After San Antonio FC start, Bryant progressing in Belgium with KSV Roeselare
May 11, 2020
ETHAN BRYANT IS unlike most prototypical American soccer prospects. He did not grow up in an MLS city, he did not move hundreds of miles to play in an MLS academy and he did not spend most of his youth career in a European academy. Bryant is of a rare breed of players who got their professional break through the academy pipeline of a USL club.
A native to San Antonio, TX, Bryant’s initial access to a grassroots club linked to an academy team was hard to come by. He largely played recreational soccer and bounced form team to team until he finally landed at Classics Elite Soccer Academy at 11-years-old. It was not until San Antonio FC came into the picture in 2016 that a pipeline to the professional game presented itself to Bryant. Identified while playing for Classics Elite at 15-years-old, Bryant was offered a spot in San Antonio’s Elite Training Program in 2017.
It did not take long for him to jump in with the senior team. At 15-years-old, he was a regular figure in their training sessions from the middle of the 2017 season onward. In February of 2018, Bryant signed his first professional contract at 16 years and 178 days old.
“I was kind of shocked because I was happy just being in that atmosphere and training with them,” Bryant said. “Then for them to say ‘now you’re a part of us’ was kind of a woah moment. This is real. I was just so happy.”
He continued training with the first team throughout the early days of the 2018 USL season, but it was not until May that he would even make a matchday squad. He made the bench for San Antonio’s second round U.S. Open Cup clash with Midland-Odessa but did not make an appearance in the match. The same story would play out three days later when San Antonio drew with Tulsa Roughnecks FC in USL play, but Bryant’s debut easily filled the void of the potential game time he missed in those two matches.
“I knew two days before that game that I was starting, so I had a little bit of time to prepare,” Bryant recalled in the build-up to an Open Cup match against the Colorado Switchbacks FC. “Little did I know that it would be a 120-minute game that went to penalties. It was definitely a jam-packed debut. I thought [my debut] was going to be even earlier, but obviously the Open Cup is a good opportunity for that.”
Bryant made one more a substitute appearance in San Antonio’s fourth round Open Cup loss to FC Dallas and made the bench twice before making his USL debut. He started in midfield against Sacramento FC, but the opposition’s pedigree did not faze Bryant’s approach to the game. San Antonio won the match 1-0 with Bryant assisting the game winner after winning back possession in his own half and playing a through ball into the run of César Elizondo.
From that point on, Bryant’s name became a regular occurrence on the team sheet. He would be left out of the match day squad just seven times out of the remaining 20 games of the season, starting all nine of his appearances and playing 735 minutes across them. Bryant’s knack for clutch moments continued as he added two more game-winning assists to his tally against Los Angeles Galaxy II and Las Vegas Lights FC. The most memorable moment to is first season as a professional was undoubtedly his game-winning goal against Seattle Sounders FC 2. It was also at this time when Bryant was called up to the U.S. U-18 team. That team was designed with preparing players for the 2021 U-20 cycle.
“I wasn’t really thinking about the goal,” Bryant said. “I really wanted to win the game because we were struggling and needed to clinch a playoff spot. With the lineup that Seattle put out, we should have been winning that game. It was really an instinct moment to be in the right place at the right time and then connect with the ball well. I would say that game and the Reno game in 2019 were my favorite games.”
His goal against Reno did not have the same game-winning title as his previous direct goal involvements, but it did help San Antonio come back from a 2-0 deficit. A handful of injuries would prevent Bryant from amassing the same game time in 2019 as he did in 2018, but he logged just over 450 minutes across seven appearances that year. Unknowingly to Bryant and San Antonio, his 90 minutes in a 3-0 win over Austin Bold FC would be his last appearance for his hometown club.
Prior to his move to Belgian Proximus League side KSV Roeselare, Bryant receive interest from clubs in the Netherlands and Germany. Vitesse was one of the teams he named explicitly, but the complexity of the Netherlands’ foreign youth player contracts lessened the appeal of the move. While the prospect of playing in Germany also appealed to Bryant, he ultimately decided to sign with Roeselare as they ensured him that he would be training and playing with the first team.
“I think it was the right time,” Bryant said. “I was doing well in the USL, but I thought I was outgrowing it. I’m big on when you’re comfortable, you’re probably not going to grow as much. I was living at home, doing well and being one of the consistently good performers on the team. It was good, but I thought it was time to take the next step to help me grow. When I got over the Belgium, I was not comfortable, and I had to adjust quickly. Ultimately, I think it’s going to make me a better player.”
Though Bryant is the only American in the second division of Belgian’s professional soccer leagues, Ethan Horvath of Club Brugge, Brendan Hines-Ike of Kortrijk and now Chris Durkin of Sint-Truiden are all playing in the country’s premier league, the Jupiler Pro League. While it does not present the same glamour as a first division team, Bryant was training with Roeselare’s first team and beginning to make a few appearances on the bench before the COVID-19 pandemic practically shut down sports around the world.
The general style of play, as Bryant described, also suited his own better than the direct, physical nature of the USL. Still a teenager and with a slim 5’11” frame, Bryant admittedly did not favor himself when it came to play a more athletic game in the long run. He likes being able to put the ball down and play a more technically driven game. Citing Barcelona legends Xavi and Andres Iniesta as his idols, it comes as no surprise that the midfielder is more interested in a style of play that where the ball is at his feet more often than in the air.
Roeselare were not in the best of form heading into the global quarantine either. With the format of the Belgian second division, they were set to play a best-of-five series against K.S.C. Lokeren Oost-Vlaanderen as they both finished at the bottom of the table. The loser of this five-game series would be relegated to the Belgian third division, the Belgian First Amateur Division. After talking with some of his American colleagues in Spain and Italy, Bryant decided to head back stateside towards the end of March.
“It’s a bit unsettling because I thought I would be coming home around [the end of April],” Bryant said. “We wanted to finish the season obviously, and I could’ve debuted possibly. I was getting on the bench a few times, and [this situation] kind of sucks, but this is more important.”
The adjustment to life in Belgium has not impacted Bryant tremendously. Even without American players in the squad or within the same division, he has become close friends with Englishman Tom Holmes and Dutch defender Gregory Kuisch who are on loan from Reading and PSV, respectively. Veteran midfielder Arnold Mvuemba has also become somewhat of a role model for Bryant in his professionalism and the creativity he possesses in a similar position on the pitch. Despite his short stint with the team, the 18-year-old Bryant has quickly acclimatized to his new surroundings and teammates.
Like most professionals, though, Bryant now remains at home in San Antonio awaiting the time when he can return to Belgium. He has been training on his own time, using his at-home gym to continue bulking up and utilizing his backyard to work on his ability on the ball in tight spaces. On top of it all, though, Bryant is still seeing out his final year of high school.
“I’m actually finishing my senior year online, so I’ve had to balance my football and school a lot more,” Bryant said. “I’ve been in the gym a lot more, learning to be more of a professional. Next season, I definitely want to learn French. The people from Belgium mostly speaks Flemish, but most of the guys on the team speak English and French.”
It is not often that a player developed within a USL system finds himself playing in Europe at any level. In many ways, Bryant has become a pioneer and role model for future USL Academy products to emulate in maturity, level of play and even self confidence when the decision to potentially move abroad presents itself.
While he misses the convenience of restaurants and food joints being open regularly in San Antonio, he has slowly fallen in love with the friendliness that resonates through the streets of Roeselare. Two months is a small sample size to go off of, but Bryant’s shown so far that he has the potential to make it in Europe even without the glamourous background of being from an MLS or European academy.