Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
When Joe Gyau was called up to his first U.S. Men’s National Team camp in early November for the U.S. friendly against Russia, the opportunity was a dream come true for the 20-year-old American winger. It was the kind of moment Gyau had spent most of his young life waiting for.
Gyau almost missed out on that moment completely.
As is the case prior to every international game, the U.S. Soccer Federation reached out to the players head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff had identified for their preliminary roster for their final match of 2012. They sent an email to the players, requesting that they do the necessary paperwork by a certain deadline so as to be eligible for selection on the final roster.
Gyau nearly missed that deadline.
“The funny thing was I wasn’t even planning on checking my email,” Gyau told SBI earlier this week. “They had sent it maybe two days prior and I didn’t even check it and they said in the email, ‘You have to send your visa on Monday,’ and it was Sunday and, ’You have to do it right now or you won’t be able to get it in time’.
“(I’m) lucky that I checked my email in the first place.”
Gyau made the deadline, and joined the national team in Russia for his first senior team camp, and while he did not wind up appearing in the match, Gyau’s inclusion in the camp was still a special moment for him, and marked the latest accomplishment in what has been a milestone-filled year for the young speedster.
Gyau made his professional debut early in 2012, signed a contract extension with Bundesliga club Hoffenheim a couple months later and secured a loan late in the summer transfer window to pursue more playing time.
The first achievement came in February, with Gyau coming off the bench for Hoffenheim in a DFB Pokal clash with SpVgg Greuther Furth. The fleet-footed winger entered the game in the 79th minute tasked with trying to help the club overcome the late first-half goal they had conceded, but he and Hoffenheim were unable to erase the one-goal deficit en route to a 1-0 loss.
Still, Gyau looks back on that match with mostly fond memories. Mostly.
“Finally getting a taste of what real pro football was like, it was a great experience for me,” said Gyau. “I was really grateful that (manager Holger Stanislwaski) was there to give me my first chance to play. It was just unfortunate that he got fired right after that game.”
Gyau never saw the field under the new Hoffenheim head coach, but that still did not stop the Silver Springs, Md. native (who was actually born in Tampa Bay, Fla. while his father, Philip Gyau, spent a year of his professional soccer career playing for the Tampa Bay Rowdies) from signing a contract extension through 2015 with Hoffenheim in April. A few months later, he secured a loan to German second division side St Pauli.
The move to St Pauli did not transpire until the final few days of the transfer window in August, but it was a result of Gyau, not Hoffenheim, initiating the idea of a loan. The 5-foot-9 Gyau had been with Hoffenheim since 2011 but played mostly with the second team, so he wanted to find a club where he could better his development with more first-team minutes.
“It was actually me and my agent’s decision,” said Gyau, whose deal with St Pauli is until the end of the current season with a player option for another season. “We were like, ‘Yeah, we should probably go somewhere and get playing time. Go to a new place, new environment and then be able to come back.
“Then when I spoke to the coach about it, he also agreed and said it was good and when I come back they want to make me a bigger part of the team.”
Other teams were interested in acquiring Gyau, but his desire to stay in Germany, where he has learned the language and grown accustomed to the style of play and lifestyle, led to him to join the Hamburg-based club.
That likely helped Gyau in his transition and he made his St Pauli debut not even a month after joining the club in an eerily similar situation to that of his first appearance with Hoffenheim. St Pauli had surrendered a goal to VfR Aalen in a league game just before halftime, and Gyau was inserted at halftime so as to try and help the Buccaneers rebound.
Once again, Gyau and his club lost, 1-0, and once again, the manager was fired. Once again, Gyau had to start from scratch with a new manager.
“It’s always tough when you have a coach that likes you and then you see him leave so abruptly,” said Gyau before snapping his fingers while saying, “But then you’ve got to just turn that over real quick because the new coach comes, it could be a new opportunity.
“You’ve got to look at it in a positive way, so as soon as the new coach comes, just give him a good first impression so he knows who you are right off the bat. That’s how I look at it now.”
The dynamic attacker with good technical skills made enough of an impression on new manager Michael Frontzeck to lead the new manager to play Gyau in four of St Pauli’s past six games. Gyau’s speed suits St. Pauli’s 4-2-3-1 formation and high-pressing, counter-attacking tactics well, which should help Gyau continue to receive regular playing time.
Gyau’s continued progress on the club level has helped offset some extremely disappointing moments for him on the U.S. youth national team front. He was a member of the U.S. Under-20 national team that failed to qualify for the Under-20 World Cup in 2011, and he was a part of the Under-23 team that failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics.
The Olympic qualifying debacle was especially tough to take considering the circumstances, with the U.S. team just seconds away from reaching the qualifying semifinals, only to have a last-ditch El Salvador goal eliminate the Americans.
“Honestly, I didn’t really know how to feel,” Gyau said of his reaction after that match. “It didn’t feel like I was there at the moment. It was like, ‘What just happened?’ Then we got into the locker room and emotions were flying everywhere. It was just crazy.”
Almost a year earlier, Gyau felt similar pain. A highly-touted U.S. U-20 team made it to the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship, and a win against tournament hosts Guatemala was all the Americans needed to book their place in the Under-20 World Cup in Colombia that summer.
Those moments have undoubtedly been among the roughest in Gyau’s career, but he believes he has learned from them and they are also fueling his burning desire to be on the American roster that, hopefully, plays in Brazil in 2014.
“That definitely has made me more hungry because going forward for this World Cup, I really want to make it,” said Gyau. “I think that actually, even though it was a bad situation both times, I think it’s helped me in the long run.”
If things continue as they are right now, Gyau should have an opportunity to make a serious case for his inclusion in the World Cup roster some time in 2013. The U.S. has a jampacked schedule next year with both World Cup qualifiers and the Gold Cup set to take place, and Klinsmann has informed Gyau that he is among the pool of players he is keeping an eye on.
Klinsmann has, however, requested one thing from Gyau.
“Klinsmman was just telling me he wants me to become a starter for every game and really strive for that and take that responsibility because going forward he wants me to be a part of the team,” said Gyau.
Gyau did not dress for the Americans in their 2-2 draw with Russia on Nov. 14, but he still considered the brief camp a learning experience. One with a laid-back atmosphere that saw veterans welcome him and the other relatively new players with open arms.
The camp also allowed him to see several familiar faces, such as former U-23 teammates Juan Agudelo, Terrence Boyd and Mix Diskerud, and Hoffenheim colleagues Fabian Johnson and Danny Williams.
As familiar as Gyau is with those players, it was his experience learning the national team ropes from Jozy Altidore that stood out the most. Gyau and Altidore were roommates on the trip, and the young-but-experienced forward took Gyau under his wing during their stay in Russia.
“He was giving me more of an insight of the team and stuff like that,” said Gyau.
Gyau knows he will need to keep playing regularly at St. Pauli to earn more looks from the national team, especially during an important 2013 that will feature World Cup qualifying as well as the CONCACAF Gold Cup. If he can keep progressing on the club level, and if he can remember to check his email more regularly, there is a good chance we will be seeing Gyau on the field for the national team soon.