Last winter, two Frenchmen in the prime of their careers left Ligue 1 for Major League Soccer.
Opportunity sometimes comes with sacrifice. For an American adventure, Vincent Nogueira and Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi left the clubs that had helped local boys not just make the cut but excel in the top flight. After a combined 293 matches in Ligue 1, they left the clubs that reared them, almost extensions of their beings, for the unknown: Philadelphia and San Jose.
Nogueira, 26, was well-established at Football Club Sochaux-Montbéliard. Born in Besançon, a one-hour drive from Sochaux’s Stade Auguste-Bonal home, he'd joined their youth setup as a teenager. By the time he left for MLS, he had become a string-puller that opponents watched out for for the better part of five seasons.
Pierazzi was 28 when he left his beloved island of Corsica, in the Mediterranean Sea. He played his soccer in the island’s main city of Ajaccio – well-known as the birthplace of French emperor Napoléon Bonaparte and not-so-well-known as the birthplace of French pop singer Alizée. An AC Ajaccio man through and through, Pierazzi became club captain during the 2011-2012 season, some 15 years after joining l’ACA.
Both Sochaux and Ajaccio were relegated to Ligue 2 months after these two joined MLS. The damage had already been done: they won three league games between them in their last half-season with Nogueira and Pierazzi.
The duo were just the latest Frenchmen to follow in the footsteps of Youri Djorkaeff, a 1998 world champion and MetroStars stalwart in 2005 and 2006, the first Enfant de la patrie to make the jump.
Some, like Djorkaeff, went out and about before joining MLS – think Thierry Henry, Aurélien Collin or Peter Luccin. Others, like Sébastien Le Toux and Hassoun Camara, had grown up with French soccer, and nothing else.
Nogueira and Pierazzi had known only one club, and now they were starting over.
Nogueira could be Canadian: “I’m really, really sorry!”
Sadly for supporters of Les Rouges, he’s not. He’s just politely explaining that his computer has been picking up my Facetime calls instead of his phone, thus delaying our rendezvous. It’s worth the wait: Nogueira has just spent a couple of days in the French Alps. He’s articulate, funny, honest.
“I know Vincent as an opponent. There’s a great respect between us. Every time my team would play Sochaux, he was the player we had to pay attention to. He’s very talented. It’s always a pleasure to play against him. I just hope he won’t hurt us too much in 2015, because he’s a really good player.” – Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi
Pierazzi, meanwhile, is having a blast on his Southern California vacation. It’ll still be weeks before he returns to Corsica – “one of the most beautiful islands in the world,” he calls it – but you wouldn’t notice: he can’t help but chuckle time and again as, presumably, he speaks to a French-speaking reporter for the first time in a while.
They deserve the time off. Neither took a real break between France and a life-changing move to the US.
The pair went straight into training camp, preparing for some 10 months of soccer with a half-season in their legs already. Pierazzi soon injured his foot and played through the pain until April. Nogueira felt his body – his adductor muscles in particular – urging him to let go around the summer, when the European season ends.
They played for 18 months, uninterrupted. But there was no way fatigue would lead to homesickness.
“I wanted to play my whole career with the club that trained me,” Pierazzi says. “My wildest dream was to lead it to a European competition. But then, [coming to the States] was a lifestyle choice. I was able to achieve dreams thanks to my job. I thought I couldn’t miss this opportunity. You only live once.”
“It’s about discovery,” Nogueira adds. “It’s an attractive country, like few countries in the world. It’s an immense country where you can live amazing things.”
But first, there was the soccer to get to. The MLS style of play didn’t unsettle either of them much, but Nogueira, a deep-lying midfielder by trade, did need to compromise somewhat. With the likes of Amobi Okugo,
In his time at Sochaux, Nogueira points out, he played in “every possible midfield position.” So he got on with it, though he would welcome an opportunity to play regularly as a No. 6 with open arms.
“I met [Pierazzi] once or twice when he was playing at Ajaccio. I actually played at Ajaccio shortly after he left, a week before I signed for Philadelphia. Ajaccio is the club that trained him, he was the captain, and there was a huge banner for him. I was really moved by that. He’s Corsican, and Corsicans are really fond of their island, of their town. It was even more difficult for him to leave Ajaccio and Corsica. I’m surprised that he’s not starting every game for San Jose.” – Vincent Nogueira
“The boss is the coach,” Nogueira says. “He puts me where he wants, and there’s nothing I can say. He played me a bit higher on the field. It’s his choice. He did it because he thought it was the best solution for the team.”
A withdrawn role in midfield is also where Pierazzi flourishes. A priority of former Quakes coach Mark Watson’s in the offseason, Pierazzi shouldered major responsibilities in midfield, especially defensively. He happily recalls a number of ball recoveries that directly led to goals. He also scored a ridiculous goal from distance, at FC Dallas (“I don’t know that I’ll ever score another like that someday,” he admits).
But Pierazzi, like Nogueira, sees his success through his teammates. And alas, both their teams missed the playoffs. Pierazzi’s San Jose Earthquakes last won in early August. They finished dead last in the Western Conference, behind the rebuilding Colorado Rapids and a team that doesn’t even exist anymore. At least, the Earthquakes will carry on, and they’ll even have a new stadium to boot.
Nogueira’s Philadelphia Union nearly reached the playoffs, and that makes it even crueler. They finished sixth in the Eastern Conference and reached the U.S. Open Cup final. “These are the two spots that are useless,” Nogueira laughs. “They’re not bad, but they’re useless. As a competitor, that’s tough to swallow.”
The poor results led to the inevitable: coaching changes. Nogueira saw John Hackworth get the sack in June. With Jim Curtin in charge, Philadelphia did improve on the first half of their season, but not enough to turn the tide entirely.
“This is a failure, and everyone’s concerned, everyone’s guilty, starting with me,” Nogueira says. “It’s a shame that there was so much change for, in the end, objectives that weren't attained.”
San Jose relieved Mark Watson of his duties two games before the end of season, throwing a roadblock Pierazzi’s way. Interim coach Ian Russell left him off his team sheet for the first game and didn’t call him off the bench in the second. No hard feelings, Pierazzi insists. Their relationship is intact.
“Ian made his choices,” he says. “It was two games in a new coaching career. He made the choices he felt were right. I’m not going to question them. I wasn’t injured or anything.”
Pierazzi has only had a quick chat with the Earthquakes’ new man in charge, Dominic Kinnear. He’s still unaware of Kinnear’s plans, but one thing is for sure: he’s under contract for 2015. So is Nogueira in Philadelphia.
Both knew they wanted to live this American adventure at some point. Both had no idea when it would start. Both have no idea when it’s going to end.
“I don’t know how long I’ll stay there at all,” Nogueira says. “I don’t even want to think about it. That’s why I ended up in MLS; if my reasoning were any different, I wouldn’t be in MLS. I wanted to go there to change, to discover something new.”
“I hope to stay as long as possible and fulfill this dream, to win the championship,” Pierazzi adds. “It’d be magnificient. Maybe I could become the first Corsican to win a championship in a US team sport. It’d be a magical moment.”