In July 2004, a skinny kid from Philly took a train ride from London to a soccer backwater called Reading Football Club. It was a bit of a sensation.
The kid was Bobby Convey.
Here, this year, fans will get to know him as he plays the left side of the field. He was the biggest offseason signing for Sporting Kansas City. Expectations are high. But they’re nothing compared to that summer.
Back then, Convey told the papers he’d felt compelled to play in England to experience the passion the game can inspire, but didn’t in the Untied States. In press photos, he looked about 16. He wasn’t, of course. Sixteen was the age at which he started playing soccer professionally. By 2004, he was a grizzled veteran, 21 years old. He was a fixture with the U.S. national team, a former star of the youth national team, and had played in Major League Soccer for D.C. United.
He arrived as the most expensive signing in the history of Reading, costing what was called 800,000 English pounds (about $1.6 million). Fans of his new club wondered if he was the American version of David Beckham. Not that there is an American Beckham, any more than there is an English Michael Jordan. But in Reading, fans of the sport had waited a long time for something special. The club was formed in 1871. Ulysses S. Grant was president of the United States. Around here, Jesse James was robbing banks. And in Europe, Paris surrendered — to Prussia.
After that, in the official team history, it’s just a lot of sad.
They note an 18-0 loss in 1894. They note a lot of losses. English soccer is like American baseball, with several levels. The difference is that a team winning at AA (or the third league level) gets promoted to AAA (the second league level). Conversely, finish last and get booted down a level. Reading somehow seemed to spend more time getting booted down divisions than climbing up. After having never reached the top division, the long suffering fans of this club were desperate when Convey wisped into their lives. How depressed were fans? To that point, even the club’s most popular ever player had actually been named “Death.”
The 2004 team’s manager, Steve Coppell, tried to tamp down their desperation by inserting into every interview he did with the local newspapers that “Convey’s a good player, but he’s not a Messiah” and to insist people realize how difficult the transition of teams, leagues and nations could be on a young man.
The fans, of course, wanted none of that. They wanted glory, and they wanted Convey to deliver it.
And then the 2004-05 season kicked off and was that a letdown. In 46 league games, Convey got four starts and only 14 total appearances.
“The pressure,” he said, “really, I mean, I was their highest paid signing ever, and I wasn’t doing well, and, well, I was their highest paid signing ever.”
He scored zero goals. He had zero assists. The team was mediocre, again.
And then began what is one of the best stories in U.S. soccer. Between spring, when the 2004-05 season ended with a whimper, and the fall, when the 2005-06 season began, Convey transformed himself.
Thinking about that time, and comparing it to what is to come here, he had this to say recently: “The manager here, Peter Vermes, is like the manager there: Both are brutally honest. Both will tell you what you need to know to improve. Both will let you know what it will take to improve, and that they expect improvement. Some people can’t deal with that. But I grew up with it.”
And so, Convey took to heart the lessons his first season in Reading offered. He took the left side of the midfield for his own. He started 45 games, scoring seven goals with 10 assists. Where before he’d demurred in every situation, in this season he took control.
It wasn’t just that. He also showed that improvement and compiled those stats in what was one of the most successful seasons for a team in the history of English soccer. Reading didn’t just win the second division, it clinched it with almost two months of season left. The team only lost two games — its first and last. In between, Reading was magic.
While it would be impossible to put it all down to Convey, he was a very important piece. He marauded up and down the left side. He had a solo goal for the ages, using speed and the dribble to beat half a team over 70 yards. For the first time in 135 years, Reading rose to the highest division in English soccer.
Convey was a joy to watch, and the fans who began the season doubting him still speak his name fondly.
There’s more to the Reading story, but it came after a bad knee injury suffered in the 2006 World Cup, in a game against Italy. Convey returned to MLS, first in San Jose, where there was fanfare but not much in terms of results, and now Kansas City.
“I think this is a better situation for me,” Convey said. “We’ve got some great athletes. We’ve got a great stadium. We have the atmosphere I thought I had to go to England to find.”
Here, he’s 28 now. He’ll kick off his 13th professional season March 10 in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve never been one of the older guys on a team before,” Convey said.
But he says he’s ready. He has learned quite a bit in 13 seasons, from Coppell, from U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena, from teammates who became friends and advisers (Eddie Pope was in his wedding, for one). Convey plans to learn more from Vermes.
“He’s a guy players can respect,” he said. “He’ll put an arm around you when needed, but he’ll put a boot up your (behind) if that’s called for.”
In fact, Convey says there are legitimate comparisons between this Kansas City team and his breakout Reading team.
“Both teams had four or five guys who were going to put the ball in the net,” he said, “so one at least was always going to be hot. We scored a lot of goals there (99) and we should score a lot of goals here.”
So, the conclusion: Convey’s ready to live up to expectations here. He’s done that before, after all.
That means he’s ready to help a young team grow. After all, he’s been there before.
And it means he expects to help Sporting win.
Just don’t expect for him to do it by himself.
Convey, after all, isn’t a Messiah.