St. Patrick's Day Special

Two Yanks Making a Go of It in Irish Premier League

Jake Keegan starred at Binghamton University. Morgan Langley played for the Harrisburg City Islanders in USL. But now both Americans are looking for success in a country that has embraced them.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
March 17, 2015
12:26 PM
THE PREMIER DIVISION in the League of Ireland is typically not thought of as a strong European league but there is no question that the league has taken to the American players who have featured for Irish clubs.

Last season, John Caulfield became the first American-born coach to qualify a club for European competition when he guided Cork City FC to a second-place finish and a spot in Europa League qualifiers.

This year, two Americans born and raised in the United States will be participating in the Premier Division—and both have received plenty of attention from supporters of their respective clubs.

When Jake Keegan, 23, graduated from Binghamton University after scoring 27 goals in his collegiate career, he knew he wanted to turn professional. He went on various trials in places ranging from Israel to Austria, and eventually landed at Galway FC in the second tier of the Irish soccer pyramid.

Founded in 1937, Galway United suffered due to financial mismanagement and folded in 2011. The league then rejected the club's appeals to play in the 2012 season. As a result, Galway FC was established in 2013 to take its place, starting off in the lower tiers of Ireland.

In Keegan’s first season with the club in 2014, he became a hero when he emerged as the team’s leading scorer with 15 goals in 30 league appearances, helping Galway earn promotion to the Premier Division and give the city relevance in the sport again. Now back in the Premier Division, the club has yielded to local support and has changed its name back to that traditional Galway United.

After playing a big role in promotion, Keegan is a popular figure among locals and “U-S-A!” chants are heard frequently around the 5,000-capacity Terryland Park.

“In Galway, I think it’s almost better to be American than to be Irish,” Keegan said. “The fans have definitely taken to me and maybe it’s because I am an American. They were very supportive right from the beginning. I really appreciate what they have done for me. They have really taken me into the club when they have so many local guys who maybe they would be more interested in following.

"But they have taken me in as one of their own.”

Galway United's primary goal this year is simply to survive in the Premier Division. Following two losses to start the year, Keegan and his teammates know it will be a difficult task. The rewards, however, could be huge.

Soccer in the League of Ireland has been in a transitional phase over the past decade as it has aimed to take a more professional approach (as opposed to the traditional part-time nature for the players and coaches that existed in the past decades).

As a result, some clubs have struggled financially in recent years and a few have folded. Due in part to its loyal fan base, Galway United has the potential to establish financial stability—providing it can avoid relegation and continue to thrive in the top flight.

“Every game in the Premier Division is a battle,” Keegan explained. “We’re a very young team and we have very few players who have experienced the top division. It will be interesting to see how we learn and get on going forward.

"From outside, most would say our goal would be to survive but we do have a belief that we can finish toward the middle of the table if we perform up to our standards. This year is very important for us to stay in the top league because that would really help the club push on with the investments and club support. If we can do that, I do think Galway can become one of Ireland’s top clubs.”

MORGAN LANGLEY, 25, became the second American in the Premier Division when he signed for St. Patrick’s Athletic earlier this month. The Hawaii native was previously with the Harrisburg City Islanders of the USL. After 66 appearances and 13 goals with the Pennsylvania club, he decided it was time to move on.

Islanders president Tiago Lopes helped Langley secure a move to St. Patrick’s Athletic, one of the strongest clubs in the Premier Division. It was the perfect opportunity for Langley who told Lopes he was willing to move “anywhere in the world” and then found himself with the chance to start a career in Europe. This year St. Patrick’s is expected to compete for the Premier Division title and will participate in Europa League qualifying.

In a rather interesting start to his career, St. Patrick’s Athletic made a cryptic announcement that it had signed a new player, and speculation grew that Premier League veteran and Irish international Damien Duff was heading home to Ireland.

Instead it was Langley. Despite not being an Irish star, he was still given a red carpet welcome and the announcement of his signing trended on Twitter in Dublin.

Langley noted that the supporters were eager to have an American and that it is not particularly common for players in the Premier Division to come from outside Ireland or the United Kingdom.

Keegan and Langley are the only players on their teams from outside that region.

“My experience so far has been really fantastic,” Langley said from Dublin. “The primary goal of the team is to make it into the group stages of the Europa League for now and to of course win the Premier Division and win the double with the FAI Cup. The team is really looking for success. I am very excited about the aspirations of the club.

"The opportunity to play in the Europa league and the idea that the club wants to play in the group stages is really exciting for a player from the United States. We watch the Europa League all the time.”

Langley, an attacking midfielder, is set to make his debut this Friday as St. Patrick’s takes on defending champions Dundalk. He was given the No. 8 jersey—a number last worn by Irish international Keith Fahey.

The League of Ireland has faced many challenges similar to what Major League Soccer has faced in the United States. Soccer competes with many other popular sports in Ireland including rugby, hurling, and Gaelic football. In addition, a large portion of soccer fans in Ireland support clubs in the superior English Premier League.

The League of Ireland has enjoyed some growth recently and teams now play on Friday night so as not to compete with the Premier League on television. In addition, more players from the League of Ireland have been earning callups from Irish national teams.

From his initial estimations, Langley believes that the standard of play at St. Patrick’s Athletic is a step up from the Islanders in the USL but below MLS.

Keegan agrees that the Premier Division is a high standard and he is eager to translate his lower-division success over to the top flight. He is also impressed and motivated by the fact that the league is scouted now more than ever before—a healthy sign.

“It’s not the Premier League but it’s definitely worth the look," Keegan said. "Over time, as more and more younger players go over to England, people will kind of want to go to the matches on Friday night to see who the next guy is who will make the jump. There are only so many leagues that can be at the level of the Premier League.

"It’s better to be a feeder league than be ignored.”

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

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