GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Sometimes, a risky move for a young player to a foreign, far-away land can lead to great things. Just ask Jonny Walker, the standout example of an American succeeding in South America.
Walker moved to Chile in 1997 from the Jacksonville Cyclones in the second division A-League and, after a difficult start, went on to play in the Copa Libertadores, win Chilean goalkeeper of the year in 2001, clinch the Apertura 2002 title and force his way into the national team picture.
Something along those lines would suit 23-year-old goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer just fine.
Maurer has decided to take the plunge, giving up the ease of life at his hometown club, the NASL's Atlanta Silverbacks, to pick up and move to Chile to fight it out for a starting spot with top flight club Universidad de Concepción.
After officially signing in late January, early signs have been positive for Maurer. In a preseason friendly tournament, he stole the show in a game against Colo Colo, helping his new team to victory by saving three penalties in a shootout.
Although Maurer is enjoying life in the city of Concepción — which he describes as “pretty modern,” with “tons to do” — he didn't know too much about Chilean soccer before making the move.
“I knew it was a good league and a league that it is very well respected around the world,” Maurer explained to MLSsoccer.com. “I tried to look up as much as I could on the Internet, but I didn't really know very much at all.”
The move came about when Georgia-based coach Poncho Ugarte, who played 22 years professionally in Chile, contacted Maurer to tell him one of his friends at Universidad de Concepción was looking for goalkeeper.
“I talked to them for a few weeks about it and it ended up working out well and got down here,” said Maurer in his heavy southern accent.
Before making the move, Maurer had MLS teams interested in having a look at him during their preseason camps, but there was no substantial offer.
“MLS is just really tough right now as a young goalkeeper,” said Maurer. “There are just so many good Americans and good goalkeepers. Talking to people about Chile, it just seemed like a really good opportunity to come down.”
Maurer is building on the basic Spanish he already knew from high school, but says in terms of goalkeeping phrases, he has already picked up the majority of them.
The Georgian, who was the fourth-overall pick in the 2011 MLS Supplemental Draft by the New York Red Bulls, has been impressed by the quality of play so far during his short spell in Latin America.
“The level here is very high," he said. "The guys are just so good. We've played a couple of games on some bad fields, where it is just bumpy and these guys are just taking the worst bounces and playing 20-yard, one-touch passes to the other guy.”
Even so, Maurer isn't completely convinced of the generalization that Latin American players are more skillful but not as athletic as their American counterparts, “because it's not like these guys aren't athletic or that guys in America aren't skillful,” he says.
One thing the young netminder is working on is his side-volley for better distribution because, he says, the game is more possession-based in Chile.
Maurer may initially face a struggle to become the Universidad de Concepción's first-choice 'keeper, but he's looking at his move as a long-term project and may have to be patient.
With his wife and young child due to fly south to join him within the next month, and his international pass now completed, Maurer's Chilean adventure is only just beginning. And he hopes that, like Walker, the gamble of moving south will pay off big.
Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America. He can be reached via email@example.com.