TUCSON, Ariz. – The name tells you all you need to know: Jonny Steele.
A tenacious left-sided midfielder with an engine that won’t quit, the Northern Irishman is a grizzled journeyman at age 26 who has spent time at nearly every level of the American soccer pyramid – including indoor.
He’s covered in tattoos, with sleeves up each arm and his chest and back adorned in ink. His sense of humor is dry and witty, and his personality is understated.
“He’s a great guy, too,” Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis told MLSsoccer.com. “The name says a lot.”
And for the first time in a long career that has spanned from Rochester, N.Y., to Puerto Rico to Vancouver and seemingly all stops in between, Steele has made a first-division roster on this side of the pond. After impressing this preseason, RSL signed the onetime Wolverhampton Wanderers player to a four-year contract late last month.
“I’m pretty excited,” Steele told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday after putting in a solid shift in RSL’s loss to New England in the Desert Diamond Cup. “The guys are awesome, the coaching staff’s awesome and I think can only help me get better.”
Steele has won over the Salt Lake locker room with his work ethic and his personality. And his intense but easygoing nature has endeared him instantly. Fellow midfielder Ned Grabavoy often teases Steele, trying to get him to recite the Lucky Charms slogan (you know the one) in his Irish brogue. Steele doesn’t take the bait, but he does take it all in good fun.
“They’re great guys,” Steele said. “It’s clear that they’re a family and they’ve welcomed me. Even the coaching staff are good lads.”
An MLS contract had become a pipe dream for Steele after so many attempts. He first trialed for Dallas eight years ago. When that didn’t pan out, he spent time all over the old A-League and the USL, even briefly returning to the Irish isle. Stops in the USL and NASL came soon after, and Steele even won the league’s MVP award while with the Puerto Rico Islanders in 2008.
His star performance that year earned him an invite to RSL camp before the 2009 season and he was offered a contract by Kreis & Co. But Steele turned it down, opting for a higher-paying offer from the USSF D2 version of the Whitecaps instead. He’s regretted it ever since.
“It was stupid,” he recalled. “I was young. Sometimes you make bad decisions.”
The next two years saw him split time with Vancouver, FC Tampa Bay, a loan stint with the Carolina RailHawks and even a return to the indoor league. All told, Steele has suited up for a dozen teams in North America.
Those experiences made him believe he’d never get a shot at the big time again. Until this winter, when RSL, desperate for depth, came calling again.
“I thought maybe coming into camp here looking for a contract might have been my last shot,” he admitted, “and then I’d probably go back to Europe or go back home and play in the Irish league.”
But Steele has done well in camp, mostly deputizing at Will Johnson’s left midfield position. He’s impressed the coaching staff with his deft left foot, his tenacious work ethic and the ease with which he’s fit into the RSL locker room. Two years after turning the club down, he’s not about to squander another opportunity.
“I got a second chance,” he grinned. “You don’t get those very often.”