What a treat for me. Two interviews in two weeks with two young prospects in the Jupiler Pro League! This time around it was with young American talent Juan Pablo Torres. The 18 year old took time out after training to give me a call and talk about life, Lokeren, the US National team amongst other things.
Hey Juan Pablo. You’ve been in Belgium for basically a full regular season. What’s your opinion of Belgian football?
I think it’s a very high level. It’s a very physical game. You need to know what you need to do quickly when you get the ball because as soon as you receive it, you don’t get the time to think, so you have to play very, very fast and keep up with the physical side of the game. But I feel I’m still learning as the season’s going on. But yeah, I’d say it’s a very high level.
Did you know much about the Pro League?
I knew just a little bit about it. I knew the big teams like Gent, Genk and Club Brugge, but in my first season here I’ve learned a lot about it and all the players who play for different clubs and the history of all the clubs. So yeah, I’ve known a bit but I’ve definitely learned a lot now that I’m playing here.
I saw that you said you’ve played in Europe a lot with the US youth teams, but how did the move to Lokeren actually come about?
My agent told me about an opportunity at Sporting Lokeren and said that I can come and train with the team. So I came and started with the u19’s, trained there and then worked my way up to the first team. I was able to play well during the month I was at the club so that’s how the opportunity came about.
I saw you had trials at Sevilla and Schalke in the past. How was that experience?
That was really huge for me because when I was at Schalke, I was pretty young. About 14-15. That experience was pretty eye opening for me. You know, it was my first time seeing European football and I saw how competitive it was at an early age and how good the kids were. I knew that when I went back home, I had to work ten times harder than what the kids in the United States were working because what I was doing originally wasn’t good enough. At Schalke I saw that immediately so when I went home I made sure I was working harder so that when I went back to Europe, I knew what level I had to train at to try and get a contract. I’d be better prepared.
Were there many other clubs interested in you?
I knew there had been talks with other teams, but what I was really happy about with Lokeren is in the beginning, I’d be training with the first team and getting football right away. I felt that was really important and that it’d be a huge step for me in my career. So when the opportunity with Lokeren arrived I knew I wanted to take it. I liked the environment, I liked that when I was there I enjoyed my time. It felt like a good move for me and for my family as well so for me, Lokeren was an easy choice.
So early in your football career, Rúnar Kristinsson was sacked and Peter Maes came in. Did it show you how cut throat football can be?
Yeah definitely, definitely. It really showed me that this is a business and that you can’t get too comfortable. Whether that’s with the coach or when you’re selected you have to keep fighting for a spot because you never know what things will happen in the future. That definitely put things into perspective of how things can be and that I’ll always have to be sharp and ready for whatever happens.
Peter Maes is loved at the club, especially because of the cup wins. What’s he like to work under as a coach?
He is a very demanding coach. He tells the players what he wants and you have to do it. You have to work really hard with him and do your job. That’s one of the most important things and be part of a team. He obviously gave me my first start and I’m very grateful for that. You have to continue and keep pushing so that he can look at you and want to use you and want to put you in the team.
To put you in against Gent for your first start, was that a bit of a baptism of fire? How daunting was that for you?
To be honest I was pretty calm. I knew it was a big game and I knew how good a team Gent are and their history. I had a lot of respect for them but I just didn’t want to think about it too much and just play my game and focus on what I had to do to help the team as best as possible. My family was actually there when I had my first start so that really helped me a lot knowing they were there, that they were in the crowd watching. That really eased things for me. Of course I had butterflies. I was a bit nervous because it’s all new to you and I’d never experienced it before. I knew that with me working really hard that the day would come and that I had to take the chance.
Unfortunately for the club, relegation is a possibility. How’s the confidence within the team?
It’s an unfortunate situation that we find ourselves in. We have to move on and get ourselves prepared for the next game. The thing is everything’s in our hands and that’s really important. You never rely on other teams to do you a favour so that you’re secure in the league. It’s in our hands and I think that’ll bring calmness because we know what we have to do and we’ll prepare like always in every game. I think everything will be alright.
Your home form has been pretty poor all season. Why has the team been so good away?
I’m not sure. Its disappointing because at home you always want to be strong. You always want to play well, especially in front of your home fans. It’s a good question. It’s something we’ve noticed as a team, to get better at home. I think it’s important for a home game to be strong and that teams don’t want to come to your ground and to have that sense of pride when you’re playing at home. It’s something we need to work on and we’ll continue to.
I watched the Mechelen 0-2 Lokeren match and it was interesting because the team got the result in a professional manner. Clinical in attack and strong defensively. Is that what Peter Maes is trying to get across to the players in away matches?
We know there’ll be games where we’ll have to be solid. To be defensively tight between the lines and especially against teams who have the ball more. At the same time though, we have to also play when we have the ball and keep it. In training we do a lot of possession drills and keeping the ball, being able to play. So if we go into a game knowing we have to be strong defensively, it’s not necessarily that that’s all we’re thinking about. We still try to create attacking plays and still make chances.
Since you’ve been in Belgium, who has helped you settle the most?
All of us young guys in the team are all close. We’re always talking in the locker room. I always look up to the older guys that have played for a long time in their career because now that I’ve seen what they do day to day, I know how much of a grind it is, how difficult it is, so obviously when you see a guy who’s been playing for ten years or however long, you know they’ve been doing something right and that they know what they’re doing. I try to look to that and use that as someone to learn from.
There are a couple of Americans in the Pro League and Erik Palmer-Brown came over recently too. Have you reached out to them or vice versa?
With Erik and the national team, he was in the older age group so I don’t know him that personally. But when I saw that he’d come to Belgium it was obviously a good thing and I wish him nothing but the best. Maybe if we ran into each other, it’s always nice to see an American guy because he comes from where you come from, so that’s always nice to have. But I also have close friends in nearby countries, that play in Germany as well. We always keep in touch because even if it’s not the same league, we’re all going through the same thing. We always keep in touch.
Yeah because when I was looking this up, there was a lengthy list of Americans that especially play in Germany. There’s loads!
But back to this season. Individually, you haven’t had a lot of playing time. Is that because of the clubs circumstances right now or have you been told you’ll get more time in the Playoffs if you stay up?
I know that the start was good for me and there were great experiences being able to play. I take it every week, working hard in training and if the coach selects you, I know I’ll have to be ready. I know there are things I need to work on and to improve on. I always try to get better and maybe that’s the reason I’m not getting selected so I just have to stay calm, continue to work hard and just wait for the next opportunity that comes.
Is therea big difference in facilities between Lokeren and back in Georgia?
Yeah of course. Back in the United States I never played for a professional team in a professional environment. It was an academy near where I lived. We maybe trained three or four times a week and maybe in different soccer facilities around the city. Obviously that’s different to now where everyday we go to the club. Same pitch. When I was younger I had to get into going to the gym and eating right on my own because we didn’t necessarily have the people for that. Making sure I take care of myself on and off the field. What I’m eating, what I’m drinking, when I’m sleeping and all those other aspects that are important to the game.
How quickly is football growing in America amongst the other sports?
I think it’s growing at a rapid pace. When you think of the United States you think of the top sports. You think of American football, basketball and those kind of things. But football in America is something people are playing. You know when you see little kids the first sport they’re playing is football, which I think is great. Like you said, the league (MLS) has a lot of money and they’re looking to invest in big, nice stadiums, attracting big crowds and it’s working. A team like Atlanta United, the city where I’m from, the fans that they generate and the passion they have for the game, the football that they play, it’s all very, very good, so it’s growing at a really good pace and hopefully it’ll continue for years to come.
In your opinion, how long will it be before USA produces a Ballon d’Or winner? Mainly due to the population and facilities that the United States have and can build?
(After a brief chuckle by Juan Pablo) Yeah one day I think ‘why not?’ but there are so many aspects that go into that. For me, one of the biggest problems in the United States is the level of training. Speaking from my perspective, from where I was playing, it was too weak. Not sounding in an American way at all, the kind of trends that you had and the guys you were going up against. It wasn’t pushing you too much to the highest level you can be pushed. When I jumped over here you learn that very quickly, it’s a lot more competitive. The kids here in Europe see from such a young age that it’s competitive and see how good you have to be so they kind of have that advantage. They have that edge compared to say the young American kid that’s playing football. But yeah, an American winning the Ballon d’Or, why not. There are young American players right now who are very strong and you look at the likes of Christian Pulisic at Borussia Dortmund, Weston McKennie at Schalke. Now you have a lot of young American players who are making it in Europe.
Without going too far ahead, do you hope to maybe play in another country one day, or going back to America and playing in the MLS?
I sometimes think about that kind of stuff. For me it’s just to see where football takes you. Obviously you want to do well and progress your career. You want to take the next step. The harder step. But right now I want to do well at Lokeren in Belgium. As far as playing back home in the US, that’s always something I think about. It’d be nice to play in the country where you grew up, where all your family is…but for now it’s about focusing on Lokeren and focusing on doing the job here. If I keep thinking about the future without doing well in the present then all of this would be for nothing.
Which team did you support growing up?
Yeah I was a really big Barcelona fan. I shouldn’t say was, I still am. I enjoy watching them a lot. I grew up watching Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets and how they dominated teams with the way that they played. I’d watch a game and then I’d train and try and replicate what they were doing. You know obviously these guys are world class so it’s not easy. But yeah, Barcelona is definitely a team I supported a lot.
Without being blessed with too much height, do you look at players like N’golo Kante or SantiCazorla who play in possibly the hardest league in the world and see how they cope?
I try to always watch the best in the world and see what they’re doing. See how good they are and how they do certain things. I think the defensive midfield position is in a new era where a lot of them aren’t exactly ‘killers’ anymore but on the ball they’re very creative and the ones who can start the attack whilst they can do the dirty work, they have that asset. You look at Kante and see how he can pick up passes and how he reads the game. Can press forward and immediately being able to nick the ball. His like a mosquito always flying around. You want to swat him away but his always there. I always look at Sergio Busquets, who for me, he’s the best defensive midfielder in the world and you see his talent on the ball and he plays it simple and how quick he plays and always picks out the right pass. Also with a team like Barcelona where they commit so many players forward, when they lose the ball they’re susceptible to the counter attack, but so many times Busquets is there like a brick wall and stops it before it can gain momentum.
What is currently going on with the USMNT and not qualifying for the World Cup?
It’s definitely a huge setback. Like you’ve said, we’ve been taking steps forward and then there’s this major step back. As far as what happened it could be down to a lot of things, but I’m not going to get into all of that because that’s a huge controversy that people still talk about today. I don’t think there’s just one answer. There was that one game we needed to win and we didn’t. That’s the reality. Like anything in life you’re going to take steps forwards and take steps back and it’s how we respond to it. This may be a big step backward but we have to learn from it and who knows what will happen in the future? Maybe something clicks and we see even greater things to come from US soccer. That’s the hope. Now the young players may get that chance with iconic players like Michael Bradley and Tim Howard finishing with the national team and these younger players may fill their shoes and do better and raise our expectations.
Speaking to Chuba Akpom last week, he said a younger player is a hungrier player always wanting to do well. You think it’s getting that right blend with the USMNT?
Yeah definitely. Obviously you want that experience in your team because when things aren’t going well, you have that guy who’s been through times like this. He’ll know what to say and how to react to certain things to bring up the mood and help the attitude of the team. If you have a guy who’s been through thick and thin, that’s essential. As a young player you have that eagerness to play hard and that’s something I have as well. You’re eager to play, you want to show yourself. I think it’s good to also have that mature player.
Did you play many other sports in America other than football?
I did other sports. Up until 12, 13 or even 14 I did swimming in the summer because the football season would be finished for two months in June and July. Me, my brothers and sisters all did swimming and it helped with cardio and staying active in the summer. I enjoyed it a lot and I was competitive. I want to be the best I can be at whatever I do. I also played basketball for three or four years and that’s a sport I really like. I like watching it, the NBA and that kind of stuff and I really enjoyed playing it, but it conflicted with my football so I had to make a choice and obviously I was always going to pick football.
If the USMNT and Colombia both offered you your first international cap, which would you choose?
Ha, I get this question a lot. I always have to choose the United States. Obviously both my parents are Colombian and I always have Colombian pride because that’s where my parents grew up and made their lives. But I was born and grew up in America all my life. I have that pride in me. I’ve only ever just travelled to Colombia and not lived there so for me, it’ll always be America.
It’s not a bad choice to have though
Yeah it’s true. The Colombian national team is very strong. I do support them and they will be at the World Cup. Their national team is very very good.
To end…what do you miss most about America?
Just my family really. That’s the biggest things for me. We’re all very close and I would see them everyday. That was the biggest sacrifice I had to make. For me the family is the biggest thing I miss. I’ve been coping with it well and I can see them in the off season. But yeah, it has to be them.
After thanking him again, it showed how articulate and humble the young man was. A tough season on the pitch for the club, whereas off it, Juan Pablo Torres is soaking up every drop of experience that can aid him with hopefully a long career ahead!