Phil Saunders graduated from UMBC last spring and since then has been a standout for Icelandic side Bí/Bolungarvík. Facing relegation, Saunders tightened up the defense to stay afloat in the second division. Set to return in 2015 for his first full season with the club, Saunders talks about his time abroad and what it took to get there.
There’s some debate on if players should focus solely on soccer or play multi-sports. So looking back to when you were younger, what outside of soccer helped you become a good goalkeeper?
I actually played baseball my whole life. I played catcher and centerfield. I had to make a decision in 10th grade and I ended up choosing soccer. I was always told I was a better baseball player than a soccer player. But baseball helped with hand-eye coordination and tracking balls.
And why’d you choose soccer over baseball?
I just found it more interesting. You’re more involved. I know a lot of people say baseball can get boring and that was honestly the truth for me. I just enjoyed soccer more.
In 2009 you began your freshmen year at UMBC, where you started twenty games in goal for the Retrievers. Why’d you commit to UMBC and were there any other schools you were looking at?
I’ve lived in Baltimore my whole life so that definitely helped. I’ve known Peter Caringi, UMBC’s head coach, since I was probably eight years old. I went to his camps when I was younger. I got lucky, playing against his son, actually, and I must have had twenty saves but we still lost 4-0. I ended up playing on the Baltimore Bays with his son so he got to watch me play just about every game. I had offers from UMBC and Loyola. Knowing the coaching staff and a lot of the players at UMBC, I decided to go there.
You graduated from UMBC last year then signed in Iceland with Bí/Bolungarvík. Looking back, what advice would you give to a collegiate player trying to make the jump?
It sounds cliché but you have to keep going. You can’t give up. I went to two different combines... I went to the InfoSports combine and nothing came from that. Then I went to the NASL combine, nothing ended up coming from that. I was close to saying, “I went for it.” Then I went over to England and had a trial with Crewe Alexandra. I was there for a week and then that didn’t work out. I came back and was felt like, “Damn, where do I go from here?” I got an offer to go to another combine and figured I’d go for it. That’s when it all came about. I played well, found an agent that linked me up with a trail in Iceland, and it worked out. But the biggest thing is you can't give up. Every time you think, “That’s the end” there’s always something more if you want it.
That last soccer combine you went to, was that SoccerViza?
Do you think if that one didn’t work out then that would have ended it?
It definitely would have been a big hit. If something would have fallen in my lap or later down the line, I’m not saying I wouldn’t have gone for it but, let’s be real, it’s a lot of money going to these things. There’s a limit. I’m trying to stay in shape to pay for these combines. It’s tough.
So after spending a year in Iceland, how does American soccer compare to Icelandic?
It’s tough because I’ve never played professionally in America. I trained with DC United and that was… five years ago, so that was a long time ago. I think Iceland is more technical. It is pretty physical. The only thing they’re lacking that MLS has is that athleticism that everyone talks about. Technically, they’re a lot better than I thought it was going to be. I’m playing with Nigel Quashie. He’s done some stuff with the ball that I’ve seen before. Or even thought of doing.
On the athleticism, is that more of strength or endurance?
The speed. I wouldn’t say strength. You get some of those Icelandic guys that look like fisherman. Just big, big guys. But I think it’s mostly the speed. I remember watching a couple of Americans coming over to Iceland that had an edge when it came to speed.
What’s it like being American representative for people? How warm were you welcomed? And was there a question you were asked a lot?
I had an awesome experience last season. The guys over there were great. Everyone over there was really nice and laid back. They all knew English and were fluent so that helped a lot. I was a bit nervous going over there and not knowing the language at all. Of course, they all wanted to know how college was and the typical “Have you been to California or New York?” Those types of questions. But overall the guys were real nice. They were real accepting.
You hear a lot about players not feeling comfortable overseas and performing poorly. Then there are some that really thrive in it. So what, in your opinion, does it come down to for an American player to go to Europe and be successful?
You have to have a good team around you, not just on the field but outside of that. Luckily when I was there, everyone was really close. We all lived really close to each other so it was really easy to hang out. Like I said, they all know English, which was huge. I don’t know what it would be like if none or hardly any of my teammates knew English. The biggest thing for me was getting homesick. I got really homesick whenever I was over in England the first time and I was only there for a month. When I went over this last time, I felt comfortable. They all made me feel accepted and encouraged me. I couldn’t have had a better first pro season somewhere else.
You’re playing with an indoor team right now, the Baltimore Blast. Coming from outdoor, how does indoor help or hurt your game?
It definitely has helped my feet out a lot. There’s a lot of quick movement and also just on the ball. In indoor, you have the ball at your feet a lot. Indoor has made me one hundred times better with my feet. And obviously the reactions with shots.
I think that maybe the thing that hurts me a bit would be the technique because you don’t have time to focus on diving forward. It’s just reaction saves, kick saves, and diving backwards sometimes. But that’s all something that will come back once I get back to the big goal.
Last three questions: One, what’s the most important game you’ve played in?
Most important game? That’s tough… Probably my first game in Iceland. My first professional game. I had just signed that day. It was really quick when I got over there and I wanted to impress. They threw me into that first game so it could have been make or break. If I played bad, I could have been sitting for the rest of the year. But I went in, played well and it went really well, actually.
Following your season, that’s a little bit of an understatement. Do you have any pre-game rituals?
My dad passed away in 2011 so before every game I kneel at the post and say a few words to him. Other than that, not too much.
And lastly, what’s your dream scenario in five years?
Honestly, I’d love to come back to America and play. I know everyone wants to play in the big leagues in Europe, and obviously that would be amazing, but I feel more comfortable in America. I think it would be really cool to make it to an MLS club.