The engagement of star prospect Aaron Schoenfeld by Hapoel Tel Aviv portends a campaign to elicit the signings of Jewish soccer players from abroad, principally from the USA.
Schoenfeld, who showed some promise during his three years at Columbus of the MLS but was disappointed at his lack of playing time under the Crew’s coach Gregg Berhalter, was curiously recruited for Maccabi Netanya by Leo Krupnik, a Ukrainian/ American Jewish central defender who was signed by Netanya after he impressed their coaches while playing for the USA team at the 2005 Maccabiah games. Leo played for a decade with several clubs in Israel before retiring and returning to his home in Northern California, where he is now coaching college soccer. As for Aaron, his stay in Netanya was brief since the club was in dire financial straits and could not accommodate his financial demands. A battle for his services ensued between the Tel Aviv giants, Maccabi and Hapoel, which Hapoel won by tendering a longer term deal to Schoenfeld.
As a preview of coming attractions, Aaron scored a hat-trick for Hapoel late in the season and is poised to become one of the most prolific strikers in Israeli soccer. With Schoenfeld’s emergence as an elite striker, Eli Gutman is bent on augmenting his American corps by inviting a promising midfielder, Jason Gorski, to train with the club.
The notion of providing a haven in Israeli soccer
for talented Jewish players from abroad has crossed the minds of a number of club owners and directors over the years.
Several years ago, Jonathan Bornstein and Benny Feilhaber, high profile Jewish American soccer players who played in the MLS and were members of the US national team, visited Israel. They visited the training facilities of Maccabi Haifa in order to glean an impression of the state of Israeli soccer and its potential impact on the European scene.
Avi Nimni, who was then the decision maker at Maccabi Tel Aviv, made a concerted effort to recruit the players, but the attempt was perceived by many experts as a pipe-dream.
Both players summarily dismissed the idea for a variety of reasons. They had proven themselves as impact players in the MLS and consequently selected to the USA national team. They had too much riding on their continued success in the US, with hopes of landing a lucrative contract in Europe or another venue which beckoned as a professional and financial upgrade.
In time, Feihaber had a stint in Europe, but then returned to the US where he became a Designated Player (not subject to the salary cap) and has become a stalwart on both the New England Revolution and Sporting Kansas City.
With his contract due to expire this January, it is widely rumored that Maccabi Tel Aviv sports director Jordi Cruyff will make a real push to bring the versatile Brazilian-born midfielder to Maccabi with an offer which would make him the highest earning player in Israel. As for Bornstein, whose mother is Mexican, he decided to cast his lot with soccer in Mexico with its culinary benefits and has become a regular with Queretaro of the Mexican League.
Cruyff, who has seemingly embraced Nimni’s initiative, recently reached out to DC United of the MLS in an effort to land the coveted Jewish American central defender Steve Birnbaum.
It has been widely rumored that he offered DCU around a million dollars as a transfer fee and a salary of $800,000 to lure the player to Maccabi. The MLS club rejected the bid, based on its assessment that Birnbaum, who has earned recognition as one of the MLS’ best young central defenders and a starter on the national team, could rake in a substantially higher transfer fee from an English Premier League team next season.
The experiment to recruit foreign Jewish players to Israel has achieved only limited success. For the most part, they have made little mark on the game in Israel and returned to their country of origin after a brief stay in Israel.
A deviant to this norm is exemplified by Steven Cohen, a French Jewish national midfielder who at times demonstrated some flashes of brilliance during his sojourns at Hapoel Ra’anana and Beitar Jerusalem, but in time earned the reputation of a problem player with disdain for discipline and not readily coachable.
Another Jewish hopeful from France, Rudy Haddad, tested the waters of Israeli soccer for a few years but his inconsistent play with Maccabi Tel Aviv prompted his return to France.
However, it appears that he has won a reprieve from top league newcomers Hapoel Ashkelon and may yet emerge as an impact player this time around.
Finally, a few Jewish players from Argentina landed in Israel, but did not acclimate themselves to the rugged playing conditions and the local culture.
The Maccabiah games, which are held in Israel every four years, have yielded but a few foreign Jewish players who joined the Israeli professional ranks. Ryan Adeleye, born in New Jersey to a Nigerian father and a Jewish mother, played in the 2009 games and impressed Guy Azuri to the point that he signed Ryan to a contract at Hapoel Beersheba.
Ryan’s stay in Beersheba was unremarkable as he was used primarily as a sub and landed only a few starts. He was more of a difference maker at Hapoel Ashkelon and Hapoel Jerusalem, a club where he played a crucial role in saving the team from relegation last season.
Krupnik and Adeleye provide a beacon of light with a hope that the Maccabiah Games will provide a showcase where other Jewish American players can show local coaches and scouts that they have the right stuff to become game changers in Israel.
Still, it is commonly known that the vast majority of soccer players in the US delegation have a limited soccer background acquired either in high school of youth soccer programs and most were not inclined to pursue professional careers, whether in Israel or elsewhere.
That said, and from a global perspective, the US nevertheless furnishes the largest pool of potential Jewish players for Israeli soccer. The comprehensive US collegiate soccer programs comprise the most fertile grounds for the discovery of Jewish athletes who can go on to the pro ranks.
More than 70% of MLS players acquired their college skills on accredited high school and college soccer teams and many became immersed in the sport through club sponsored academies or youth organizations like AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization).
The ones who stand out are selected in a major draft which the MLS holds each January.
While there are only a handful of Jewish players playing in the MLS, the number is sure to grow due to the increasing popularity of the sport in the US.Don Barnett is an IFA Player’s agent who currently resides in Munich. A native of Jerusalem, he grew up in the US where he practiced law and mediation. He also coached soccer and basketball in various youth leagues and wrote a sports column for several Jewish publications.