Eric Klenofsky is a former NYRB U-23s player, born in Staten Island, raised in New Jersey, educated at De Paul Catholic in Wayne and Monmouth University: he's spent most of his life in the New York Red Bulls' back yard. But he was a highly-rated goalkeeper coming out of college, and perhaps even more so when he was invited to trial with Everton in December. The trial was extended - a compliment in itself - though, as he told Big Apple Soccer's Michael Lewis at the MLS Combine, it didn't work out in the end:
Work permits are not easy to get especially when you're not U.S. cap-tied in the Premier League.
Still, he also saw the bright side:
I was with the reserves for three weeks. They extended my trial after the first week in a half, which is great. Usually after three days, trialists are out the door already.
And maybe it was the realization that Klenofsky was a clever immigration lawyer away from getting poached by a European club that persuaded MLS to hand him a contract before the 2017 SuperDraft.
The Red Bulls could have selected him, though with hindsight they may not have had a 'keeper on their list at the Draft. The club has since signed two goalkeepers - former NYRB II back-up Rafael Diaz and Homegrown prospect Evan Louro - to its MLS roster. But we'll never really know. RBNY's first pick of the Draft was spent on outspoken attacker Zeiko Lewis; by the time it's second turn came around, Klenofsky was off the board. He was selected by D.C. United in the second round, with the 34th overall pick. RBNY took Ethan Kutler, another attacking player, with pick #39.
So he's DCU's man now. Well, he has a preseason to get through and DC has Bill Hamid as its standout starting 'keeper (when fit), Travis Worra as the incumbent back-up, and former USA U-23s Men's National Teamer Charlie Horton. Steven Goff at the Washington Post and our fellow SB Nationers Black and Red United think Klenofsky is competing with Horton for the third 'keeper's spot on the MLS roster.
On the eve of his first MLS preseason training camp, Klenofsky was in no mood to be drawn into any speculation about his place in his new club's plans.
"I haven't discussed where I fit in yet," he told Once A Metro. "DC drafted me knowing I was already signed to an MLS contract so, for me, that shows belief and faith in me to develop into a legitimate goalkeeper in this league. That being said, I just want to be the best Eric Klenofsky I can be. I can't worry about what I can't control, so all I want to do in my first year as a pro is put my best foot forward every single day and let the pieces fall where they may."
He certainly seems to have been the busiest Eric Klenofsky he could be recently, with his Everton trial effectively running into the back of the MLS Combine. One imagines maintaining focus from one tryout to the next must be a difficult task, but it is often the task a pro soccer player faces. There were whispers out of the Combine that perhaps Klenofsky's performance did not quite live up to expectations that were ratcheted up after news broke of Premier League interest in his services. He heard those whispers, but the experience has been logged as part of the growth necessary to bridge the gap from amateur to professional:
"I feel like it would be easy for me to make an excuse about why I didn't play as well as I should've at the Combine, but that's not really what I'm about. LA is eight hours behind Liverpool, I flew back to New Jersey after a 19-hour layover in Portugal, and then the next day flew to LA. Never experienced jet-lag quite like it - but still that's no excuse," he advised OaM. "I should have played better but the past is the past. As a goalkeeper, you have to have a short-term memory. Not everything will be perfect, and to be successful you have to be thick skinned. I would've liked to have done better at the Combine, but I will learn from it and I will grow from it."
Draft Day itself brought the necessary waiting game: 33 players picked before him, uncertainty over when, where, and whether his name might be called to join a team in MLS. Nerves surely kicked in. Klenofsky concurred:
"You're never quite certain how the draft is going to go or what teams are thinking. So yes, I was very nervous. I've worked my whole life for a chance to play this game professionally and, when an opportunity like the MLS Draft is staring you in the face, nerves are expected."
There must have been some nerves a few weeks earlier at Everton, but that experience has delivered the first memories of what it can be hoped is a long pro career.
"Everton was an incredible experience. It was a dream to be able to go train with such a fantastic club. I think the one experience that really stuck out for me was when I got called into first team training after the Merseyside derby. We were doing a passing exercise, and at one point I was standing between Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley - kind of had to pinch myself for a moment. It was a moment I'll carry with me forever."
The club provided a reassuring atmosphere for a young man, foreign to both place and pro soccer, though OaM was disappointed to learn that English football's fetish for nicknames is overstated. At least, the players refrained from giving Klenofsky one while he was there: "Hahaha - no nicknames," he recalled, "Everyone was very nice - a real family atmosphere. Everyone says hi to everyone: from first team guys to the U-18s. Everyone was very welcoming."
He was long enough in Liverpool to get some feel for the city. Though his primary recommendation to anyone visiting the city for the first time is to make a beeline for Everton: "For someone who hasn't visited Liverpool before, I would say first and foremost: get to a game at Goodison Park. The environment is great there. Outside of that, the city center and Christmas markets were really cool to go see. Definitely a different type of city than I'm used to in America but very beautiful and a very good place to experience."
But the souvenirs Klenofsky seems to treasure most from his trip to England are the memories in his head. Every aspiring pro needs that moment to suggest they have what it takes. Klenofsky's succession of trials - Everton, the Combine, now (effectively) at DCU - is surely providing several such moments, but he has one from the training ground in Liverpool that currently stands out from the rest:
"Kevin Mirallas and Gerard Deulofeu were very hard to read. So deceptive, so technical," he remembered, "We were just doing a shooting drill and [Phil] Jagielka played Kevin in to my right side, going towards his left. He opened up his hips to his right foot, and I just felt like he was going to curl it around me to the back post - so as he hit it, I got down to my left and pushed it around the post."
This writer would have stopped right there and hopped a plane back home, confident any future in soccer would hold no greater achievement. But this writer has never been a pro-caliber player. For Klenofsky it is "the highlight of my life, so far". But with his focus now on the business of converting his MLS contract into place on a roster in MLS, he will hope to acquire a few comparable highlights in short order.