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Player Spotlight

Aaron Schoenfeld Left MLS and Found Success in Israel

The former Major League Soccer journeyman didn't like where his career was heading so he took a leap of faith, moved overseas, and is now thriving in the Israeli Premier League. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
June 01, 2016
9:15 PM

IN THE STOCK MARKET, taking big risks can sometimes yield huge returns. The same holds true in the soccer profession—something Aaron Schoenfeld learned firsthand.

At the start of 2016, Schoenfeld, 26, knew he had to do something to jumpstart his career. After the Montreal Impact claimed him in the second round of the 2012 MLS Draft, the Knoxville, Tenn., native was soon traded to the Columbus Crew. He would stay there four years but found playing time very difficult to come by. In total, he played just 1,651 minutes for the Crew—roughly 18 games worth of action.

At the same time, through agent Leo Krupnik (who won the Israeli title with Maccabi Haifa in his days as a player), Schoenfeld learned that Israeli side Maccabi Netanya, a club mired in last place due to poor finances. He could have stayed with Columbus but this offer presented him with a real opportunity.

“It's definitely tough,” Schoenfeld told American Soccer Now. “With the group in Columbus, we were very close. I remember being in Key West together. I kept getting these calls about going to Israel. I was talking to the guys about it, I didn't want to leave Columbus but I felt I developed as much as possible without playing.

"Being realistic, there wasn't going to be many minutes playing behind Kei. If I had any kind of competitive drive, I had to leave and I couldn't be complacent being friends with people.”

To say it has worked out well would be an enormous understatement. After just two games for Maccabi Netanya, the cash-strapped club was forced to sell Schoenfeld to Haopel Tel Aviv.

Once he landed at Hapoel Tel Aviv, Schoenfeld’s career finally took off. In his first game, Hapoel Tel Aviv faced off in derby match against Maccabi Tel Aviv—one of the fiercest rivalries in the country. In just the second minute, Schoenfeld found the back of the net in a 1-1 draw.

From there, Schoenfeld could not stop scoring. He scored in his next game for Hapoel Tel Aviv. Toward the end of the season, he scored in three straight games, finishing off  with a hat trick against Bnei Yehuda on May 7th. He ended the campaign with eight goals in 12 games (10 starts and 851 minutes).

“It's kind of a dream start,” Shoenfeld said. “To score a minute into a big derby, the pressure is kind of lifted. With Columbus, I went a while before I scored my first goal. As a striker, I always felt pressure to score because my ratio was bad. It was tough because at Columbus, I never got much of a chance to start. I was getting three minutes off the bench occasionally. I wasn't playing.

"But I felt confident when I was training. I felt that I would find success if I left. I felt very comfortable and confident in whatever would be next.”

Schoenfeld barely made an impression in MLS but in Israel he has received a huge amount of media attention. During the season he was regularly making headlines in top Israeli sports pages. Whenever he walks around Tel Aviv, people are stopping him to talk or to take pictures.

While a few American players have had success in Israel, the idea of an American-born and raised player leaving MLS to play in Israel is viewed by the media there with curiosity and bewilderment. For Shoenfeld, it is something he is asked about constantly by other players in the league.

“It's funny because a lot of them would die to come play in MLS,” Schoenfeld said. “When I first came here, they were saying, 'You're stupid, why did you leave MLS? That's all of our dreams.' But it really is their dream. It's different hearing that perspective on the league. I don't understand how people think MLS is not a good league but you hear that in the United States. Everyone here knows it's a growing league and wants to go play there.

"MLS could be a massive league if they removed some of the salary cap rules.”

Beyond the Israeli Premier League, there is also talk about Schoenfeld potentially receiving a call-up to the Israeli national team. Due to him being Jewish, he was eligible for a Jewish passport and received a temporary one in May, with a permanent one expected later in the year.

If he were to be called up by Israel, Schoenfeld would have a tough time getting around a residency rule that requires either the player, his parents, or grandparents be born in that country (neither Schoenfeld nor anyone in his lineage was born in Israel). Without that, a player must meet a two-year residency requirement—and Schoenfeld is roughly 18 months away from that. 

Regarding such talk, he admits that he considers himself American but should an Israeli call-up come, he would certainly consider it, acknowledging that it would give him a huge platform to play against top European countries in World Cup and European qualifying.

Schoenfeld’s success might be surprising to some but for those that know him well, they are not surprised by what he is doing in Israel.

“Aaron’s tenacity and work rate make him a dependable striker on any team,” Crew coach Gregg Berhalter told ASN. “As a striker, he’s mobile, good attacking the ball in the penalty box, and good going behind the line. He demonstrated a tremendous will to learn and was always willing to do the work necessary to help his team win.”

There is more to it than that. Schoenfeld likes the tactical side of the game in Israel but he also notes that it allows him showcase a wide range of his abilities. As a tall and strong forward, Schoenfeld’s strengths were limited in MLS as physical defenders were able to neutralizing his six-foot-four frame. In Israel, his physical abilities stand out more, and his technical skills are put to good use as well.

He also cites the preparation he received with Columbus for his success. Despite not seeing much playing time, he does not believe he would have found the same level of success had he not played under Berhalter.

“Gregg Berhalter is one of the best coaches,” Shoenfeld said. “He's unbelievable. I needed that in my career. Even when I wasn't playing, I couldn't say a bad word about the guy. Most players will attest to that. I think with most players, when they're not playing, they'll blame the coach. But he's unbelievable and stuff I learned from him and his staff really helped me tremendously.”

Regarding his future, Schoenfeld hopes to build on his wildly successful time in Israel. Expectations will be heightened in his second year and he hopes to establish himself as a top forward in the league while leading his team into the top half of the table.

Could another transfer be in the works? If he continues to score at his rate, he will undoubtedly garner interest. For now he is just happy to have found a place where he can finally play regularly and showcase his passion for the game.

"It's been a good run for me,” Schoenfeld said. “I am enjoying my football right now. I couldn't be happier with how the experience is going so far. As a player you want to move as high as possible. If that is [elsewhere] in Europe, it would be amazing. But I am very happy here."

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

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