Pat Wall Interview: First Year Struggles Lead to an Early Retirement

Pat Wall is decorated collegiate goalkeeper who finished both his undergraduate and graduate programs at the University of Notre Dame. However, at only twenty-three years old, the goalkeeper who was expected to become a pro is hanging up the cleats to pursue other options. Wall opens up about the process and gives a behind the veil look on the struggles a college graduate faces trying to become a professional soccer player. 

How did your connection with the Houston Dynamo evolve over the years?

I was an academy player for the Dynamo back in the day and throughout the years, they were kind enough to invite me in every summer to train with them since I was 15 years old. I really enjoyed the staff and had a good relationship with all the coaches. Then when I was leaving on my last day with them before heading back to Notre Dame for my final season I found out the coaching staff might all be gone by the time I would be looking to sign with them. So I played my final season, did well, won the ACC Regular Season and was getting some good looks around the league. I called up Houston and was asking about the future and potential signing. At this point the head coach had just switched clubs and the coach I spoke with said they weren’t in a position to sign anybody because they themselves did not know if they would be around next season.

So that limbo stage went on for a while, and a whole new coaching staff came in that I had not met before. In the meantime, a large section of the Houston fan base was reaching out to me asking when I was officially signing because a rumor went around that the front office of the club had an offer waiting for me. I was a bit naïve and believed it, because I was literally hearing close to 10 people a day ask me about it. So as time went on, my agent would constantly reach out and ask about me and I didn’t hear anything. I got to a point where I asked if I could go try-out for other clubs and they said I could which I believed meant they weren’t signing me and I could move on. I began to meet coaches at various MLS clubs and was getting some strong interest. The issue I was running into was that the teams that were interested in me had signed all three goalkeepers and with the CBA looming were not able to commit to somebody other than a camp body. 

How come you weren't available for the MLS SuperDraft?

When the draft came about, I got a strange call a few days before it started where I found out that apparently my rights were still held by Houston and therefore could not be on the draft board for other clubs. Needless to say, I was very confused since I thought Houston had already passed on me. So my agent went to work trying to figure out what was going on. I ended up getting a call from my agent three hours before the draft started saying that my rights were finally released, but it was too late to get on the draft board. I wasn’t happy about how it played out but after meeting the new staff, I think they are good people and that is was a simple mix up in procedure rather than an intentional delay.

I was shocked to think a high school student working a fast food job would be making much more than I would while I could call myself a pro athlete.

I was told being a free agent had a lot of advantages so I moved on. I spoke with my friends who were coaches throughout the league and many suggested that I should focus my efforts on signing with a USL or NASL team as a starter to play games, then come back to MLS in a couple of years with experience and be a backup or starter, rather than being the number three on an MLS roster because getting games is the most important thing for a keeper’s development. I took that advice and instead of going to MLS preseasons I decided to go start my trial with the team that I expected to be my team for the year so that I could win the starting role.

What teams did you trial with? And was overseas an option?

Over the past few months I have visited four USL teams and finally an NASL team when I was fed up with the USL salary offers. I wanted play in one of the markets that was going to be MLS in the future because I thought that would be the best experience and would be the most like the level that I wanted to be playing in.

I looked at the oversea option, however, when I started this process I truly believed in American soccer and felt with my background I could really help the game in whatever city I would have played. Without sounding too cheesy, I love this country and was very enthusiastic about the direction soccer is heading. I am simply hoping I just had really bad luck with my experiences and that not all players get put in the same spot I did. But, my experiences led me to really get turned off from the sport through the whole signing process in the lower divisions and made me want to move on with my life rather than continue my soccer career abroad. I want to have a family within the next six years of my life and it became evident very quickly that if I chose the soccer route over my other career options, financially I would be in a lot of trouble.

What were some of the frustrations you ran into with trying to sign with a team?

The main frustration was simply the fact that teams either could not afford to pay their players a livable wage or felt that a rookie goalkeeper should live on food stamps because he must earn his keep, regardless of if he is the starter or not.  Four out of the five teams I went to really liked me and were telling me that I would be a big name in MLS one day.  The first club I went to, I was told I was competing with the other two trialists for the starting role.  At the end of the trial, I was told I was the best of the guys that came in and they gave me an offer.  I usually don’t like speaking about money but I feel it is necessary for people reading this to understand what I learned throughout this process, which are the terrible offers that teams give guys because they think you will take anything just so you can hold onto that dream of being a pro.  The offer after taxes would have been about $600 a month.  I asked them why it was so low and they said because I didn’t have any previous pro experience and that is the salary guys start at. 

I was shocked to think a high school student working a fast food job would be making much more than I would while I could call myself a pro athlete.  I politely turned down the offer and went to another team.  The next team was a newly formed team so they had no goalkeepers on their roster.  I went in, played well and started to talk about contracts.  This time the offer was slightly better and I went home to my hotel and created a budget of what bare, necessary expenses I would need to live without going into debt.  My value was around $6000 for the 6 month season.  The minimum wage in this country would get you $7,540 in a season, so as you can imagine I thought my value was reasonable. Understanding that it was my first year and would have to pay my dues, I did not expect a high salary, but was simply asking for what I would need to cover my basic expenses.  So I went back to the club with that offer and they said they couldn’t afford to pay me that, so I walked and went to the next club.

Was this normal for all goalkeepers trying to find a team after not being drafted?

Well when I got to the last club, they really liked me and they actually had already signed two keepers.  The coach sat me down and said they would love to sign me in any way that they could but that their budget did not allow me to get paid what I needed.  He then walked me through what the typical pay was for the lower divisions.  He told me that goalkeepers straight out of college would really struggle to get more than $1000 a month and that that was just the way of the league.

I started to ask around a lot of the friends I had throughout the soccer world and they all confirmed that financially as a rookie goalkeeper you either need to have numerous other jobs or constantly be asking your parents for money in order to make it work unless you somehow scored a good deal.  I remember sitting in a bar with some of the guys on a team I was trying out with and the news got through that a rookie goalkeeper signed at another club for what I said was my minimum salary to survive and the reactions from the guys was pure astonishment.  They all were talking about what an amazing deal the guy has made and were truly impressed that he was able to score that deal.  I could not believe that this is how the soccer world was at the lower divisions. 

2013, after winning the National Championship 2-1 over the University of Maryland

2013, after winning the National Championship 2-1 over the University of Maryland

Anyways, I learned that a harsh reality of what the dream of being a pro soccer player really was if you weren’t in MLS.  That was by far the most frustrating part of the whole process and eventually made me decide to go into my engineering field in order to have a real life.  Honestly, my hat is off to all the friends I have made throughout this whole process who have made it work because I don’t think people truly understand the struggle that these guys go through.

How could the process be more efficient with getting quality college players to teams?

Well, I really want to answer this question by saying if teams were honest with the players the system would be 1000% times more efficient. However, this job is a business and unfortunately that’s just the way it is. Teams would offer Messi $1 a month if they could and would say anything to get him to accept it.  But the answer to fix 90% of the players’ problems is to set a minimum wage in the lower leagues.  MLS is doing great things where their new rules and salary restrictions which drastically helps the new guys have a real go at it.  However, the financial increases in MLS aren’t rolling down to the lower leagues just yet.  I watched USL teams pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into stadium renovations and club improvements then turn to a player who could have been an MLS starter his first year and offer him $500 a month simply because they know he has nowhere else to turn.

What do you mean, "has no where else to turn"?

I learned from experience that clubs will purposely delay offer negotiations throughout preseason. They'll tell you that if you don’t stay with them and, instead, go try out with another club that you won’t receive any offer at all from them, simply so that you stay with them. Then, at the end of preseason when it is too late to find another team to sign with, they offer an unlivable wage and tell you that you have to take it or else you won’t be a pro soccer player. Sadly, a lot of the guys don’t have educations to turn to and are forced to take that wage which further allows clubs to do this to players.

So what's the plan now?

In order to actually move up in soccer and live my dream of playing in the top division, I would have to spend about four years in the lower division to get experience before making a jump to a role on the team that was better than just a training goalkeeper. I would have had no problem putting in the work and taking the chance of making it if I really was a pro athlete and could support myself. But the sad part is, playing in the lower division a large majority of the guys are semi-pro and have to have multiple other jobs to make ends meet.

USA TODAY Sports Images

USA TODAY Sports Images

I graduated Notre Dame with an Engineering degree and have been sending out my résumé to companies to find out what life would be like if I didn’t have soccer. So now, instead of chasing teams for below minimum wage, I have job offers which pay fifteen times what soccer does. Some of the jobs I could be working on deal with designing the next generation military aircraft and other special projects that my degree allows me to do.

It’s hard to explain for people who don’t know engineering, but in the engineering world the longer you are out of school without a job, the harder it is to get a decent job because they feel you won’t remember the concepts you learned in school. I asked other engineers I knew and found out that if I did chase soccer for an extended period of time, I would miss out on some of the top projects that were being offered to me. I basically hit a crossroads where I had to decide to give up my dream of working on something that could make a difference in the world or give up my dream of playing in what I believe to be one of the top leagues in the world (or at least it might be by the time I would have made it up there).  At the end of the day, I had to choose between two things I loved and there were just way too many advantages to the engineering path to give it up.

I am truly disappointed that my decision to hang up the cleats didn’t come down to lack of ability or lack of desire but that it was finances that didn’t allow me to continue.  I hate the idea that money had anything to do with why I am no longer playing professionally. While I possibly could have worked my way up to being a big name in MLS, I also would have sacrificed having a family and would really limit my ability to do some of the things I want to in my life.

As far as my retirement being definite or not, I’m not sure.  To be honest, I love this game and if the right team situation came up where I was able to support myself I would really look into it because being a pro soccer player is my dream.  I just simply didn’t find the right situation before and while it is sad to move on, I know I will be happier in the end with this decision.  I will miss playing, but don’t imagine I’ll stay away from the soccer world for too long.  I now have the utmost respect for the goalkeepers in MLS because a lot of them are guys who have worked their way up from the bottom and I think people should really give them credit for what it took to get there.

G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images

G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images