Aaron Schoenfeld lived one of the more unique international experiences of any American soccer player in recent years, spending four productive years in Israel that saw him wear the colors of bitter rivals Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Tel Aviv.
But the whole thing started pretty unassumingly.
“To be honest, I went there to try to get more money out of Columbus,” the big striker confessed to MLSsoccer.com in a recent phone conversation from his home in downtown Minneapolis.
In the winter of 2015-'16, Schoenfeld found himself in contract talks with Columbus Crew SC after four years at the club. They’d just reached the MLS Cup final but his minutes were scarce, stuck behind star frontman Kei Kamara on the depth chart. He wasn’t planning on an overseas adventure halfway around the world when he picked up the phone during an offseason vacation trip with his teammates.
“You look around the league, it’s pretty hard for young Americans, especially strikers, to play, with the DPs [Designated Players] in the league,” Schoenfeld recalled. “I was 25, 26, and just wanted an opportunity. I thought it’d be an easier opportunity to play there [in Israel].
“So I just got a random phone call one day, a guy offered to get me over there if I would go on a trial. I was in Key West with all the guys in Columbus at the time, and I literally flew out from there with a carry-on suitcase and never came home for four years, essentially – I mean, I came back in the offseason, but that was how it started.”
He earned a contract with cash-strapped basement dwellers Maccabi Netanya, who after just two games sold him on to Hapoel Tel Aviv, who’d outmaneuvered Maccabi Tel Aviv for Schoenfeld's services – and that’s when he made the best first impression imaginable in one of the most passionate matchups in that nation.
“I’d never experienced anything like that. I went there, like, not naive, but I didn’t understand how real the rivalries were,” he said. “I went to Hapoel, which is the rival of Maccabi [Tel Aviv] – which is, hatred – and first touch for Hapoel, second minute of the game, I scored in the derby.
“And that's kind of what ignited everything over there for me.”
That strike kicked off a torrid run of eight goals in 12 matches for Schoenfeld, quickly endearing him to supporters of Tel Aviv’s working-class club and quieting any doubts about the club’s purchase of the tall, unknown American.
“The stadiums aren’t as big as in MLS, [but] even if you have 15-20,000 people in a game, it still sounds like there’s 50,000. They're so rowdy,” he explained. “It’s hard when you try to tell Americans about it – these clubs have been around for over 100 years, and so it's true fans; it's in the blood. And the rivalries there are huge inside the cities. It's like the Super Bowl there if you’re playing derby games. It was a different experience, it was so much fun.”
A year later, he would cross town to join Maccabi, Israel’s oldest and most successful side, where he carved out a role for himself despite stiff competition up top. He got to experience – and score in – UEFA Europa League action, not to mention winning a domestic league title and two cup trophies.
“That was like my highlight over there, my favorite times there,” he said of Europa League. “I actually played on the wing in Europe, which was cool. I just kind of had moments; like I scored the winning goal for Maccabi when we won the championship. So I always seemed to get in at the right moment and have big goals in cup finals or cup semifinals. I was well-liked there, it was an awesome environment.”
The money was good, his apartment had a Mediterranean view, he counted as a domestic player thanks to his Jewish upbringing in Knoxville, Tennessee – one Israeli media profile of Schoenfeld alluded to a scramble to track down the childhood records of his bar mitzvah for those purposes – and at one point he was even on the radar of Israel's national team.
“I got there at a good moment in my life,” said Schoenfeld. “I was 25, 26, I was going over there by myself and was just, like, free. You know what I mean? I had no relationship ties when I went there and just got to – I guess you could say find yourself, but it really wasn’t that. Just to be on your own, no family around, no one you really love and care about, and it was cool. It gave me a sense that I could make it anywhere. I wasn’t dependent on anyone but myself.”
While some Americans in Schoenfeld’s shoes would settle in and complete the process of aliyah, the ancient tradition of homeward return from the diaspora, he says he always missed life in the United States. And those feelings grew stronger still when he struck up a long-distance relationship with one of American soccer’s most beloved stars: US women’s national team and North Carolina Courage defender Abby Dahlkemper.
Initially connecting through mutual friends, the couple picked up momentum in the leadup to the 2019 Women’s World Cup and Schoenfeld made two trips to France to cheer on the eventual back-to-back champs.
“I went to the game in Paris, vs. Chile. [Maccabi] were in training camp, we had a Champions League qualifier, and then our coach actually let me fly back for the final, so it was amazing,” he said.
With their respective clubs some 6,000 miles apart, a trip necessitating 14 hours of flight at an absolute minimum, that kind of quality time was not easily made.
“Obviously there's times when you want to see each other and it’s not easy to have to wait,” said Schoenfeld. “We saw each other every couple of months. There were maybe two and a half, three months when we’d go without seeing each other … There was even a time when I was in Israel when I had a weekend off and I flew into Raleigh for 36 hours to see her and then flew back; so it was like 40-something hours in flight.
“Eventually, it was time to come home.”
So when Minnesota United came calling as he entered the final months of his contract at Maccabi, Schoenfeld decided to give MLS another shot. And he admits to carrying a lingering desire to prove himself in a league where he’d only played 1,570 minutes across his first four professional seasons.
Unfortunately his excitement at joining an ambitious team on the rise and exploring a new metropolis – he says he’s particularly eager to dive into the Twin Cities’ lively food scene – has been interrupted by the screeching halt to life imposed by the COVID-19 outbreak. He points out that climate put MNUFC at a particular disadvantage during the shutdown.
“Because it's so cold all the time, it's just really hard to find space to train,” he noted. “I just feel like some markets have an advantage over other markets in this time, where guys are not allowed to use [training] facilities. It’s tough.”
When MLS action can restart once again, the 30-year-old Schoenfeld will be eager to reprise some of his standout performances in Israel and show that he can be more for the Loons than a late-game sub.
“I think I can do more than close,” he told the Star Tribune just before the MLS hiatus. “I think I have really good hold-up play, I’m good on set pieces, finishing. I can grind the game out. Right now, wait for an opportunity. We’ll see.”