Lessons from Arsenal Head North American Scout Danny Karbassiyoon
By the age of 22, Danny Karbassiyoon had achieved more in the game than most young players could ever dream of.
He had moved 6,000 miles to London from his native Virginia to play for Premier League giants Arsenal, becoming the only US player ever to score for the first team, and rubbed shoulders - literally - with greats like Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp.
He even had a front row seat as a squad player for the mighty “Invincibles” team’s historic unbeaten 2003-04 Premier League season.
But at an age most American soccer players are just leaving four-year colleges with hopes of going pro, Danny’s knee had taken enough. Doctors gave him an ultimatum - give up playing or risk being unable to walk by the time he was in his late 30s.
To a young man who had lived and breathed football since his earliest club days with the Roanoke Star Soccer Club, it was a devastating blow.
He had turned away scholarship offers for some of the best soccer colleges in the US to sign with Arsenal and now he faced an uncertain future.
But again, the Gunners came calling, asking Danny to return home to scout for the club. Even at such a young age, Danny was trusted by manager Arsene Wenger with the enormous responsibility of uncovering exciting new talent halfway across the world.
It’s a role Danny has flourished in ever since as Head North American Scout, finding exciting players like Joel Campbell and Gedion Zelalem, now out on loan at Rangers. He’s also a Premier League and Championship scout for Arsenal, monitoring players on Wenger’s radar as possible signings.
In his book, ‘The Arsenal Yankee,’ Danny recounts his amazing journey. In the foreword, Arsene Wenger writes: “I had Danny with us at Arsenal as a young professional. He had huge ability and played as a striker. He made it into the first team at Arsenal on a few occasions and we were always very impressed with his attitude and approach.”
The fact that the Arsenal connection remains just as strong today underlines how much Danny is valued by the perennial Champions League club.
“My journey – from Arsenal’s first team, to an injury-shortened career, to uncovering the next Arsenal superstar – is proof to millions of youth players in America that anything is possible,” said Danny. “I hope my story will inspire the next generation of athletes to follow their hearts, and even the loftiest of dreams can come true.”
In common with many young footballers seeking a career in the game, Danny’s story has its share of good fortune. There’s also an immense amount of hard work, grit and determination.
He sat down with football.com to give youth players in the US the benefit of his experience.
Danny was born on August 10, 1984 in Roanoke, Va. to an Iranian father and Italian mother. He freely admits he didn’t particularly stand out as a very young player traveling for his club team - where the closest league away game was a three-hour drive. It wasn’t until he was 14 or 15 that he made the state team as a regular and he didn’t represent his country at any level until after he’d signed for Arsenal.
“I was just thinking that I’d love to go to college and get a scholarship and then go pro,” he said.
As he grew physically and his skills developed he traveled abroad to tournaments in places like Scandinavia and came really close to being picked as one of the 150 top high schoolers in the nation to attend the Adidas ESP summer camp.
“It was the biggest college recruiting event with the best coaches in the country and I was convinced I was going to get in because I’d had a really good year. When I heard I hadn’t made it and was wait listed I was devastated.”
Then came the stroke of good luck that changed Danny’s life.
“I got a call two days before the camp was about to start saying someone had dropped out. If I could get there I was in,” recalled Danny.
“It was a 7-8 hour drive to Wilmington, North Carolina but my dad knew how important it was to me and he drove me there.”
Two of the coaches at the event happened to be Bob McNab and Paul Marriner, both former Arsenal stars, and they were immediately struck by the polite young Virginian.
“They called Arsenal’s Chief Scout Steve Rowley one or two days into the camp to tell him about me and he flew to Wilmington to watch me for a week. When I got home I got a call from Steve saying he wanted me to come over for a trial.”
As it turned out, Danny won the Player of the Camp and Golden Boot awards at the camp he wasn’t even originally picked to attend. He also attracted a bunch of scholarship offers.
At 17, Danny flew to North London for a two-week trial in 2002 and it was an “eye-opener” right away.
“It was quite a step up,” he explained. “If they think you are doing well they keep pushing you into different situations to challenge you and see how you do. On the second from last day of the trial I was training with the first team on media day with cameras everywhere."
“There I was training with Bergkamp, Vieira, Pires and all the others. At one point we had to partner off and fortunately Sol Campbell volunteered to be my partner even though the size difference was pretty huge. In the practice game I was up front with Thierry Henry. It was very intimidating but what an experience and I was excited because it meant they thought I was doing well.”
At the end of the two weeks, Danny told the club that his education was important to him and he wanted to finish high school. “They said for me to finish my education and then they’d sign me, so I went back over that December and I signed in the summer of 2003.
“It was a big deal for me. As an American you are expecting to go to elementary, middle and high schools and then college and then your life starts. Suddenly this was very real.
“I had a very difficult time adjusting at first to the intensity of everything and being so far away from home. I thought I was mature enough, but all your friends are 6,000 miles away leading very different lives. My first six months were close to being a disaster.”
He trained daily with the likes of Robin Van Persie, Cesc Fabregas and Philippe Senderos and gradually got to feel more at home.
Working with the Arsenal coaches, Danny switched position from striker to left back, not least because the club was so rich with international strikers.
“I had never defended before or played full back in my life but I made the reserve team left back position my own and when Ashley Cole or Gael Clichy were injured I’d get the call up.”
His pinnacle moment came during one of his few first-team appearances with Arsenal. In a Carling Cup match versus rival Manchester City, he entered as a late substitute and received a perfect pass from Fabregas that he drove into the far corner.
Danny would spent the 2003/2004 and 2004/2005 seasons with the club, including a loan in 2005 to Ipswich Town Football Club.
But as much as he loved Arsenal, it was becoming clear he didn’t have a long-term playing future at the Emirates. In 2005/2006, Danny signed with Championship side Burnley Football club before retiring due to injury.
“It was a devastating blow when the doctors said I should hang up my boots. I eventually moved back to the States and I was determined to make it back whatever the odds but I saw two or three more doctors and they all said the same. I decided to step away from the game. I was 22 and I still had my life ahead of me. I went from playing every single day of my life. I couldn’t jog or even stand for 10 minutes before my knee ached.”
Just as Danny was considering going to college to restart his education he got another call from Arsenal’s Steve Rowley, who asked him to become the club’s scout for the CONCACAF region.
“It was appealing to stay involved - and before long I was going back to those same tournaments I’d been excited to play as a kid. I did that for the next eight years and I’m still very involved.
“I guess it helped that during my time at the club I was very hard working and they trusted me. I was in very early to training and I left late.”
Danny advises any other youth players looking to become professionals to follow that same ethos. “For me the thing that sticks out the most is that all the hours you put in out of hours in your own time away from everything really shows.
“After school I used to train for 2 hours between 3-5pm and then I’d go and train with my club for another 2 hours. Doing all that, putting in the extra hours, really helped, particularly at the club level. Then when I got to Arsenal it was the level everyone was at.
“There is always going to be someone who is better than you - you just have to keep working. At Arsenal it was like every single week it was a try-out; everyone was competing for their places. Players like Vierra and Henry don’t do anything different - they do everything really simple really well. That’s why they are so good.
“Always look to improve and respect the game. There is always room for improvement.”
Danny Karbassiyoon is the Head North American Scout for Arsenal. He is also the Co-Founder of Fury90.com, a next generation fantasy simulation soccer game. For more information, visit www.TheArsenalYankee.com. You can also follow Danny on Twitter: @Dkarbassiyoon.
“The Arsenal Yankee” – the autobiography chronicling American Danny Karbassiyoon’s career as a professional player and scout for Arsenal Football Club – is now available in paperback and Amazon Kindle. You can pick up a copy here: The Arsenal Yankee on Amazon.