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Konopka right at home, in Ireland – Asbury Park Press
March 13, 2008

Konopka right at home, in Ireland

By Stephen Edelson
Asbury Park Press
March 13, 2008

Since stepping off a plane at Dublin Airport on Jan. 15 and signing a contract with storied Bohemian Football Club two weeks later, Chris Konopka has experienced a side of soccer he could barely have imagined growing up in Toms River.

There’s historic Dalymount Park in north Dublin, where the sport’s royalty, including Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Zinedine Zidane, have appeared. There’s the passion of the local fans, the intense rivalries within the Premier Division of Ireland’s Eircom League, and the opportunity to see some of Europe’s top teams.

But let’s face it. The burning question on the minds of visitors and American expatriates has remained pretty much the same over the years.

“The Guinness does taste better over here,” declared Konopka.

Now we’re getting somewhere. I personally recommend the tour of the Guinness brewery, but that’s just me.

The reality is that while Konopka is like any 22-year-old post-graduate venturing across the pond, this is indeed a business trip. An opportunity to make an impression in his bid to become the next U.S. goalkeeper to find a niche in Europe, following a path blazed by the likes of Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller and Tim Howard, while gaining invaluable international experience that will help him wherever his career takes him.

“I love it. I feel like a kid in a candy store right now,” he said. “Compared with last year when I played with Kansas City (in MLS), when I was a Jersey Shore kid out in the middle of the Midwest. Now I’m staying in a team apartment right on the Irish Sea. I feel right at home.”

Nothing was a given when he showed up on what amounted to a preseason tryout with the Bohs. But he showed enough that the club decided to keep him on, offering him a one-year deal, as the backup to Brian Murphy, a 25-year-old who ranks among Ireland’s top net minders. Now he has access to a level of teaching and training that’s virtually impossible to find in this country.

“Being in a very good, professional environment like that is very, very important,” said Providence College coach Chaka Daley, who watched Konopka blossom into an All-Big East performer for the Friars.

“The lifespan of a keeper is much longer than a field player. A guy can play into his late 30s, so he’s got time to find his niche and find a team to put his stamp on. This is a great start for him. They have a very busy schedule, so I can’t imagine he’s not going to get an opportunity to play, especially if he’s showing well.”

While Konopka stops short of decrying his MLS experience last summer … he failed to play a minute as Kevin Hartman’s backup in Kansas City … it clearly wasn’t everything he had hoped it would be. And while he learned a lot from the Hartman, a fixture in the MLS over the past decade, a little playing time would be nice now and then.

On Feb. 2, Konopka played all 90 minutes in the Bohs 1-0 preseason win over Monaghan United, an Irish first division team, and got some playing time in a 1-1 draw against Shelbourne. Prior to playing for Kansas City, Konopka, whose 6-4 frame makes him enticing, had tryouts with Cardiff City and Charlton Athletic in England.

Konopka received his international player clearance from the Football Association of Ireland on Wednesday, so he’ll be eligible to play in the club’s opening league match against St. Patrick’s Athletic on Friday.

But perhaps the most important assignment that lies ahead for Konopka is his ability to secure a Polish passport. With the stringent work rules in Europe, if you’re not a regular on the U.S. National team it’s very difficult to gain employment playing there. But if he can secure a passport from Poland, a member of European Union, he could work anywhere on the continent.

“We have worked for over a year on Chris obtaining Polish citizenship,” said Konopka’s father, Walt. “All four of his grandparents were born in Poland and came over. And there are laws about granting citizenship, which we began investigating a while ago.”

But for now, it’s all about soaking in everything and using the experience to advance his career, regardless of whether he remains in Europe or ends up back in the United States.

“I was just explaining to a friend who’s over here visiting me,” he said, “in Kansas City we played in Arrowhead Stadium, which is a 70,000-seat stadium with 10,000
to 15,000 people in it. Here, 12,000 is a packed house and the stands are right up
against the field. The atmosphere is incredible.”

And so is the Guinness.

Asbury Park Press
March 13, 2008