Silver Spring’s Joe Gyau rising up European soccer ranks

Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST - Joe Gyau has signed a three-year contract with Bundesliga club Hoffenheim, and also is starting to attract the notice of the U.S. national soccer team.

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When Philip Gyau watches his son play soccer, he sees his own father.

“Joe plays like him,” Philip says with a warm smile. “He is built like him — strong and big, thick legs and calves. It’s his grandfather out there.”

(Katherine Frey/The Washington Post) - Joe Gyau with his father, Phillip, who played for Gwynn Park, Howard University the U.S. national team. Joe’s grandfather also played professionally.

Joseph-Claude Gyau, 20, has followed in the Silver Spring family business: playing pro soccer, though not in the United States. After 18 months in Germany’s proving grounds, Bundesliga club Hoffenheim rewarded him last spring with a three-year contract.

He is on loan this season to second-division St. Pauli, continuing an adventure that began in the parks of Montgomery County and, through Philip’s global travels as a player and coach for the U.S. beach soccer team, exposed him to a tapestry of cultures and styles.

“I try to carry the torch,” Joe Gyau (pronounced “jow”) said while home during a brief winter break. “I never doubt that I am going to do it.”

He is well on his way to surpassing his elders.

Philip, 46, starred at Gwynn Park High School and Howard University before toiling in indoor and lower-tier outdoor leagues. He made six appearances for the U.S. national team, culminating in a 1991 friendly against North Korea at RFK Stadium.

Philip’s father, Joseph “Nana” Gyau, 75, scored for Ghana in the 1964 Olympics and was a member of the foreign legion that landed on American shores in the late 1960s to kick-start the pro game. He played for the Washington Whips, Darts and Diplomats, as well as the Baltimore Bays. He earned a degree at the University of Maryland, operated banks and businesses and oversaw a local referees association.

Since 1999, Nana has lived in Ghana, where, through family lineage, he is a local king presiding over an area in the western region of the country. He also is the nation’s former minister of sport.

A father's guidance

Joe blends speed, strength and technical skills. Philip, on the other hand, was a swift and direct forward who breezed past defenders with confidence and grace. In 1990, playing for the Columbia-based Maryland Bays, he was voted the MVP of the American Professional Soccer League.

Growing up, Joe would obsessively watch a VHS tape of his father’s exploits. “It wasn’t just another highlight tape; it was my father,” he said. Together, father and son also studied tapes of the world’s greatest attackers.

Philip’s influence continues. When Joe was home for the holidays, Philip took him to Walter Johnson High School for track work and to Wootton High to run hills. Yes, a German-based professional earning a handsome salary was accepting instruction from his dad while on vacation.

“He has done everything for me,” Joe said of his father, who coached at St. John’s High School and Bullis for several years and, since 1997, has operated the Next Level Development instructional program for ages 6 to 14.

Philip also instructed Joe’s elite youth team, the Bethesda Roadrunners. And between ages 7 and 12, Joe accompanied him to Rio de Janeiro and watched the beach tournaments. Mesmerized by the technique, Philip enrolled Joe in a camp run by Zico, a Brazilian icon. On a trip to Monaco, Joe met French legend Eric Cantona.

“Because of Philip’s experiences, it allowed Joseph to see a side and a perspective of the game that very few [American players] get to see,” said Joe’s mother, Amina, a middle school teacher.

Philip incorporated those lessons into his own teachings back home. What he couldn’t replicate was the soccer culture.

“They live it,” he said. “They get up and play every day. They see their heroes. It’s like basketball here. Most Americans can shoot because they are exposed to basketball. In Brazil, everyone can kick a ball or get the ball up in the air and do things with it, even if they aren’t professionals. That’s what is missing here.”

‘Training, school, sleep’

Philip wanted his son to swim in such an environment. So as Joe’s skills evolved, his career direction took shape.

After his freshman year at Bullis, Joe was accepted into the U.S. under-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla. — the elite destination for dozens of players each year.

Many end up playing in college and signing early with MLS, which, despite its steady strides, still lacks a stable system to develop young players.

Like many of his peers, Joe Gyau turned pro as a teenager. But he set out on an inconspicuous course overseas that emphasizes development. With few exceptions, teenagers with European clubs are not promoted – and offered hefty contracts — until they’ve passed through a gantlet of academies, junior squads and reserve teams.

At 16, Gyau signed a low-scale contract with Hoffenheim. FIFA guidelines prevent players from joining foreign clubs until they are 18, so he moved to Vancouver for nine months of training with a German instructor.

In August 2010, a month before his 18th birthday, he arrived in Hoffenheim, a village of 3,500 near Heidelberg in southwest Germany. He didn’t speak German. The host of his guesthouse didn’t speak English. Internet service was sketchy.

“Training, [language] school, sleep. Training, school, sleep,” he said. “There were days I didn’t say anything because I couldn’t talk to anyone.”

He made strides in the language lab alongside Turkish and Bosnian immigrants. On the training grounds, he rose from the under-19 team to the reserve squad, which plays in the German fourth division.

At practice, “the emphasis is on basics,” he said. “We do so much passing, it has to be crisp and it’s under pressure. You learn it in America, but [at the youth level], you practice a few times a week and play on the weekend. Kids in Europe are doing it every day.”

Gyau began working with Hoffenheim’s first team last season and was named to the 18-man roster three times. Although he didn’t get into a match, he had proven himself: Hoffenheim inked him to a long-term pact (a base salary for a Bundesliga prospect typically starts at $500,000).

He wasn’t going to play regularly this season, however. For game experience, he was loaned to St. Pauli, a Hamburg-based club. He has appeared in seven of 19 matches and started once.

Meantime, Juergen Klinsmann, the U.S. national team’s German-born coach, has kept tabs on him. In November, Gyau received his first call-up, a non-appearance for a friendly at Russia. A good showing in the second half of St. Pauli’s season would gain him consideration for summer assignments, such as the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Joe isn’t the only Gyau offspring to thrive athletically. Mia is a defender for an elite boys’ club team, the Bethesda Lions, and was recently invited the U.S. under-17 girls’ team’s training camp.

During Nana’s most recent visit to Maryland, he watched Mia juggling and dribbling in the backyard.

As Philip recounted, Nana laughed and said: “She’s going to be good. It’s in the blood.”

 
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