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Reverse Migration: Heath Pearce Goes Back to Europe

Something funny happened on the way to Orlando: Former MLS fullback Heath Pearce realized he wanted to play overseas and subsequently landed a deal to play for one of Sweden's top clubs.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
February 04, 2015
10:51 PM
IN AN ERA WHEN MANY United States national team players are returning from Europe to play in Major League Soccer, Heath Pearce has decided to go against the tide and take his game back to Europe where he has ambitious plans with IFK Goteborg.

Pearce, a natural left back, was one of the more promising young Americans abroad in 2008. He had found success in Europe—first with FC Nordsjaelland in Denmark and then with Hansa Rostock in Germanybut then a 2009 transfer to Turkish club Bursaspor fell apart at the last minute, leaving Pearce with little options.

While he enjoyed playing in Europe, Pearce, 30, took a chance with MLS and signed with FC Dallas. Over the next few years, he would also play for Chivas USA, the New York Red Bulls, and most recently the Montreal Impact. During his time in the U.S. top flight Pearce battled through various injuries—including a hip injury that affected him for more than a year.

Now healthy, the Modesto, California, native decided it was time to move back abroad.

“To be honest, the reason why I came to MLS was that I signed a deal in Turkey which fell through and MLS was the best option at the time,” Pearce told American Soccer Now from Goteborg preseason camp in Portugal. “I've always had an intention of eventually playing in MLS but at that point in my career it wasn't at the forefront of my mind. That was kind of just what happened next.

"But I had an incredible experience in MLS and I got to play on multiple teams—which was hard at times with being traded. But I had an incredible experience. It was an honor to be part of the league and see the quality of the league grow exponentially in the five years I was there.

"It’s cool to see.”

Pearce's decision to return to Europe followed a strange sequence of events beginning in December. Left unprotected by the Montreal Impact in December’s expansion draft, expansion club Orlando City SC selected Pearce with the 13th overall pick. Pearce believed that was going to be his next destination— but the developments after the draft proved unsettling.

“When I got picked up by Orlando in the expansion draft, I figured that is where I would be heading,” Pearce explained. “But I wasn’t offered anything until January 4th. Outside of getting an e-mail and a short phone call from an administrator, I didn’t hear from anybody in their staff. It kind of played out differently than I expected and it left a doubt in my mind as to whether I was part of their plans.”

Meanwhile a few offers were rolling in from abroad that proved to be far more appealing. These inquiries also reaffirmed Pearce's desire to return to Europe.

“It’s always been something I wanted to do but you kind of fall into a groove when you’re in MLS,” he said. “You feel the comforts of being near home. I’ve been away from home since I was 15 so being able to play where my family could watch and be in close contact with them was a great experience. But at the same time, I felt a little too comfortable at times.

"This was a chance for me to go outside of the bubble and see what I’ve got.”

The move to IFK Goteborg made the most sense in part because it offered Pearce the opportunity to start with a team in preseason as opposed to midseason—which is the case for most January window moves.

Goteborg is one of the most popular and powerful teams in Sweden. With 18 Allsvenskan titles it is tied with Malmo for the winningest team in Swedish soccer. In 2014, the club finished in second and qualified for the Europa League. In 2015, the team is expected to contend for the league title.

Pearce signed a five-month deal with Goteborg but there is an option to extend the deal in the summer.

“I felt that I left a lot on the table in Europe,” Pearce said. “I felt that I hadn’t pushed myself as hard and as long as I could. I felt this was the time, being healthy again, to really go and see what I’ve got. I look forward to the pressure of having to win in a city that demands winning every week. I look forward to the pressure from the media, fans, and to the depth of squads that force you to perform week-in, week-out—where if you don’t, you will lose your spot.

"That means the daily training will be intense and it’s focused. It’s that type of atmosphere is what I look forward to while I am here.”

Former Red Bulls coach Hans Backe, a Swede, helped facilitate the move. He spoke with Goteborg coach Jörgen Lennartsson and praised Pearce's attributes.

“It's a good signing," Backe told Expressen.se. "Pearce is good both offensively and defensively, very complete in his game. Jorgen contacted me and asked of Pearce and I said exactly what I think—he's a great player as long as he is injury-free.

"Now I have not seen Pearce in two years, but what I can guarantee is that [Goteborg] are getting a great guy. He has a fantastic character, a good mood, and he doesn't get angry if he gets benched. He'll play left back, for sure. He can play all along the defensive line, but is very left-footed and fits best out wide.”

There is also the issue of the United States national team, which has always been an important part of Pearce’s career. As a youngster he played for the U.S. U-17, U-18, and U-20 national teams. He made his full national team debut in 2005.

Since then he has played for the U.S. team 35 times but has not been called up since January 2012. Pearce knows that playing well at the club level is a crucial factor for national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, and he hopes that his performance with Goteborg can put him back in the picture.

“I’ve had an incredible opportunity to represent my country 35 times now,” Pearce said. “It’s an honor every time you get the opportunity. In all fairness, after the January camp a few years ago, I’ve never heard from anybody again—perhaps, rightfully so.

"I was battling some physical limitations. It kind of went into the back of my mind and I became a huge fan. I was a huge fan of the World Cup team and whenever the U.S. plays a game. I was happy with that. But just like with Europe, I felt that I have unfinished business with them and I wanted to push myself back into that picture. I felt that the only way to do that was to push myself beyond where I was at in these last few points in my career.

“Whether it’s realistic, that’s something we will find out over the next months and years—to see how far I can push my game and just how much I can get out of myself.”

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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