CHESTER, Pennsylvania – Back home in Colorado, as he spent his days refereeing the game he loved instead of playing it, Ken Tribbett couldn’t help but wonder if his professional soccer career would end before it even began.
Despite an impressive four-year career at Drexel, Tribbett didn’t draw much interest – he wasn’t drafted by an MLS club, and a contract wasn’t forthcoming after trials with USL clubs – coming out of college in 2014. And so, aside from a stint with the amateur Michigan Bucks, who he helped lead to the 2014 PDL championship, Tribbett spent the better part of a year living with his parents, reffing and, well, hoping something would turn up.
“I always knew I was good enough,” Tribbett told MLSsoccer.com this week. “It was more, ‘OK, who’s gonna give me a chance? Who can I talk to? Who’s gonna bring me in and finally give me an opportunity?’ Because I knew once I got an opportunity, I’d be fine.”
Two years later, he’s more than just fine.
Despite the Harrisburg City Islanders passing on him the year before, Tribbett returned for another tryout in 2015 – and not only made the team but played well enough to be one of three finalists for the USL Rookie of the Year award. That caught the attention of the Philadelphia Union, who invited him to train with them at the end of the 2015 MLS season and for the 2016 preseason (after first locking him up to a deal with their new USL affiliate, Bethlehem Steel FC), before signing him to a first-team contract on Feb. 23.
“That was about 20 years of my life,” Tribbett said, “just waiting for that moment.”
Even more impressive, Philadelphia head coach Jim Curtin called Tribbett the team’s “top center back” throughout preseason camp and appears poised to start him when the Union open the 2016 season Sunday vs. FC Dallas (3 pm ET, MLS LIVE).
“That’s a meteoric rise right there,” said Doug Hess, Tribbett’s coach at Drexel.
Hess should know after getting a firsthand look at how lightly Tribbett was recruited coming out of high school. He still vividly recalls a phone conversation with his friend Erik Bushey, the technical director of the Colorado Rush Soccer Club, where Tribbett played alongside several other players who were generating most of the attention.
“Erik’s exact words were, ‘You college guys are idiots,’” said Hess, who got a tip about Tribbett shortly after getting hired by Drexel in early 2010. “I said, ‘Woah, why’s that?’ And he goes, ‘Well, because no one calls about Ken Tribbett.’”
No one except for Hess, who brought Tribbett out to Philadelphia for a visit following Bushey’s “glowing recommendation” and then offered him a spot in his first recruiting class, dismissing some of the things he believed scared away other coaches.
“The thing that always hindered him, probably, is people looked at him and were like, ‘Oh, he’s totally unathletic,’” Hess said. “Kenny came into Drexel and he couldn’t do a pull-up. But he worked every single day. There’s no secret to success. He made himself a better athlete. People say, ‘Oh, you had a massive part of his development.’ I’m always like, ‘No, he made himself.’”
Tribbett didn’t start his first college game, coming in at halftime instead. Hess doesn’t believe he ever took him off the field again, riding the Colorado native to conference titles and NCAA tournament berths in 2012 and 2013. A midfielder in college, Tribbett finished his career with 15 goals, eight of which were game-winners, and seven assists. He was perhaps best at using his head, both off the field (he graduated early and was named an NSCAA Academic All-American) and of course on it.
“One unique thing about Kenny is his ability in the air,” said Hess, who coached at Campbell University for eight years before coming to Drexel. “I’ve never coached a kid better in the air than him.”
Because of that skill set, Tribbett felt confident he could make it in the professional ranks, first realizing that was a possibility as a freshman when he was able to play right away at the Division I level. But there were times when it seemed like he was the only one who felt that way.
“I knew I wanted to go pro but I wasn’t really given a lot of options, similar to my college career,” Tribbett said. “I had one choice in college and that was Drexel. And going pro, I had no options.”
Hess was able to help arrange a few open tryouts, with the City Islanders and Arizona United SC in the USL and Chivas USA in MLS. But no team picked him up in 2014. Tribbett was naturally discouraged but impressed his college coach by returning to both Arizona United and the City Islanders for tryouts the following year, the latter of which allowed him to begin his swift rise to MLS.
“I just think not many kids at 21, 22 that have already been told no by both organizations would be willing to go back and give it another go,” Hess said. “I think a lot of other guys, if they encountered what Kenny encountered, they would have quit.”
For Tribbett, coming back to the Philly area was always something he envisioned even though he was born in California and grew up in Colorado. And playing for the Union, whose expansion season coincided with his freshman campaign at Drexel, was “a dream come true” for Tribbett, who got to know many of the Philadelphia players while at Harrisburg, then a Union affiliate.
He also crossed paths with some of the current Union players while still in college, splitting the series with La Salle alum John McCarthy and accidentally clearing a ball off C.J. Sapong’s backside and into the net when Drexel faced James Madison in 2010 – something he likes to joke about with the Union striker. He even played at Talen Energy Stadium in the 2013 US Open Cup while spending the summer with the PDL’s Ocean City Nor’easters, who gave the Union a serious scare in a 2-1 loss to the MLS side that went down to the final minute.
“I always knew that Philly was the team I really wanted to be with,” Tribbett said. “They believed in me. This is basically my second home.”
Curtin is similar to Tribbett in a lot of ways, having also played for a Philly school (Villanova) and getting overlooked, at times, because he was deemed too unathletic. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the Union coach and ex-MLS center back took an immediate liking to Tribbett when he saw him play a couple of years ago when a few Drexel players were invited to train at YSC Sports (back when Curtin was an assistant). Curtin continued to monitor him after Tribbett hooked on with Harrisburg last year and certainly paid attention when City Islanders head coach Bill Becher insisted, “You’ve gotta give this kid a look.”
But it wasn’t until this preseason, after the Union locked him up with a Bethlehem Steel contract because other MLS teams were interested in bringing him into camp, that Curtin realized just how good he could be as Tribbett impressed the Philly coaches with both his aerial ability and a calmness on the ball honed from years spent in the midfield.
“He’s far exceeded everyone’s expectations, the coaching staff included,” Curtin said. “He’s gone up against [Fabian] Espindola, Giovinco – a lot of the best forwards in the league – and he’s done well. Passing, composed, making smart decisions – I can’t say enough about where he’s at right now.”
Curtin, of course, realizes that preseason games are much different than the regular season when there’s a “whole ’nother level” that can be daunting for rookies. But if his unique journey to MLS is any indication, Tribbett should be up for the challenge.
“For some guys, it’s easy,” he said. “For some guys, you’ve just gotta keep on trucking. That’s what I’ve done.”
And that’s what he’ll continue to do, perhaps surprising some more skeptics along the way.
“He doesn’t grab your eye immediately,” Hess said. “But once you’ve seen him for a while, you’re like, ‘I can’t play without him.’”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com.