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Dom Dwyer finds his unexpected home in American soccer

Dom Dwyer Dom Dwyer has taken an unorthodox path to professional success since coming to the USA from England. (Orlin Wagner/AP)

Dom Dwyer is an English soccer player.

He was born in Cuckfield, West Sussex, a small town located a few miles north of Brighton, and he moved around a bit as part of a Royal Air Force family. Dwyer also lived in London and Norwich, in the far east of the country, where he was a member of Norwich City’s academy.

He lists “speaking to Bolton Wanderers manager Owen Coyle” as his most memorable celebrity encounter. He believes MLS will realize its significant potential only with “a system kind of like they do in England” that includes “promotion and relegation and all that kind of stuff.” He said he catches himself saying “American words” sometimes – like “soccer” – but that he’s definitely “English at heart.”

Dom Dwyer also is an American soccer player.

Since coming to the U.S. and enrolling in Tyler (Tex.) Junior College in 2009, he has experienced a crash course in new world soccer exceptionalism. The striker won a pair of National Junior College Athletic Association tournament titles and a player of the year award while with the Tyler Apaches (does it get any more American than that?) before transferring to the University of South Florida in 2011. At the conclusion of one season in the Big East, after which he was named a second-team All-American by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, Dwyer was offered a contract by MLS and entered the 2012 draft. He was selected by Sporting Kansas City, a team chock full of forwards, toward the end of the first round.

“It’s a bit crazy. You don’t know where you’re going to be and you have no control over what you’re going to,” Dwyer said of the draft. “That’s the biggest difference. It’s not what I’m used to. But other than that, I’ve embraced all of the different qualities over here.”

And that’s made all the difference to a newly minted playoff hero who likely will start for Sporting in the Dec. 7 MLS Cup final. Dwyer’s career had stalled back in England. He was released by Norwich and then broke his foot three times while bouncing from club to club. When a Scottish recruiter with U.S. connections offered an alternative path, Dwyer jumped at the chance to start over, albeit from a strange square one in junior college. He’s had to prove himself at each unfamiliar stage. He’s been told he wouldn’t make it and been forced to develop patience and perspective. And with each successful step, Dwyer’s adventure has become all the more American.

“I remember a lot of people saying to me that if I go to America, then my football – or soccer – career is done. ‘You’re never going to be a professional.’ That’s one thing that stuck in my head. I had that from quite a few people,” Dwyer told SI.com. “I kind of like pressure, in a weird way. I like to have people who doubt you or people who think you can’t do something. All that kind of stuff helps me.”

He spent his rookie MLS campaign rooted to the bench, playing just 14 minutes. Before the 2013 season, MLS and the United Soccer Leagues launched an affiliation agreement that paved the way for players like Dwyer to gain experience with third-tier minor league clubs. It was a uniquely American solution to a genuine American problem.

“There are so many kids who fall through the cracks,” Sporting coach Peter Vermes said. “When they do, those players who truly are good, truly have the right mentality, they want to persevere. Those guys keep finding a way to put themselves in position to be looked at again … Dom is one of those guys.”

Dwyer, 23, was naturally reticent when first told he’d been assigned to Orlando City. But he soon realized that playing in USL Pro was an opportunity, not a demotion. It was a chance to be a 90-minute contributor at a successful and ambitious club, to develop a professional routine and to participate in games that mattered.

“He basically said, straight up, ‘If you don’t go down to Orlando and blow it up and score goals and do well, what’s going to make me think that if I brought you back here you’d do that for me?’” Dwyer said of Vermes. “That’s totally true and it makes sense. I knew what I had to do and just went down with the right attitude.”

Dwyer blew it up. He scored 15 goals in 13 USL Pro matches, plus another three in the U.S. Open Cup, before being recalled by Vermes at the end of June. Dwyer then earned regular minutes as a substitute before starting SKC’s 2-1 win over the Colorado Rapids on Aug. 31.

A week later, he returned to Orlando to play in the USL Pro final. City had finished a point behind the Richmond Kickers in the regular season standings. In England, of course, there would have been no possibility of a championship. But Americans love their second chances, and Dwyer took full advantage. He scored four times in Orlando’s astonishing 7-4 defeat of the upstart Charlotte Eagles before more than 20,000 fans at the Citrus Bowl. He may not quite agree there's a need for a playoff, but he acknowledged, “It’s great pressure and entertainment.”

Dwyer flew back to K.C. with a bit more swagger. He was clutch. And he started Sporting’s final six regular season games.

“He’s had an experience that lends to him now being back with us and it’s a part of his adaptation, part of his understanding of that progression,” Vermes said. “When people talk about players who are winners, who have a winning mentality – the Michael Jordans of the world who are cut from their freshman basketball team and then become the best player of all time – you have to go through those things to have that motivation to be the best you can be. I’m not saying it’s the only path … but I think the difficulty of the path makes you who you are, and you constantly want to change someone’s opinion or you just want to shove it in their face.”

Like American soccer itself, Dwyer has been beset by doubters. He’ll retweet them now and then. “Even though I'm rooting for SKC I want to punch Dwyer in the face everytime I see him,” read one. “DWYER can’t buy a goal #gonecold,” said another.

“I enjoy hearing it. It motivates me,” he said. “I think the people who are scared to fail will end up failing.”

Dwyer’s moment came on Nov. 23 in the second leg of the Eastern Conference finals against Sporting’s nemesis, the Houston Dynamo. Full of energy and commitment and increasingly dangerous with the ball, Dwyer earned yet another start from Vermes. The score was level in the 63rd minute when the robust Englishman received a perfect pass from SKC’s Benny Feilhaber, avoided a tackle from a sliding Kofi Sarkodie with a subtle feint to the left and calmly slotted the ball home. Dwyer celebrated with a cartwheel and a handspring, and Sporting was through to the MLS Cup final.

"That was one of the classier goals you’ll see,” Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall told reporters. “His cut and finish made for one of the better goals I’ve seen this year.”

It was only Dwyer’s third goal in SKC blue, but it’s hard not to see it as a milestone. He’s now a bona fide MLS striker. He’s taken yet another definitive step on his journey, one that will continue in the Dec. 7 final and beyond. To borrow a metaphor from the national pastime, Dwyer is learning to hit the curve ball. He’s risen to the occasion at every level, and that’s a testament to his talent and resolve and a good sign for American soccer. The cracks aren’t as deep as they used to be. The country where Dwyer’s career was supposed to die wound up saving it.

“I wouldn’t say that one goal changes everything. Obviously it was a big goal and a big game. I see it as a small step to help me to where I want to get to,” he said. “I have higher aspirations for things I want to do, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I want to do what I can to help this team win.”

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