Having played soccer for several years at levels very few players reach in their careers, I have learned a few odd lessons about this game. Great goalkeeping is somewhat hard to come by, even in the USA where we are blessed with athletes who are introduced to catching and throwing balls at a young age in various other sports, the position is arguably one of the toughest to master in the game. I have been blessed to have played with a few elite level keepers, and the man at the focus of this piece I would consider to be the best of the bunch. I traveled to Harrisburg, PA for an afternoon chat with Nick Noble, the former Chicago Fire goalkeeper, and most recently the Harrisburg City Islanders number 1.
I was introduced to Nick during my professional playing days in Harrisburg. A talented shot stopper and fierce competitor, Nick was always one of the most approachable and outgoing characters at training. The lengthy keeper always brought his exciting personality to the 5 v 2 rondo square which began every session, where sometimes lengthy stays in the middle, were followed by individual brilliance on the outside. Here Nick would demonstrate a comfort on the ball that most keepers fail to ever reach, a comfort that I would soon find out, was not always present in his skill set. Noble has now been the starting choice for the City Islanders for the past three years and at the young age of 31, has had an adventurous career path to his current stable in central Pennsylvania.
The Damascus, Maryland native, Nick grew up playing multiple sports, but chose to focus on soccer during his high school years. He started playing keeper full time at age 13 and admittedly was a very raw talent, a label he claims he never really shook until he reached the MLS. Noble split time as a keeper on a very successful Bethesda SC team that went on to win regional championships and make national tournament appearances in the old setup of US Youth Soccer. Noble then went on to a successful college career at West Virginia University, after being somewhat overlooked by colleges in the recruiting process. A successful summer PDL season with the West Virginia Chaos lead to a renewed confidence in the keeper’s ability, Noble went on to earn all conference accolades as a senior and was then drafted in the supplemental draft by the Chicago Fire.
In Chicago, the then 21 year old Noble found himself firmly planted behind one of the best goalkeepers in MLS, Jon Busch. Nick spoke of the situation as an extremely fortunate opportunity to learn and watch as one of the greats in the game attempted to perfect his craft and techniques day in and day out. Noble lived with Busch during his time in Chicago and he credits his time in the windy city as the period where he truly developed the concentration and work ethic required to excel at the top level. With a veteran core of some MLS greats like Jim Curtain, Chris Armas, and CJ Brown the Fire appeared in two Eastern Conference finals during Noble’s time with the club. Nick was able to witness the leadership qualities necessary to succeed at the professional level, which he would later put to use during his time in Harrisburg where Nick credits the family environment as one of the main contributors to the franchise’s success.
Three seasons into his career and having not featured in the first team very regularly, Noble went in search of game experience in Sweden. Nick is grateful for the support he received from his family and friends when he decided to take his career to Europe and was able to gain loads of experience and craft his techniques even more while overseas. He worked on his footwork and kicking ability as a 26 year old and was able to make remarkable improvements in that facet of his game. Learning to face your weaknesses and strive hard to perfect them is an aspect of almost every true professional I’ve met. Noble is no different as he has developed himself into an elite distributor of the ball, and worked hard at the techniques well into his late twenties.
After a stint with LA Galaxy, Noble found himself in Harrisburg with the City Islanders, a franchise that has seen success in the USL Pro division despite financial restrictions the club struggles to cope with. Nick has been the Islanders number 1 for the past three seasons, only missing three games due to a red card suspension and the passing of his father. Noble spoke of the opportunity to play and start consistently as a blessing and a credit to his growth as a keeper during his time as a backup in Chicago. Where many may have given in to the lack of opportunity and pursued other careers, Nick used the time to develop into an elite keeper. And his work is now paying dividends, in 2014 the Islanders were runners up in USL Pro, losing to Sacramento in the final, as Nick was able to post a 1.583 goals against average for the season.
Nick’s career path is one I find fascinating, as we discussed over coffee this past Saturday I couldn’t help but think how amazing it must be to see such personal growth during your twenties as a player. Most players are done playing competitively after their college careers, but Nick’s drive to persevere through the hard days of being a backup on one of the best teams in MLS was what allowed him to enjoy a ten year career in professional soccer thus far. Nick’s career is a true representation of what dedication and determination, met with a solid talent base and opportunity can result in. Nick is truly someone who is in love with training and working hard, in love with the process of being successful.
As we got more in depth into our discussion I always wondered, what professionals enjoy and disliked about playing soccer as a job? Playing soccer professionally was always my dream, but I personally used to hate the long away trips, the disappointment of not being chosen to travel or to be listed in the squad on a given day, and the daily grind in the off season in order to continue to improve and be better for the next year. Nick’s answer was simple, he absolutely hates losing. Being a keeper requires the mental side of a player’s game to be extremely resilient, a short memory matched with the ability to learn and correct mistakes is required to excel at the position. Nick claims to still struggle with the mental strain that comes with errors and mistakes which may lead to conceding or even worse points lost in crucial matches. With experience however he has learned to cope with any errors or missed opportunities to prevent goals, knowing he will never reach the perfection he desires. Nick continues to improve upon the mental aspect of the position to this day.
Currently in the USL Pro off season, coaching and personal training have become a part of Noble’s life as he looks to develop young keepers who aspire to see the same success he has in the future. Nick has also become involved with Pegliyl, a producer of goalkeeping gloves and apparel who has matched affordability with quality durable products. Find more about Pegliyl here.
As we wrapped up our conversation, we spoke once again about potential, success and regrets. Nick’s view on success is very aligned with my own, he does not fear failure, he only fears not putting the required work into the task in order to be successful. There are so many cases where very gifted players absolutely kill themselves, and never make a professional team. Likewise, there is also the long list of players that everyone can construct who had loads of natural ability and talent who never reached their full potential. Nick’s advice for any young player aspiring to see success in the game is to never fail to put the work in required to reach your full potential. “Even if it does not turn out in your favor, as it didn’t for me in certain situations, be happy you gave it absolutely everything you had and know you could have not worked harder to achieve your goals.”
Where Noble’s career will take him in the future is uncertain as he is only 31 and keepers generally are able to play well into their late thirties, but he has yet to resign with Harrisburg for the upcoming season. His level of commitment, professionalism and the vulnerability he demonstrates on the field week in and week out are absolutely second to none. He is someone who builds relationships with almost everyone he plays with, someone who is valued by his peers not only as keeper, but as a friend. I look forward to seeing him apply his trade wherever he may end up this upcoming season, knowing that every completed pass made out of the back, goal kick taken, and save made has hours of work behind the crafted techniques. Nick is a perfect role model for any aspiring professional, and his love for the game and for success is an attitude that I truly admire.