By Mike Cesarano
Special to NFP
From a very young age, children are encouraged to find a hobby or something that will keep them busy. For most children, the answer is playing a sport - whether it's soccer, football or basketball. There was a time in the United States where choosing soccer was unheard of. However, due to the success of the senior national team in the past two World Cups, the sport has become increasingly more popular.
The dream to play professional soccer starts to materialize around the age of 5 years old. That was the case with these three local soccer players: Julian Ekeze of Rochester, and Andrew and Matt Ferguson of Stoney Creek, Canada. All three started playing at this age and continued to play at the collegiate level at Niagara University.
Although these players reached same destination, they all had different paths.
Ekeze, 21, has been playing competitively for 16 years. It is what he has learned throughout those 16 years that have driven and motivated him.
"There are a lot of great soccer players and coaches out there, which means you can never really stop learning or gaining knowledge and experience about the game," he said.
Ekeze said everyone has his own philosophy and idea of how "the beautiful game" is to be played, and how great it is to be exposed to everything. However, the biggest takeaway Ekeze has is the idea of commitment.
"You have to love the game and put countless hours into your training in order to go anywhere with the sport," he said.
Andrew and Matthew Ferguson, even though are brothers, have each had their own experiences playing soccer. Both of them started playing soccer at the age of 5, just like Ekeze, however, it was Andrew who really exploded into a soccer career. At the age of 14, he was playing soccer with 18-year-olds and actually giving them a hard time. After two years of playing for the u18's (under age 18), Andrew proved himself and was then taken into the Canadian Soccer League, or CSL for short.
He then took the next step into his development and travelled all the way to Scotland, where he played for the u19 Queens Park Spiders, which plays its football in the Scottish League.
There are definitely some advantages to playing in Europe, but the biggest one for Andrew was being taught how to deal with different opinions and playing styles, as well as being able to lead in a way that would best benefit the team. When asked what the most important thing he has learned over his playing career, Andrew responded simply, "That every player responds to different types of coaching as well as praise or encouragement."
Then there is brother, Matt. His nickname is "Nanu," because when he and his brother were younger, Andrew could not say the name "Matthew." Nanu is what came out and it has stuck. Matthew has been playing soccer competitively for 16 years. In that time, he has learned that, no matter where your skill level is, whether it be the best in the world or just starting out, "You cannot get better unless you give 100 percent, and your attitude has to be proper if there are any dreams of playing at higher levels."
Matt and Andrew have played together on the same team since they were 15 years old and this partnership definitely has its advantages. "Matt knows how I play and what my talents are, and we naturally have a connection on the field," Andrew said. "We know how to make each other better and there is no better competition than a sibling with something to prove."
Neither Ekeze nor the Fergusons knew each other until they met at Niagara University. All three gave the same answer when asked how playing at the collegiate level differs from their previous playing years: "The level is very fast-paced, with the players being so strong physically and bigger. There isn't a strong focus on technical skills, but it is highly competitive nonetheless."
Due to the hard work these three put in at Niagara University, they were asked to play for local NPSL team, FC Buffalo, for the summer. Ekeze, Matt and Andrew described the experience as a much more relaxed game than at Niagara.
"We weren't worried about class and we could just focus on the team. You have to be good to get called into the team, and then maintaining your spot in the starting 11 was tough due to the competitive nature of the other players, which in turn made us all better players."
Ekeze will play soccer in California his senior year, while Andrew and Matt will continue at Niagara University this season (starting Aug. 11). All three players will look to aim for new heights as they make the challenging choice of pursuing a soccer career after college or pursuing other interests such as coaching or graduate school.