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Q & A With Danny Karbassiyoon

MiB: Danny Karbassiyoon is the only American to ever score for Arsenal Football Club. In addition to the North London outfit, his career included stops at Ipswich Town and Burnley Football Clubs, far cries from his home in the bucolic mountains of Southwest Virginia. When injury forced his retirement at age 22, he transitioned into a scouting role at Arsenal, overseeing the club's entire North American network. He is the man responsible for bringing USMNT prospect Gedion Zelalem and Costa Rica international Joel Campbell to the club. His new book, The Arsenal Yankee, chronicles his meteoric rise from pickup games in Roanoke to playing alongside Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and The Invincibles. We caught up with Danny earlier this week to talk about his book, his goal against Manchester City and the life of a scout.

Danny: Thanks for having me guys. Awesome to be chatting with you. 

MiB: Where are you joining us from, Danny? Set the scene.

Danny: Well, I'm living back in London now, so I'm currently sat at the desk in my flat in Covent Garden; slightly concerned with why its snowing outside in the middle of April.

MiB: A nice summer's day in England.

Danny: Anyone that's been here knows you're lucky when you get all four seasons in one day, because it means the sun actually came out. 

MiB: We may be borrowing that one. But let's talk about your story. It is a remarkable one - and well chronicled in your book - The Arsenal Yankee. From being spotted by an Arsenal scout at a camp for elite high schoolers in North Carolina to playing at Highbury. And you didn't even think you would be invited to that camp. 

Danny: Yea, that was an interesting summer for sure. The adidas ESP Camp was 'the camp' then. It's no longer around now, but if you were playing at a competitive level and wanted to get a chance to be seen by college coaches, you wanted to get invited to that camp. Never mind the amount of free gear you got for being invited (and it was a lot!), every respectable college program in the country had coaches there so as a player, you wanted to be there. About two weeks before camp, I received a letter and was buzzing. I was going into my senior year of high school, so getting invited was going to be huge for me. The letter wasn't an invitation, though. I'd been waitlisted which was gut-wrenching. Luckily a day or two before the camp started, someone dropped out, I received a phone call while I was out banging the ball against our house, and a lady on the other end let me know that someone had dropped out, and I was welcome at the camp if I could make it down to Wilmington the following day.

MiB: You took advantage, though. It was there you were spotted by an Arsenal scout. Then the dominoes started to fall. Earned a trial. Earned a contract. Earned a first team spot. Your book goes into real detail on all these things. It all culminates in one great realization. You're about to start a League Cup game against Everton at Highbury and you write ... "About a year and half before that night, I was playing for the Roanoke Valley Youth Soccer Association in the Virginia Club Champions League at Berglund Soccer Complex in Vinton, Virginia." Berglund Soccer Complex, a beautiful place, but not quite Highbury.

Danny: Yea, it all happened so fast. I was really focused on getting a college scholarship when I went to ESP and ended up on trial at Arsenal two weeks later. My first year at the club was definitely not easy. The transition to life in England and life as a pro was tough, but it made me stronger both on the pitch and off it. I was 20 when I made my first team debut at Arsenal, and I distinctly remember thinking how much things had changed in such a short period of time - from driving myself to weekend games in front of parents and girlfriends to cruising down Avenell Road in the Arsenal team coach with fans screaming on both sides of us. It was amazing.

MiB: The Everton game was your first start. But you'd already scored for the club against Manchester City. Let's talk about the goal. Set the scene for us.

Danny: Yea, I'd gotten a very small taste of first team football several weeks prior when I did make my actual debut away at Manchester City. That day was essentially a series of my dreams getting one-upped one after the other. The Boss generally chooses his starting XI the day before a match, so, though we already knew who would be starting that night, it wasn't until that morning that we knew who had made the bench. When I came into the training ground that morning, there was a list in our dressing room with the team that was traveling. I was ecstatic just to be on the list. When we arrived at the City of Manchester stadium, I couldn't help but smile when I saw my name on the back of Arsenal shirt - especially one that I hadn't paid for. A bunch of guys made their debut that night - Robin van Persie, Sebastian Larsson, Manuel Almunia, Philippe Senderos, Johan Djourou - so many kids. Through a van Persie goal, we'd taken the lead in the second half, and after spending about 25 minutes running up and down the touchline, Pat Rice called out my name.

I came on in the 82nd minute - again, one-upping the previous dreams and goals I'd set for myself. I had 8 minutes to enjoy myself. In injury time, as the game was quite open, we broke, and Cesc Fabregas ended up with the ball at the top of box. He calmly dribbled across the box and then slipped me in behind Danny Mills. Van Persie was open in the middle of the goal area, but I didn't particularly have any intention to pass after taking my first touch. I took a shot far post, as I'd done so many times in my youth career and waited till I saw it go in before running off like a bit of an idiot. It was pretty clear that I was happy with how things turned out.

Danny after goal.jpg

MiB: It was a very good finish. But we love the run. Talk about getting in behind Danny Mills.

Danny: Looking back on that goal now, I'm probably more proud of the run than I am the actual shot! I went to Arsenal very raw and learned a lot during my time there. One of the biggest things I learned, though, was how important my movement off the ball was. Our reserve team coach had us watch guys like Bergkamp and Henry every weekend and study their movement. Bergkamp was a genius off the ball. Check to to get it in behind. Check away to get it to feet. Sometimes he'd check to, check away, then check to again to create a half yard of space to operate in. We did these things a lot in training - something I wasn't particularly accustomed to from my training back home. When Cesc was dribbling across the box, everything felt so natural for me. That initial movement to drag Mills out and then getting in behind when he finally took the bait. It was great seeing something we'd worked on everyday in training come off in a situation like that.

MiB: That same season, you ended up going on loan to Ipswich (Up the Tractor Boys) in East Anglia. And eventually you were signed by Burnley in the Northwest. Talk about how different these places are from London. Not in footballing terms, but in terms of actually living there. The people, the food, the accents, etc.

Danny: I really enjoyed my time in Ipswich. Being from Roanoke, I was probably more accustomed to and at home in a smaller town than London (things have slightly changed now!). Being in one-club towns was fun. Ipswich put me in a flat in the town center, and it was quite a neat feeling getting recognized whenever I was out getting a meal or walking around shops with teammates. We were top of the table in the Championship nearly the entire time I was there, so there was a great buzz around the town. The people in Burnley were great, too. The accents in Burnley were...well, different. I'd finally become accustomed to understanding some London accents when that thick Lancashire accent threw a big curveball in how I approached the English language.

MiB: The Dave Fishwick stand gets a shout in your book. Did you ever get to meet Dave Fishwick? We had him on the Podcast last season. Quite the character.

Danny: I don't think I ever got to meet him. It was kind of funny because at the time, the tunnel came out of that stand and it was the away stand. We'd come out of the tunnel to a chorus of, well, let's say, unfriendly phrases.

MiB: The Premier League will be better for Burnley's return next season. We miss Turf Moor.

Danny: For sure - the club and their fans deserve to be back.

MiB: After a series of injuries, you left England. And returned to the US, contemplating a MLS career. But after seeing DC United's doctor, you decided to officially retire at the age of 22. Walk us through your emotions when you made the decision.

Danny: It was really tough. A doctor in Bolton had told during my second year at Burnley that my knee was 'knackered' and I should probably hang up my boots if I wanted to walk when I was 30 or 40. I didn't want to believe it, so after deciding I wanted to return home to get treatment, I found myself in the DC United's doctor's office. He told me I could play again, but it'd require surgery, and then he might have to operate again - maybe in 2 months, maybe in 2 years. Emotionally, mentally, it was all very difficult because I didn't want to give up. I'd done so much to finally become a pro, and to me, I was just starting my journey as a proper first team player when I signed for Burnley. There was a lot of uncertainty in my life then, but it was clear I couldn't play football anymore.

MiB: And again, Arsenal came calling. This time for a scouting position. One of my favorite parts of the book (which I think has sequel written all over it), is when you talk about having to relearn watching football, not as a fan, not as a player, but as a scout. Talk about that process and how you watch as a scout.

Danny: Yea, I'm convinced Steve Rowley (our Chief Scout, the scout that found me, and the one that called offering me the scouting job) tried to do his best to ensure I never went to college! I was on my way to Virginia Tech when he called offering me the job, and once again, I was excited to be a part of Arsenal again. I did have a lot to learn, though. One big advantage I had was that I'd played at the club, played under Wenger, and had seen the types of players that made it and those that we released and forced to find work elsewhere. I flew to England for several weeks and shadowed several senior and youth scouts on a daily basis - learning what to look for in a player, how to watch a match as a scout, and how to write reports that clearly painted a picture for the staff back in London.

MiB: When you're looking for an Arsene Wenger player - what qualities are you looking for?

Danny: You don't have to look far to see the qualities the Boss looks for in a player. Of course every position is different, but our first team embodies so much of what we look for. Techincally excellent, intelligent, aware. The Premier League is such a competitive league, and having guys that can slow a game down and speed it up on demand makes such a difference. It's never easy finding players that have the entire package, but as a scout it is up to you to figure out if they can adapt to the league and ultimately fit in the team.

MIB: You've found two in Gedion Zelalem and Joel Campbell. Do you remember the first time you saw them? Did you immediately know you wanted to bring them to the club?

Danny: Both definitely excited me the first time I saw them. With Gedion, I hadn't seen a 13 year old in the States like him. He had that technical ability, that intelligence, and that extreme awareness that I mentioned before. After watching 10 minutes of a 5 v 2 at the first session I saw him in, he never found himself in the middle - that is, he never gave the ball away. He showed a level of maturity on and off the ball that I wasn't accustomed to seeing around the States and I knew I wanted to bring him over. Joel was 18 when I saw him and playing at the U20 World Cup Qualifiers with Costa Rica so it was a bit of a different situation. As he was already contracted to Saprissa, it was a much bigger decision. There was obviously no trial there. I had to be super confident in my decision with him, and I'm glad I was. I watched him play in 4 or 5 games at those qualifiers then followed him around the Gold Cup that summer as well. We had another scout watch him at Copa America shortly after then signed him during the U20 World Cup in Colombia.

Danny, Arsene and Gideon.jpg

MiB: How emotionally invested does a scout become in his or her prospect's success? How much pressure do YOU feel when you recommend a player trial at Arsenal? Does it feel like a part of you is out there with them when they're training with the team for the first time? 

Danny: Lot's of pressure! As a scout you can't make a bunch of recommendations and hope one of them sticks. If you make enough recommendations that aren't good enough, then your job is on the line. Clubs want scouts that know what they are looking for, so having both Gedion and Joel sign and push on to make their debuts in the first team was hugely satisfying. So much work goes on behind the scenes in the scouting world and to see all those flights, hotel stays, rental cars, and everything in between pay off by seeing a player you spotted put an Arsenal shirt on and make an impact in the first team is certainly rewarding, as I can admit it doesn't happen often! 

MiB: What kind of labels do you find yourself fighting against when advocating for American players? 

Danny: I'd say initially it took a bit more convincing to get a player over on trial when I made a recommendation. I totally understand it as well - the standards the club maintain are very high, and we always strive to improve our teams across the entire club. I think after Gedion and Joel (I know he's not American, but from the same region) came in and did well it's given me the ability to make recommendations far more confidently. As in any job, the respect grows if you can prove that you know what you are doing and can produce. I think the bias of American players is slowly fading from the game in England because of the success of some of the players in the Premier League as well. Americans definitely have stereotypes in England (he'll be a hardworking kid that can run for days and is physical), but it's nice to see that more and more players are proving that we are much more than just that.

MiB: Last one for you, Danny ... We ask our guests what one thing they've learned from their journey. You lived a lifetime (from the fields of Roanoke to Highbury to reinventing yourself as a scout) in less than a decade. What is the one life lesson has Danny Karbassiyoon learned?

Danny: Oh that's a good one - I think I've learned that respect and hard work go hand in and hand when trying to make it in across all facets of life. I wasn't good enough to make it at Arsenal as player, but I failed because, at the end of the day, I just wasn't good enough. I did everything I could to improve on a daily basis and made sure to respect the club, my coaches, and the game in general every single day. To be honest, that's why I ended up getting the job as a scout. I'd like to think the club had faith in my ability to spot a player, but as a 22 year old, it was likely because they knew I'd do everything I could in my power to ensure I helped improve the club. It took me four years to find Gedion, but once again the Club stood by me because they knew it wasn't easy and I was doing everything I could in my power, to find a kid that could eventually represent the club. Along the way, I've made great relationships and learned that a little bit of respect goes a long way.

MiB: Danny's book, The Arsenal Yankee, is out now. We don't have time to get into now because we need to let Danny go watch Manchester City vs. Real Madrid, but there is a GREAT story that involves Danny, Cesc, a black Mercedes and a North London Derby. Buy the book and check it out. Especially if you are an Arsenal fan, or you relish stories of American footballers made good.