AN AMERICAN STRIKER IS ON FIRE IN EUROPE. He’s scoring goals, inspiring fans, generating big-money transfer rumors and even picking up some national team buzz.
But Jurgen Klinsmann and the US national team aren’t sniffing around, and he’s not following in the footsteps of Americans who have paved paths to European success in England, France or Germany.
Instead, thousands of miles from his hometown of Knoxville, Tennesee, Aaron Schoenfeld is blazing his own trail in Israel, where he’s traded a third-string striker role with Columbus Crew SC for a star turn with Hapoel Tel-Aviv, a sporting phenomenon that nobody in the cosmopolitan city of nearly four million saw coming.
Perhaps least of all Schoenfeld.
AT THE END OF THE 2015 MLS SEASON, Schoenfeld was in a good place.
He loved living in Columbus, where he had settled with Crew SC in his fourth MLS season after the club acquired his rights in 2012 from the Montreal Impact. He was making a steady paycheck, had teammates he loved and a coach he admired.
But he wasn’t playing. Not enough anyway.
Schoenfeld had shown flashes of talent in his 51 career MLS games, but had started just 14, scoring five goals. He had more opportunities than ever before in 2014, but found himself buried behind Golden Boot and MVP candidate Kei Kamara in 2015.
Despite the lack of minutes, he was still toying with the idea of staying as he went into an offseason without a new deal in place.
“At first, [leaving] was the last thing I wanted to do,” Schoenfeld says. “I wanted to stay in Columbus. I loved playing for Gregg; he’s an unbelievable coach. … But I kind of had to take a look in the mirror and say, ‘Look, if I come back to Columbus, I’m going to be a backup again. I can test the water and see what it’s like and get consistent minutes.’ It was the toughest decision I’ve ever made.”
Schoenfeld and his agent knew he could earn Israeli citizenship through the country’s Law of Return. Enacted in 1950, it allows Jews from outside Israel and their offspring to immigrate and immediately receive citizenship. For Schoenfeld, that was critical. The Israeli Premier League allows only five foreign players per team.
While he was on an offseason vacation in Key West, Florida, with his Crew SC teammates, Israeli club Kiryat Shmona extended a trial offer. He was prepared to go to Israel, but when he heard the club wanted to keep him there for four weeks, he lost interest.
“I was supposed to fly from [Key West], but they wouldn’t change my flight,” he says. “They wanted me to stay for a month. I said, ‘There’s no way I’m staying for a month.’”
Schoenfeld admits he wasn’t aware what life would be like in Israel, basing his expectations on scenes shown on CNN and news stories. Being close to the Syrian border concerned him. He wasn’t sure what his day-to-day life would be like.
Then Maccabi Netanya called. The club on the Mediterranean Sea offered him a two-week trial that seemed low risk, but he still didn’t want to kibosh his chances of returning to Crew SC.
“I was like, ‘You know what? Worst-case scenario it’s a two-week getaway on the beach and I come back to Columbus,’” he recalls.
Days after arriving, the 6-foot-4 striker scored a pair of goals in a friendly and quickly caught the eye of Maccabi Tel-Aviv and Hapoel Tel-Aviv, giants compared to relative minnows Netanya, who were relegated this season.
In January, he made his competitive debut with Netanya, who were in financial trouble and hoped Schoenfeld could offer both competitive and budgetary relief. By then, other Israeli teams were already clamoring for a chance to sign him, and both Tel-Aviv clubs offered Schoenfeld a contract after just two competitive games.
Being wanted was a welcome change, but Schoenfeld still had the choice between a bigger club in Maccabi or more playing time and a longer deal with Hapoel.
“Maccabi Tel-Aviv is a massive club, but I didn’t want to get lost again on a team that has a million-dollar forward and has spent massive money on five or six,” he explains. “I had to go where I was able to get consistent minutes, and it was the best decision I’ve made.”
AT HAPOEL, THINGS MOVED QUICKLY.
On Feb. 7, Schoenfeld made his debut, starting the Tel-Aviv Derby against Maccabi, the club that had missed out on his signature just days earlier. The stakes couldn’t have been higher – not that he truly grasped them.
“I didn’t really comprehend how big that first game was,” Schoenfeld says. “Everyone kept saying, ‘It’s a big game,’ but I didn’t truly understand what it meant to the fans and the hatred between the clubs. It was probably best that I didn’t really understand.”
By the time Schoenfeld took the field with his teammates, the atmosphere was almost overwhelming. He had heard stories about fans attacking former Hapoel players who had moved to Maccabi, but he didn’t understand the intensity until he experienced for himself.
“I got to warmups and my skin was crawling,” Schoenfeld remembers. “I had goose bumps up and down my body. I was like, ‘There’s no way this is real. This is crazy.’ It gives you so much energy on the field. I’ve never felt fear on the field before, but I know [the match] can be dangerous.”
Two minutes into the most intimidating setting of his life, Schoenfeld’s first touch, a sliding chip over the onrushing goalkeeper and into the back of the net, turned him into an instant sensation and a fan favorite.
“It was the best thing to ever happen to me to score that goal,” he says. “It immediately removed that pressure and took everything off of my shoulders. … The people loved me after that. It was my first touch of the game, my first touch with the team and it was against a rival. It was crazy after that.”
Schoenfeld scored eight goals in 12 appearances during his first season with Hapoel, helping the club stave off relegation.
“I just couldn’t have imagined getting relegated,” he says. “It would have killed me.”
ONE YEAR AGO, SCHOENFELD WAS A RESERVE STRIKER, happy to be along for the ride to MLS Cup but disappointed not to contribute more to the journey.
Now, the 26-year-old striker can walk to the beach from his apartment in five minutes. He loves Tel-Aviv, even if he’s lost his anonymity.
“At times, it’s awesome,” Schoenfeld says. “But as an American, I want to have a beer with dinner. … And I’ve had people scold me and say, ‘You shouldn’t do that.’ But it’s cool. At the supermarket everyone wants to say something. It’s constant.”
Back in Knoxville, his family and friends can’t imagine his life, and he admits he spends a lot of time explaining what living in Israel is really like in the face of misconceptions.
“A lot of people just don’t know what it’s like over there. I didn’t know either,” Schoenfeld says. “I knew [Tel-Aviv] was a big city. But I didn’t know what the quality of life was like or if I could get by without speaking the language.”
The answers to those questions? It’s pleasant, and he can.
Meanwhile, Maccabi haven’t taken no for an answer and are still trying to buy Schoenfeld for the upcoming season.
There is a $750,000 buyout clause in his contract, but Schoenfeld says the choice will ultimately be his to make. He likes Hapoel, and wants to see what he can do in a full season with the club.
Another successful spell could land him a spot on the Israeli national team. The federation has been in touch with Hapoel, and when Schoenfeld gains permanent citizenship – which he hopes will be sometime next year – there is a good chance he’ll get a call-up.
Thanks to the league’s UEFA membership, Schoenfeld has European aspirations as well. Hapoel has played in the UEFA Champions League and Europa League in the past, and hope their solid finish is an indication of what’s to come this season.
While he still misses Columbus and his family and friends, Schoenfeld says the move was the best decision of his life.
“It’s funny because [people here] can’t believe I would leave the US,” he says. “It’s their dream to play in MLS, but it’s just different here.”