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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Will Johnson joined Real Salt Lake last week after spending time playing in Europe while getting experience against top-level international competition.

LEHI — Around Utah, it is not that uncommon for a young man to leave home, go overseas for a couple of years and return home as an older, wiser, more experienced version of himself.

No, that is not talking about the LDS mission program, but rather, what has been happening with Real Salt Lake.

With the addition of its newest member — 21-year-old striker Will Johnson, who signed with the team last week — RSL now has five members of its team that spent time in Europe playing either this season or last. Nat Borchers, Ian Joy, Robbie Russell, Clint Mathis and Johnson all were recently plying their trade for euros rather than dollars.

"I think that any player that can go over into that type of pressure-packed environment and perform is only going to get better," said Real head coach Jason Kreis. "It just means so much more over there. When you have to step out on the field and play well not only so you can earn a spot in the starting 11, but so that you don't get hit with rocks during the week, you learn to step up your performance."

The allure of going to a continent that is passionate about its soccer is obvious. The game has been king for generations, and the world's best players are spread throughout the different European leagues.

"As a little kid you always dream about going over to play with the best in the world," Russell said. "MLS has been playing what, 13 years now? The game is just in its more-advanced stages there and that is where everyone thinks of when you talk about playing pro soccer."

It isn't always a player's first choice, however, to leave home to play abroad.

"If I wanted to keep going with my soccer career, that is where I had to go," Johnson said. "My contract was up with Chicago, and they basically gave me an offer that was a joke and made it impossible for any other team to sign me.

"I decided I was just going to go over there and go to trial after trial until someone picked me up, and after my first trial with Heerenveen (Netherlands), they picked me up and I went from there."

The competition for spots is intense when playing the No. 1 sport in a country. Children growing up overseas don't usually dream about the NBA or NFL. They think about becoming the next Christiano Ronaldo or Mikael Ballack. But players from America that spend time in a foreign country learn more than just soccer.

"I think one of the best aspects of it was just getting to know the people and the culture," said Borchers, who speaks fluent Norwegian because of his time spent playing for Odd Grenland in Norway's pro league. "It was an eye-opener to get away from America and get out and experience a different country."

"I learned a lot about life," added Russell. "It was a good time for me to learn more about myself and what I really want to do."

So after spending some time improving one's game — Russell spent the most time, eight years, between Iceland, Norway and Denmark while Mathis was only in Greece a few months — why return to the United States and Major League Soccer? It depends on what stage of a career or in life a player finds himself.

"I wanted to come back and be closer to home and my family. It was nearly impossible for my family to watch me play on television," Borchers said. "And to have them try to read about it on the Internet was frustrating because it was in a different language."

"I think it was just time for me to settle down a little and maybe start thinking about starting a family," Russell said. "I mean, my time over there was great, but this (U.S.) is still home for me. I think it is just part of my growing process as a person."

For Johnson, he never truly wanted to leave and is grateful to be home.

"I was looking at coming back, and the teams that were interested in me were perfect," he added. "It was a great opportunity for me to get back to where I am familiar. I have only been in town here (Salt Lake) a couple of days, but from what I can tell, this is going to be a great situation."

Whatever the personal reasons for returning to America, Real is happy to have the new additions.

"Obviously, they bring a different level of experience to the team," Kreis said. "They are used to more pressure.

"We have said all along that we are working at bringing a higher level of competitiveness to this team. They bring us more depth and experience at every position, and that raises our level during training. If we can always work at that higher level, we are only going to be better for it."

It is easy to put all of the players with foreign experience into one category, but each had his own unique situation. Each learned different skills, had different training and improved in different areas.

"They may have more and better facilities up and down the board, but we (MLS) are catching up," Johnson said. "I have seen some of the new stadiums and that, and if we keep moving forward, we will be right there. The style of soccer may be different, but I think what we are building over here is just as good as most of the leagues. I know I am happy to be back and to try to make a contribution for the team."

"It is nice to be able to play soccer here," Russell added. "They have a different style than we do. Here, it is a lot faster and more direct than in Denmark. I don't know which is better, but I do know that having the option of being able to come back home and still play soccer at a high level is something I am very grateful for."


E-mail: mblack@desnews.com