The Unexpected American: New U.S. citizen Dom Dwyer embraces his path, eyes USMNT future

2:12 | Planet Futbol
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Friday March 17th, 2017

Phones were prohibited inside the imposing Charles Evans Whittaker Courthouse in downtown Kansas City, but video equipment was no problem. So Sporting Kansas City staffers were present and ready with a camera on Thursday morning as their colleague Dominic James Dwyer, 26, of Cuckfield, West Sussex— about 38 miles south of London—took the final few steps on his long road to U.S. citizenship. Accompanied by his wife and 6-month-old son, Dwyer checked in, recited the oath of allegiance and collected his certificate of naturalization.

“It’s real,” he said toward the end of SKC’s short video. “It’s done.”

And so now, it begins.

What goes through the mind of an athlete as they listen to the The Star-Spangled Banner? Many will have observed that profound or perfunctory ritual hundreds or even thousands of times during their career. Whether they contemplate themselves or others, success or sacrifice, country or community, the journey behind them or the one set to unfold—each opportunity to pause, reflect or gather their thoughts likely passes in similar fashion. It’s routine, superstition, preparation or habit. It’s part of the pregame program.

Dwyer was drafted by Sporting in 2012, the same year he earned his green card, and has played for the club more than 140 times. That’s a lot of rockets’ red glare. But the anthem experience will change profoundly for him on Saturday evening at Children’s Mercy Park, where Dwyer will stand and listen as an American citizen for the first time.

What goes through the mind of an athlete during a moment that symbolizes such a significant personal turning point? The song isn’t long enough to run through a story that’s featured so many unexpected, unlikely and triumphant turns. Hypothetically, Dwyer would have just enough time to think back to his childhood in England, where so many kids spend so many hours in a yard, street or park with a ball at their feet, dreaming of the day they’ll play professionally and represent the country that gave the game to the world. Then perhaps he’ll see his wife in the stands. Like Dwyer, Sydney Leroux is an American born elsewhere (Canada). She’s played for the USA 75 times and is a Women’s World Cup champion. Then he’d see his son, Cassius, who’s being raised in middle America and was named after an American icon. Dwyer will have a few seconds to take in what his life has become and where it’s headed. And then it’ll be time to play.

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“I’d do things with the ball in the backyard, go out there every day, and I would surprise myself. ‘I didn’t know I could do that!’ I would do it once. Then I would do it five times in a row. Then I could do it 10 times in a row, build up these things quickly. It was fun for me,” Dwyer said when reflecting on the start of that journey. “I think as a kid, I knew I could do something different … I just envisioned all this before. My mom—I didn’t remember this—but she told me when I was a little kid, I used to practice my signature at home. I told her that when I was a famous footballer, I’m going to have to sign things.”

Dwyer was at Norwich City by the time he was 10, but his very English path to the stardom he anticipated took a uniquely American turn a few years later. He was released by Norwich. He broke his foot three times. He was told he was done. There’d be no autographs to sign. Then a Scottish scout with U.S. connections offered a second chance on soccer’s American frontier. Go to college, play, get a degree and see what happens. So in 2009, Dwyer enrolled in Tyler Junior College, a two-year school in northeast Texas. He parlayed that into a strong junior season at the University of South Florida and then, a Generation Adidas offer from MLS.

That American odyssey forged an American player.

“I just think he embodies a couple of things,” Peter Vermes, the SKC manager, technical director and former U.S. national teamer, told SI.com. “He’s got a lot of what the American player is supposed to be. He works hard on the field. He busts his ass. He does all those things and sometimes that’s not necessarily appreciated … And there’s no doubt he’s got a level of flamboyance. Remember when he scored the goal and did that selfie? To me, he has some flamboyance there, and he’s got some balls too.

"He doesn’t shy away from anything and I think the fans appreciate that. He doesn’t care if the guy playing against him is 6-5. He’ll stick his head on the end of a someone’s boot to score a goal. They appreciate the courage he has.

“I think he loves it here. He has a son who was born here and he’s been here a long time. I think for him, he considers this to be home. He really does.”

Dwyer started slowly at Sporting but turned a corner during the club’s run to the 2013 MLS title. The following year, he tallied 22 goals in 33 MLS matches and from 2014 through 2016, his 50 regular season goals were surpassed by only Bradley Wright-Phillips. Dwyer has compiled that resume while typically playing as a lone center forward, meaning he’s keyed on and kicked, harried and harassed and frequently acts as a vanguard or decoy.

Dwyer said he was raised playing with a strike partner and that it took him time to adjust, learn to read the game differently and embrace the role and the grind that comes with it. He managed it the only way he knows how—by throwing himself head-first into the deep end. Dwyer does nothing halfway, whether it’s a rugged run through the penalty area or the celebration if that run pays off.

Dwyer and Leroux fell for each other fast, share similar senses of humor and optimism and seem to have a blast chronicling their journey as America’s First Footballing Couple on social media. And Cassius, of course, appears to be a natural and an extremely good sport. They’re celebrities in K.C., and Dwyer said he’s even seen fans staking out his house.

“It’s quite funny,” he said.

There’s an energy, confidence and level of commitment in Dwyer that’s contagious and as he’s matured, it’s been harnessed for the good of his club and career.

“I wake up every day and challenge myself to work harder. I’ve been wanting to be a pro forever and I’ve only been on for five years. This is my sixth year now,” Dwyer said. “I’m still learning and it’s quite exciting. I’m getting stronger, getting faster, taking the season more seriously.”

Said Vermes, “Before Dom got married, he was already starting to really mature and since then, he’s matured immensely and has a very clear picture of what he wants to do. A lot of players, they can consistently get lured by the talk of somebody else being interested in them. ‘Hey, I need to go here. I need to go there.’ I think he’s very happy with where he’s at. But that doesn’t mean he’s complacent about it. He has a lot he wants to achieve where he’s at.”

When Dwyer and SKC dismissed a multi-million dollar offer from Greek champion Olympiakos last year, it was a nod both to where the new American is and what he wants to achieve. Kansas City is a good place to make a living as a soccer player, and staying in the USA meant Dwyer remained on track for citizenship. He won’t wear the national team jersey he imagined as a kid, but when he hears that anthem on Saturday, he may visualize what it’ll be like to wear the jersey of the country that offered him another chance when his dream died back home.

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“There comes a point where you become a realist and you look at the program there, and you kind of missed that [opening] and meanwhile, I kind of made my life here,” Dwyer told SI.com. “It’s pretty exciting for me to be part of the conversation to be on the U.S. national team. It’s kind of another part of the story that I didn’t expect. Well, I did and I didn’t. I wanted to play on the international stage, but I didn’t think it would be for the U.S. If I can give something back to the country that gave me so much, that’s exciting.”

Dwyer isn’t being presumptuous. There is a legitimate conversation about a call-up. He scores goals, and that’s a skill that’s always in demand. And a look at coach Bruce Arena’s depth chart suggests Dwyer already is on the edge of the national team pool. The four forwards called up for this month’s World Cup qualifiers—Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris and Bobby Wood—are the clear top choices. But behind them, no one really has emerged, and if Arena makes changes to the team for the CONCACAF Gold Cup in June, Dwyer has as good a shot as anyone.

Gyasi Zardes likely will get another look once he’s fully fit. He’s got more range than Dwyer but isn’t as good with the ball. Juan Agudelo is talented but hasn’t seized his international opportunities. Chris Wondolowski appears to be fading from the frame. Over in Europe, Aron Jóhannsson and Terrance Boyd have fallen behind because of injuries. In MLS, the golden boot race is dominated by foreign forwards.

“I’m trying not to get ahead of myself,” Dwyer said.

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But he’s ready. He’s spent his adult life in the USA, and now that he’s had to take and pass the citizenship civics test, it’s almost as if he spent some time in school here as well. He had the chance to share in Leroux’s Women’s World Cup experience and had a front-row seat to the pride and outpouring of emotion and support that U.S. national teams engender. And he said he’s had “in-depth” conversations with Abby Wambach, Leroux’s close friend and Cassius’s godmother, about playing for their country.

“She’s the epitome of what it is to be an American. She’s a very passionate person and her passion shows,” Dwyer said of Wambach. “She wants people to understand and know what it takes to play for the U.S. and represent this country.”

Dwyer thinks he understands. In a sense, he’s embodied what’s required for a long time. He believed in himself and persevered. He took chances. He aimed high. He was open-minded. He appreciates what he has and squeezes every bit of fun out of each opportunity. But as Vermes said, Dwyer also “truly pursues excellence every day in what he’s doing.”

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He knows that some, including Wambach, have taken note of foreign-born national team players and wondered about their passion and commitment. And he’s ready with an answer. He doesn’t apologize for the fact that he’ll always feel partly English. Dwyer was born and raised there. But if given the chance, he’ll handle a U.S. national team call-up with the same relentless enthusiasm that brought him this far.

“I’m hopeful that the American fans can see my passion and hard work from my play on the field—if I get on the field—and I hope that translates to any questions anybody has,” he said. “I’m lucky to have people around me who can help me learn more about it and I’ll put my work in and see what I can do. It’s exciting. This is something where I get to give something back. ... I think it’ll start to feel even more like home to me if I’m representing this country. It’s my dream as a footballer.”

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