“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.”