Postcard from Europe: Renken closes on Olympic dream
DUISBURG, Germany — Charles Renken may have been born in Zambia, but his boyhood soccer fantasies were all American: He dreamed of playing for the US in the Olympics.
Now wrapping up the initial Under-23 camp, you can excuse the 17-year-old for pinching himself.
"When I was younger, a friend would say to tell him when I go to the Olympics so he can come," Renken told MLSsoccer.com this past weekend. "Now, I'm almost there. My dream is almost about to come true."
It's not been an easy road. Despite being the youngest of 37 players in camp, Renken has perhaps traveled the furthest to get to Duisburg.
He left Zambia at nine, adopted by an American family to join his older brother just across the river from St. Louis. Having made a rapid rise through US youth ranks, Renken signed with Bundesliga upstarts Hoffenheim at 16. Still not old enough to officially join the first team, much of his academy time was spent with the Vancouver Whitecaps.
The biggest bumps in the road were matching right ACL injuries, the first coming in 2008. The second occurred in his last appearance for the US, back in March 2009. Having scored in each of the first two games on a trip to Argentina, Renken was hurt during the getaway match against Uruguay.
The actual injury is now history. As for putting it out of mind, and thus his play, Renken says he's almost there.
"Every day I have to do things to keep stable, but I don't have any problems anymore," he reported. "I can play, but the thought is still in the back of my head that I got injured. It's step by step."
Most of life is, and Renken's has been about taking that next step toward his Olympic dream. The last nine days have reinforced that excitement, and he’s had trouble hiding it.
"There's a lot of good players here with a lot of qualities," said Renken, practically bouncing as he speaks. "Training is very competitive and intense. I'm just working to show the coaches I belong."
He's also quite pleased to be learning the USSF-mandated 4-3-3 system from fill-in coaches Claudio Reyna and Tab Ramos.
"It's a new era under [Jurgen] Klinsmann," said Renken. "They want us to play like the first team, so a lot of things are similar. In residency, we used to play that. So for me, it's not too different."
He can't be fussed to worry over a favored position, even if he's a central playmaker at Hoffenheim. He'll gladly play the two-way No. 8 role, if asked.
"Either one is good," Renken said. "I can play outside, left or right — wherever I can help the team. Just get me in the team and I'm happy."
Things are also looking up at Hoffenheim, where a source told MLSsoccer.com that Renken was currently "knocking on the door" of the second team. His contract expires in the summer, but he clearly doesn't appear too worried about it.
"If I don't [move up to the second team] next year, I'll have to find a new club," stated Renken. "But it's no problem. I think I can do it."
If he ever needs club or country encouragement, he can get both with first team regulars Fabian Johnson and Daniel Williams, both at Hoffenheim.
"I got to talk to Danny, he's a real nice guy," said Renken. “When I played with the first team [in training], I got to play with Fabian. Once in a while, I get to see them."
Further guidance is available at U-23 camp, with players like Stabæk's Mikkel Diskerud and Real Salt Lake's Luis Gil, already club first-team regulars. Renken insists he's been a keen observer in Duisburg.
"Just from watching how they move or passes they make, it's an example," he said. "Like Perry [Kitchen]; his work ethic shows he's a pro. It's the little things that make a big difference."
Nowadays, Renken is clearly enjoying things of all sizes. He's come a long way and he's very eager to travel the remainder to the London Olympics and beyond.
"Two years ago, things weren't going so well for me. But now, I'm back," Renken said. "I'm doing well and I'm happy. I think I've made some progress.”