MIAMI – Sitting in an Italian restaurant in Hamburg earlier this month, Fabrice “Fafa” Picault got a phone call four countries, five clubs and nearly 10 years in the making.
And he almost didn’t pick it up.
Picault, 25, burst into American soccer’s collective consciousness this week, when he was one of seven players not on the USA’s preliminary Copa America roster invited to participate in the team’s Miami training camp and friendly in Puerto Rico on Sunday.
Klinsmann phoned the well-traveled St. Pauli striker to invite him to the camp a few weeks ago, but Picault, not recognizing the number, almost let the call go to voicemail.
Needless to say, the Miami native is glad he picked up.
“I was in an Italian restaurant I always go to in Hamburg, and I didn’t recognize the number – I thought it was a telemarketer,” he told reporters on Wednesday prior to the USMNT’s training session at Barry University. “It was coach Jurgen, so yeah, I was thrilled. It was a few weeks back, maybe three weeks back, so I kept it quiet. But I kept pushing, tried to have another few good games to try to keep my spot, and I received the official call I think about a week ago, and that was really exciting.”
The news came as a bit of validation for Picault, whose long and winding career path has seen him play for five different clubs and spend a full year without a team in the last five years alone.
He found a measure of stability with German second-division side St. Pauli this season, scoring four goals in 16 league appearances to help the club to a fourth-place finish in the 2. Bundesliga. The speedy, 5-foot-8 forward played particularly well at the end of the year, appearing in nine of the club’s final 10 matches and scoring all of his goals in the campaign’s final two months.
That was enough to attract the attention of Klinsmann, who tweeted a message of congratulations to Picault after he scored both goals in St. Pauli’s 2-0 win against Bochum on April 16.
“This is a good chance for us, seeing Fafa,” Klinsmann told reporters on Tuesday. “Obviously he took the route to Europe and fought his way through and came up. Now he’s in St. Pauli with a coach that I know really well, and he told me already that this kid is a fighter, he wants to prove it, he wants to show it.”
Picault has certainly had to prove himself on more than a few occasions in his career.
Born in New York City to Haitian parents, Picault and his family moved to the Miami area when he was eight. He quickly found his way onto the top local youth teams, eventually landing at Miami Strike Force Cagliari, a joint venture between Serie A side Cagliari and youth club Miami Strike Force. His play there led to an offer to join Cagliari’s reserve team, which Picault accepted in 2007. He was 16.
Far from home and living on his own for the first time, Picault did well enough on the field in Sardinia, but he had to deal with some difficulties off of it. Though he told reporters his negative experiences at Cagliari had been “a bit exaggerated,” he did acknowledge on Wednesday that he dealt with several instances of racism in the reserve team.
By 2011, Picault, who had been called to a few US Under-20 national team camps, had had enough. He returned home, eventually landing with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the NASL for the 2012 season. Though he was back on familiar ground in Florida, Picault’s career didn’t exactly take off. He failed to score in 19 appearances in his one season in Tampa, and was released by the Rowdies following the 2012 campaign. He spent 2013 without a club, then returned to the NASL with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 2014.
He had a marvelous season with the Strikers, leading the team and finishing second in the league with 12 goals in 24 NASL matches. He helped Fort Lauderdale to an appearance in the Soccer Bowl title game and earned a spot on the NASL Best XI.
Picault even got some international attention, receiving a call-up from Haiti, for whom his grandfather played, for a September 2014 friendly against Chile. He had to miss the match due to injury, however, and said on Wednesday that he is now fully committed to the US setup.
His rise has greatly impressed the Strikers, who sent four staffers to USMNT training on Wednesday to chat with Picault.
“It’s crazy to think that a year-and-a-half ago he was here with us at the Strikers. Obviously to get a call for the men’s national team, I mean, I think he’s living his dream right now,” Fort Lauderdale midfielder Manny Gonzalez, the only remaining Striker who played with Picault in 2014, told MLSsoccer.com over the phone on Wednesday.
Picault parlayed his success in Fort Lauderdale into a move to Czech club Sparta Prague in January 2015, but missed his first few months with the team due to injury. By the time he came back, the club had fired the coach that signed Picault. He left in the summer, having made the gameday roster just once.
This time around, the worldly Picault – he speaks English, Creole, Italian, French, Spanish and is learning German – was able to extend his European adventure. He signed with St. Pauli in August and, after struggling a bit as a winger in the first half of the year, thrived at the end of the season when he was moved to his preferred forward position.
Picault’s solid play was rewarded in April, when St. Pauli picked up his contract option, keeping him with the club through the 2017-18 season. That’s two years of stability for a player who has not had much security in his young career, and Picault is planning on taking full advantage.
“I’m thrilled. It’s great to be back home and even better to be here with the national team,” he said. “It’s been a long journey so far, and a lot of work’s been put in, behind and in front of the stage. It’s just a great opportunity to be here, get to know the group and get my feet wet and make a good impression.”
“I’m just glad to start to see the fruits of my labor,” he continued. “I’m hoping for a lot more. It’s not a time to get complacent, I think it’s a time to push 10 times harder and pick up the pace even more.”