HOBOKEN, N.J. – La Pantera Negra. The Black Panther.
Tattooed on his left forearm, Eloy Room personified his nickname in the Concacaf Gold Cup this summer. Room’s record-breaking, 15-save shutout against Honduras properly introduced the Curacao keeper to American fans, while a few of those saves would have left T’Challa shaking his head in disbelief, too.
It came at the most opportune time. Room’s contract with Dutch powerhouse PSV was set to expire this summer as he pondered his future. Betting on himself, Room opted to sort his next club only after the Gold Cup, not before.
Along the way, Room developed a new, valuable friendship with US men's national team and then-Columbus Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen. After a couple interactions on social media, the duo became fast friends. They traded questions, they traded stories, they traded laughs.
As fate would have it, Room became the successor to Steffen’s throne between the goalposts at MAPFRE Stadium. The 30-year-old officially signed with Columbus on July 5 and has since started five games.
“I spoke with him a couple months before the Gold Cup on Instagram,” Room told MLSsoccer.com in a wide-ranging interview last month. “We liked each other’s pictures, we talked about goalkeeping. He told me he wanted to go to Europe and I said hey maybe I want to go to MLS … It was a coincidence that it was Columbus and Zack. We didn’t plan it!”
But Room is much more than just his Gold Cup performance. A highly-rated goalkeeper across the Netherlands and Europe, Room wasn’t short on options.
After a career in the Eredivisie, he wanted a new challenge.
'I was a little bit done in Holland'
At 13, Room joined the academy of Dutch side Vitesse and didn’t leave the club until 2017, when after making 155 appearances for his boyhood club, he swapped comfort for the challenge ofDutch giants PSV Eindhoven.
“It was difficult to make that step," Room said. "It was after the last Gold Cup, after that PSV came. PSV is a top club in Holland, so when they came, I didn’t think much about it. It was still a hard decision because Vitesse is my team. Sometimes you must make tough decisions.”
It didn't go quite as planned.
Room was added as an expected replacement for Jeroen Zoet, a regular for the Dutch national team. With interest the likes of Benfica, Espanyol and others across Europe, if Zoet was going to leave wasn't the question, PSV assumed then conveyed to Room. It was when.
A move never materialized, though. Room instead had to settle as a backup and featured in just three league games. In fact, Zoet is still with PSV.
“I don’t regret it, it was a step in my career," Room said. "I wanted to see the top in Holland. I saw everything in Holland, I became champion with PSV and won the cup with Vitesse. I was a little bit done in Holland ... Yeah, of course I was a little frustrated because they make plans with you to come there and make big steps, but I learned a lot .I got mentally stronger and worked with some great coaches."
After two seasons as the club's No. 2, Room was ready to be a starter again. His contract would expire and teams began circling, all with the Gold Cup on the horizon.
“I knew in Holland I’d be first choice, but I was kind of done with Holland," Room said. "I played all my career there, I won everything. I wanted a new adventure. Before the Gold Cup, four to five clubs from Holland called my agent looking to talk. I told my agent I don’t want to talk, I want to focus on the Gold Cup, then after the Gold Cup we’ll see what happens. I was confident in myself. I got to play a good tournament was my feeling. I was focused on Curacao.”
'It was really crazy, so many saves'
Room was born and raised in the Netherlands, but his father was from Curacao. He featured at youth levels for the Dutch, but Curacao always kept tabs on the player. In 2015, after being courted by the Caribbean nation of his father's descent, Room accepted a call-up and made his debut for, a 1-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago. Room was named Man of the Match.
"My father was really proud when Curacao called. My mother also, but with my father it was really special," Room said. "We still have family in Curacao. It was big in the news."
Curacao had qualified for the Gold Cup in 2017, too, their first since becoming an independent nation from the Netherlands Antilles in 2010. Room was the starting 'keeper for that tournament, but Curacao left without a win or goal scored across three group games.
They were intent on doing much better this time around.
"What makes Eloy so special, apart from being a great goalkeeper, is the fact that he has always remained the same person, so everyone knows what you get from Eloy, and that offers a certain sense of support," Curacao head coach Remko Bicentini said. "I also find his absolute professionalism to be very special, always very focused on what he is doing, both in training and in competitions, with the absolute will to win. As a person outside the field, it's perfect to deal with him, he always makes time for everyone."
After an opening defeat against El Salvador to begin their 2019 tournament, Curacao faced an uphill battle to escape the group stage. A game against presumed group favorites Honduras loomed next. Behind Room's 15 saves, Curacao delivered a famous 1-0 win to keep their tournament alive.
“It was a strange moment, I didn’t realize it was a record until after the game," Room said. "I knew I had a lot of saves, but they were telling me about all the saves and everything, it was normal for me in that moment. But then after a couple of days, I watched the game back [and] I told myself I don’t think I’m going to play a game like this again! I had games before I had a lot of saves, but you lose 3-0. Now, all the saves and we also won. It was really crazy, so many saves, I never saw that before. It was perfect."
Curacao advanced to the knockout round after a thrilling, stoppage-time equalizer against Jamaica to earn a point and finish second in the group, setting a quarterfinal against the United States.
"Opponents don’t really know us, but we have a really good club," Room said. "And we have a lot of players who can still play for Curacao [who haven't been capped yet]. We wanted to show at the Gold Cup to show the world we have big qualities.”
Throughout the tournament, particularly after the Honduras spectacle, a litany of clubs contacted Room's agent about his future. One of those were the Crew, and Room drifted closer and closer to making a decision.
“After the game against USA, I told Zack that I think I’m going to go for Columbus,” Room recounted with a smile. “He was really happy for me, he said the club suits me and the city also.”
Eloy Room with Crew head coach Caleb Porter | Columbus Crew SC
“The Crew were the first club who came directly to me. Other teams were asking information about me, but Columbus were directly calling me," Room said. "They really wanted me, they showed it. I’m a loyal guy. If a club comes first and impresses me, then it’s an easy choice.”
Despite clubs from the Netherlands, Turkey, Italy and elsewhere in Europe being interested, as well as at least another MLS club, Room knew what decision to make.
"The move is great for Eloy," Bicentini said. "I know that he wanted to continue his career in MLS, and that this has now come true after playing the Gold Cup, where he had a fantastic tournament.I am very happy for that. The choice for Columbus is also good, it's a nice club."
It's a club that also has exciting days ahead, with new ownership targeting a summer 2021 open to a new stadium in the city's Arena District. And for the foreseeable future, worries about how to replace Steffen appear for naught with La Pantera Negra between the goalposts.
“I think (my best days are ahead of me), I hope so! As a goalkeeper, around 31 or 32 you’re at your peak," Room said with a smile. "I have some years left, I’m fit, I haven’t had any injuries. If it’s a nice year, maybe I stay here all my career. You never know.”