different avenue. That was when the meteoric rise of Dom Dwyer began.
He was drafted into a young developing team, devoid of household names, and like many of his team-mates, would make his own superstar status.
Born in the West Sussex town of Cuckfield in July 1990, Dwyer would impress scouts from Norwich City and join the Canaries’ academy as a 9-year-old. The family would relocate the short (short for Americans anyway) drive from Norwich to King’s Lynn. As a student at Springwood High School, Dwyer displayed his sporting nous in the soccer, rugby, cricket and track teams.
In an interview with Norfolk’s Eastern Daily Press, Dwyer’s high school coach, Luke Feaviour, mentioned the qualities that the MLS Cup winner has become known for.
“He was never the biggest player but had very fast feet and would latch onto most through balls and crosses. He was also deceptively powerful and wasn’t afraid to get stuck in. The most important asset he had, though, was his commitment to training and the team.
In the years I was fortunate enough to ‘coach’ him, I don’t think he missed training and always remained positive about less able players and members of the team realizing their importance in terms of the team ethos. ”
During his time at Springwood, Dom would begin to face the hurdles that test the mettle of every aspiring footballer. He broke his right foot three times, and would be told by doctors that this recurring injury marked the end of the road as far as his dream of playing professionally.
He was released by Norwich, an event that causes many a young player to lose their passion for the game, and quit playing even the most basic forms. Dwyer would not lose that passion for football, and would instead join his local side, King’s Lynn FC. Dwyer scored his first goal for the Linnets’ reserve team at the age of 15, a year after Wright-Phillips had made his Premier League debut.
Over the next three years, Dwyer would go from the youngster in the team to a prolific marksman, whose name was on the lips of every fan at The Walks. In February 2009, he would make his first team debut in a Conference North match with Harrogate Town. King’s Lynn were at one of the highest points in the club’s history, which made breaking the first team ever more challenging. He would have to serve as understudy to former Premier League marksman, Julian Joachim, and Dwyer did much to impress the FA Cup finalist.
“I think he has something about him. He's still raw but he's quick, lively and as everyone can see he scores goals, so that is definitely something good for him and King's Lynn in the future. He's only played a few games yet, so it's important not to put too much pressure on him, but who knows what he can go on to do and achieve if he keeps working hard at his game. ”
Dwyer finished the 2008/09 season with two goals from 11 senior appearances, and over a dozen goals for the King’s Lynn reserves. Unfortunately for the youngster, and as has been the case with so many non-league players, new manager Carl Heggs came to town with his own players and his own system.
The fan favorite would have to settle for the reserves again, even with Heggs publicly praising Dwyer’s ability and potential. At this time, former Chelsea captain and owner of Soccer Icon USA, Joe McLaughlin, approached Dwyer about the possibility of scholarships at American colleges. With his time at The Walks looking increasingly like a season of riding the bench, Dom opted to further his education with a degree in sports science at Tyler Junior College in East Texas.
I’ve personally known a lot of prospective footballers flock to the US to take this path and drop out after a year, with the complaint that the demands on fitness or academics are too great. Dwyer excelled as a Tyler Apache, leading the team to two NJCAA National Championships. He became NSCAA player of the year and was inducted to the NJCAA Hall of Fame.
Dom Dwyer on how his experiences at King’s Lynn helped his career path:
“It toughened me up. I was very young, just a boy, playing with men. It was a very cool experience and a fun time. It was my childhood friends who I grew up around, and I can’t say I expected to be here down the road. It’s fun. It’s great out here and I enjoy my life out here. ”
On whether being left out by new manager, Carl Heggs, influenced Dwyer’s decision to move to the US:
“Yeah, he actually offered me a contract. I remember his quote now. He said to me “It’s up to you if you go to uni. You can come and play for me for a couple of years and have a chance of going pro, or you can go to America, get drunk with your mates, go to college and end up working a job”. I decided to prove him wrong and come to America. ”
And on having mixed emotions at the demise of King’s Lynn FC and rise of King’s Lynn Town FC:
“It was actually a bit of a relief [in justifying the move]. It was weird, because you never know how things will go, and obviously I was offered a contract at King’s Lynn. If I’d have taken that, then six months down the road, the team would’ve folded and I wouldn’t have been out in America. It’s the small decisions you make [that make the big difference]. Obviously I was disappointed for the club and fans, I try to keep a look out for how they’re doing. They’ve re-established themselves and they’re doing alright. ”
After a transfer to an NCAA Division One school, at the University of South Florida, Dwyer would be invited to participate in the 2012 MLS Combine. Further, he would be among nine selections for the Generation adidas class of 2012.
For those not familiar with MLS, the combine is a four-day event where the top draft-eligible players are invited to play in matches that are scouted by MLS teams. Players also have a chance to meet with the coaches and technical staff of clubs, as a ‘try before you buy’ prior to the MLS SuperDraft. Generation adidas is an initiative to get players into the league before graduation. It ensures them a contract and a scholarship regardless of where they’re picked in the draft.
For the teams, the incentive is that Generation adidas players do not count against the salary cap for up to three years that they remain in the program. This is generally a guide to the brightest prospects.
Sporting Kansas City selected Dwyer as the 16th pick of the 2012 MLS SuperDraft. As the draft took place in Kansas City, Dwyer received a rapturous reception as he approached the podium to don the Sporting blue scarf. SKC owner, Robb Heinemann, gave Dom and his parents - Linda and Chris - a tour of the brand new Sporting Park.
As he walked across the frozen pitch, the excitement at the prospect of performing in front of 20,000 fans, and particularly the KC Cauldron, was on display. Walking into the home locker room and seeing the jerseys of some of MLS’ big names, the joy and realization of the journey that had reached its next level began to show in his expression.
A chance to prove himself at that next level would prove difficult to come by in his maiden season, as his MLS debut would have to wait nine months until a four minute cameo in a 2-1 win over Toronto in September 2012. Dwyer would only see the pitch for a further ten minutes that season, aside from a single US Open Cup tie.
In the off-season, Dwyer would travel to Scotland to train with St Mirren ahead of a loan to the Scottish Premier League side. Sporting Kansas City opted not to go ahead with the loan, instead sending Dwyer to the club’s USL affiliate, Orlando City, for the start of the 2013 season. Back in Florida once again, he would break records as he hit the net 15 times in 13 games.
After three months in the Sunshine State, Dwyer headed back to Kansas City in a rich vein of form. He would play 21 of the remaining 24 games, scoring three times. Most crucially, Dwyer scored the goal that won the Eastern Conference title and a place in MLS Cup. Sandwiched in this period, he also returned to the Citrus Bowl to score four goals in a 7-4 win, as Orlando would win the USL Pro Championship.
Dwyer went on to win the USL Pro Championship and MLS Cup in the same season. In lifting the Philip F Anschutz trophy, Dwyer emulated what fellow countryman, David Beckham, had achieved the previous year.
Following the MLS Cup win, Dom and SKC head coach, Peter Vermes, wanted Dwyer to head back to England on loan. Dwyer trained with, and impressed, Charlton Athletic but a takeover had derailed the loan. After returning from the UK, Dwyer was ever-present for Sporting Kansas City in 2014.
His personal success in a 22-goal season coincided with a failure, of Sporting Kansas City, to emulate their previous campaign. Leading the Supporters Shield race with twelve games to go, SKC would only take 10 points for the remainder of the season, and scrape into the Eastern Conference Knockout Round. They would fall to the New York Red Bulls at the first hurdle.
The game was a shootout between the league’s two highest scorers, as Dwyer and Wright-Phillips accounted for all the goals in the 2-1 win for the Red Bulls. The team’s end of season form prevented Dwyer from winning the Golden Boot, as Bradley Wright-Phillips went on to tie the MLS record of 27 goals in the regular season. The teenager that was told he would never be able to play professionally had broken team records.
He had been an MLS All-Star, teaming up with his childhood hero, Thierry Henry, and the likes of Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and Obafemi Martins. He faced the likes of Bastian Scweinsteiger and Mario Götze of the dominant Bayern Munich side, just weeks after many of them had lifted the FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
Dwyer on his reputation as one of the hardest working players in Major League Soccer:
“I’m always going to work hard. This is fun for me and I love playing football. It’s not a job for me, it’s fun, so as soon as I stop having fun, I’ll stop. I’m always going to work hard. I think every player does as much as they can. It’s tough, you go against good players and you have to get used to it. My old days are different to most forwards, and I still get stuck in and play physical, work hard for the team, and try to score some goals. It’ll come later in the season, so I’m not too upset. ”
Dwyer has endured a tough start to 2015. Strikers often struggle for form until they get that first goal, but this is among the hardest working players in Major League Soccer we’re talking about. At 24, he’s still a few years from his peak.
Newly married as part of American soccer’s power couple with US women’s national team striker, Sydney Leroux-Dwyer, the Norfolk-raised forward was already on course to be eligible for Citizenship, and therefore a call-up to the US national team, around Valentine’s Day 2017. If selected by the United States, Dwyer’s first taste of international football could be a rematch with Bayern’s World Cup winners in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.
As Dom says, you never know what’s next, perhaps we’ll see him with the Three Lions on his chest by then.
On how his marriage to Sydney Leroux-Dwyer could affect his Premier League aspirations:
“It’s something that we’ve talked about and we’re still in the process of sorting out. We’re married, so we’ll be together and we’ll figure it out. The tough thing about football is you never really know what’s next. Hopefully I’ll stay in Kansas for a few years, but you never really know, so we’ll see what happens. ”
And whether a potential move, for Sydney, from Seattle Reign to FC Kansas City appeals to the Dwyer household:
“I wouldn’t be upset about it [smiles]. I don’t know honestly. ”
As a testament to the nature of Dwyer as a player and personality, I found out shortly after speaking to him that someone - that I would not describe as a supporter - had made their way to the players’ walkway to verbally abuse both Dwyer and wife, Sydney.
Speaking with Dom, some twenty minutes later, you would never know he had been subject to abuse from the manner in which he spoke.
A number of the FC Dallas fans who witnessed this event had expressed a desire to apologize personally to Dwyer, that someone purported to be a fan would sink to such depths. I’d mentioned after getting the quotes that most fans I knew, whether they booed or cheered, respected his work rate, determination and achievements.
From the outpouring of remorse among innocent bystanders, it’s evident how much respect he has gained among fans in North America. That is starting to trickle over to the United Kingdom, as MLS’ international reputation grows.
To quote a very modest Sporting Kansas City Striker on those fans, whether they boo or cheer, “I appreciate it”.
The headlines follow the egos within the game, the fans seem to go with the players that simply get their heads down and work hard.
If a young footballer wants to trace a path to success and find a role model in the game, Dom Dwyer would appear to be a prime candidate.