Aussies Abroad: Joel Theissen learning Stateside

Few footballers can say they have played for 13 different clubs by the age of 26 however Sydney-born Joel Theissen bucks the trend.

Few footballers can say they have played for 13 different clubs by the age of 26.

Sydney-born Joel Theissen, however, bucks the trend, with his career having taken him from the now-defunct Australian National Soccer League as far as the United States.

Theissen's story is one of several close calls but the midfielder - who is now looking to tie up a professional deal Stateside - has experience that few players his age possess.

It all started at Newcastle United, where Theissen spent four years in the junior program, before joining the highly regarded Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) for two years.

"Leaving home at 16 was a huge thing for me ... living with all the boys in Canberra was a great experience," Theissen said.

"We trained every day, sometimes twice a day and it was a very professional environment. We got to travel overseas and play in some good tournaments in Northern Ireland and Italy and we also toured through the United States."

"I had never been overseas before I went to the AIS and I absolutely loved it. The coaching staff (Steve O'Connor and Ray Junna) were great people and I learnt a lot from them. They taught me all aspects of the game."

Theissen nominates playing against Brazilian side Cruzeiro as the highlight of his time at the AIS, despite the Australian outfit losing 6-1.

From the AIS, Theissen went back to Newcastle United and featured in the club's first-team during the last season of the NSL.

But the collapse of the league made life tough for many Australian footballers at the time.

"Ian Crook gave me a few opportunities to play first-team football for Newcastle and that was huge for me, coming from playing youth soccer, to playing against men in the top-flight in Australia," he said.

"But (the league finishing) was tough. Not having anywhere like the A-League to play put our careers on hold. We (young players) couldn't really go overseas at that time so to see that league collapse was a real shame."

Without a top-flight league to play in, Theissen was forced to juggle football with work, ranging from nightclubs to factory jobs and retail stores.

He turned out for local clubs Weston Bears and Central Coast Coasties, before spending a year with the Newcastle Jets as a train-on player in the first year of the Hyundai A-League.

Theissen spent time in the Under-20 and Under-23 Australian set-ups in between stints at the Parramatta Eagles and Northern Tigers in Sydney, before Sydney FC came calling, where he signed two three-month contracts while Terry Butcher was in charge.

"Ian Crook opened up the door for me there. I trained for a while without getting on the field and I sat on the bench quite a bit," he said.

"I just never expected to get on, they had plenty of international players in the team. I was just happy to be involved. Obviously I wanted to play but you need to know your own place when you are in an environment like that."

"I made my debut against Perth Glory in Perth, off the bench. It was a bit of a blur, I don't really remember much about it bar running around!"

That was to be Theissen's only Hyundai A-League appearance and it was something that would catch up with him later down the track.

After his time at Sydney ended, his football career was at the crossroads and it was time to make a decision.

"I was frustrated with what was going on and not getting opportunities. I came into contact with Marco Maisano (football recruiting expert) through friends and he had seen me play," he said.

"He had a connection at the University of New Mexico and they were looking for a left-sided midfielder or a left-back. He mentioned it to me one day and I didn't really think too much about it. But within two months I was on a flight to the United States."

For a player who had suffered so many hardships previously, an easy life playing football in the US while picking up an education was never going to happen.

As soon as he arrived in New Mexico - who play in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the top-flight of collegiate sport in the US - he was put through a clearing house, who determined he could not play for the university as he had played professionally in Australia.

It was a bitter blow to Theissen, who planned to stay at the university and get his degree in Marketing and Business Management while coaching.

The lure to play soon came back to the Aussie though, which led to his next move.

"I went away for the summer and was playing for the Cape Cod Crusaders in the PDL, which is an amateur competition that plays through the summer to keep college players sharp and fit," he said.

"I became really good friends with a guy who thought he could get me a scholarship at his school (the University of Rio Grande in Ohio), who compete in the NAIA, which is a little bit more relaxed when it comes to professional eligibility."

"In the end I signed my papers and moved out from New Mexico. I had to go through a different clearing house to play and they said I had to sit out one year but could play the next three after that. I was fine with that and I finally started playing in 2009 after leaving Australia in 2007."

In a cosmopolitan squad, the Australian was joined by players from England, Wales, Brazil and Colombia and he played a key role in helping his side to the National Final Four in 2009, with his brace in the quarter-final the highlight of his stay in Ohio.

The University of Rio Grande were also Conference Champions in 2010, with Theissen's input again crucial.

In the off-season, he represented the Ottawa Fury in Canada for two seasons before most recently featuring for the Portland Phoenix.

Consistently playing across a number of leagues means Theissen is in a good position to judge the style of American football.

"It's a different way of playing. The standard's good although it's very different to Australia, it's really high paced. The technical side is there most of the time but it's more about high pressure and getting the ball forward," he said.

"I've played with some unbelievable players. A lot of them have been in professional environments but have had their careers on hold for various reasons so coming to the United States and getting an education is a good way to go."

Despite all the red tape and his initial struggles, the blonde-haired midfielder, who lists the combative Gennaro Gattuso as his favourite player, says he has zero regrets about his switch to the US.

"It is different out here ... especially living in the dorms. Living with 20-25 guys and eating in the cafeteria has been a different experience," he said.

"I've been lucky enough to go and watch at least one or two matches of the main sports here (NBA, NFL and NHL) and it has been a great experience. I have absolutely loved my time out here and I would not change it for anything."

Now, Theissen's college life is winding down, with the season finishing in December, while he will complete his degree in May.

That takes him to the next step of his career, which he hopes will continue in the United States.

Last week in Florida Theissen attended trials in front of all of the North American Soccer League clubs - which alongside the United Soccer Leagues is the league immediately below Major League Soccer - and he remains positive about the next step in his career.

"Things went well with the trials. (It was a) great experience. We played three games over three days in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I am doing everything I can to try and play professionally again," he said.

"Now that I've got my degree I have something to fall back on if football doesn't work out. But right now I'm looking to get into the professional (football) environment in the United States. I had a good college career and I've got some trials lined up."

No-one would begrudge Theissen a stroke of luck as he prepares for his next career move although with the amount of work he has put in over the last few years, maybe luck will not be necessary.