Pressure is nothing new to Bobby Convey. He’s been steeped in it for most of his 13-year career in professional soccer.
And that’s a good thing for Sporting Kansas City, whose offseason search for a left-footed player to bolster manager Peter Vermes’ 4-3-3 attack — which last season produced the second-most goals in Major League Soccer (50) despite lacking a natural left wing — started and ended with Convey.
Sporting KC acquired Convey, 28, in a Dec. 2 trade with the San Jose Earthquakes for the relatively low cost of an international roster spot, a deal many observers hailed as a shrewd move. Convey, they said, could be the missing piece standing between his new club and the MLS Cup.
Such lofty expectations are nothing new for Convey.
“Since I was 16, I’ve been dealing with the pressure of coming in and having to change the team,” Convey said, “but I feel like everything here (with Sporting KC) is set up for us to do well.
“Everyone has been really receptive. There are no excuses here.”
Convey arrived with a wealth of talent and experience, but also, perhaps, concerns about his impact on a tight-knit and drama-free locker room. At various stops during his career, Convey has been a wunderkind and a disappointment. He’s been dubbed surly, enigmatic, selfish, uncaring or uncooperative, and at times that reputation has colored his on-field accomplishments.
Two years ago, Convey was MLS’ comeback player of the year after helping the Earthquakes to the conference finals. He was the toast of San Jose, but within a year — a stretch in which he was perceived as unhappily stuck at left back — he was deemed expendable.
None of this, of course, comes as a surprise to Vermes, who has tried to swing a deal for Convey for several years.
“I’ve heard this kind of stuff about a lot of different players,” Vermes said. “People said that about Kei (Kamara) when he first got here, but I don’t put much stock in that. It’s about the player coming here and adjusting to what we’re doing and our culture.”
Vermes trusts that Convey will fit in.
“Sometimes, people might think a player is a bad guy, but maybe he just wants to win and he’s sick and tired of being in a mediocre situation,” Vermes said. “Maybe he just wants to be somewhere he can demand higher expectations from all the people he is around.”
And maybe Convey is simply misunderstood.
To understand Convey, it’s important to know where he comes from: a poverty-stricken neighborhood in northeast Philadelphia.
“I grew up very poor,” Convey said. “People don’t know that. People think I was a spoiled, rich, white kid. I wasn’t. I grew up in northeast Philadelphia with drug dealers as my next-door neighbors and surrounded by violence. We lived down the street from the projects and had our car stolen out of the driveway. We had our house broken into a couple times.”
Convey isn’t seeking pity. He shares such stories to explain what some perceived as teen-aged petulance after he signed with D.C. United as a 16-year-old in 2000.
“I definitely was not taught how to deal with the media or deal with adults, necessarily,” Convey said. “When you’re poor and ghetto, you’re more brash. You don’t think before you talk and you say what’s on your mind, which is how you’re taught.
“You’re in survival mode when you are poor, basically, which is the mode I was in. I didn’t have to be anymore, but it’s difficult to change who you’ve been for 16 years all the sudden and be different. I was, one, a teenager and, two, an uneducated teenager, so I didn’t know how to deal with a lot of things. It was baptism by fire.”
Moreover, when the offer to join D.C. United came along, Convey, who suffered optic nerve damage in second grade and is partially blind in his left eye, didn’t see any option but to accept it.
“I didn’t have a great upbringing, but my parents did the best they could,” Convey said. “That’s one reason I did sign so young, was to make a better life for my parents and my family. To come from where I grew up and pass up an opportunity to be a professional wouldn’t have been the best option.”
Thrust into the spotlight, Convey admits to plenty of missteps and mistakes early in his career, but if he regrets anything it is how some of those biting comments and immature moments came to define him.
“As a younger person, usually you make mistakes that don’t stay with you,” Convey said. “Whereas for me, I was talking to (reporters) at 16, and did I say things or do things I regret? Of course, because I was a teenager. That’s what you do as a teenager, but my mistakes were in newspapers and on TV and in magazines. I didn’t understand at 16 or 17 how scrutinized I was.”
He admits that he pouted three years later when he believed D.C. United scuttled his transfer to English club Tottenham — officially, the transfer was denied because Convey couldn’t secure a work permit.
“They wanted me to stay in D.C., so was I the nicest person to be around in the world at the time?” Convey said. “No, but I don’t know how many people would handle that situation where you are trying to set up your family for life. It was a lot of money and the team I always wanted to go to, but behind the scenes there were a lot of things going on, and I didn’t appreciate that.”
The truth is, Convey was a guinea pig.
He was the youngest player to sign with MLS when he joined D.C. United, and nobody knew how the experiment would turn out.
It proved to be a publicity gold mine for the league.
“In D.C., there was a lot of media and a lot of pressure put on me to do certain things,” Convey said. “As the youngest guy in MLS, all eyes were on you. Every mistake you made and every good thing you did — but mostly every mistake — was put out there.”
D.C. United’s veterans were supportive. Convey learned a lot around them and remains friends with many former teammates from those first years.
Still, Convey says that if he has a son, there is no way he’ll allow his child to sign a professional contract at 16.
“I would have been happier being able to progress more naturally,” Convey said. “But it’s a double-edged sword. If I say, ‘No, I should have waited,’ there will be people who say I don’t appreciate the opportunity that I had. But I don’t think anyone is ready at 16 to be a professional, whether you’re good enough or not. Your body’s not ready yet and you’re mentally not ready yet.”
In 2004, Reading FC, a second-division English club, forked over the highest transfer fee in club history to bring in Convey. The move spurred him to grow and mature as a person an ocean away from family, friends and anything familiar.
On the field, Convey was offered no quarter. He was forced to fight for playing time during a mostly unremarkable first season in the Football League Championship but turned things around the next year, sparking a promotion to the English Premier League.
He was noticed at home, too. At age 23, Convey was a starter and rising star for the U.S. men’s national team. He joined the 2006 World Cup squad under Bruce Arena with an international pedigree and seemingly unlimited prospects.
But the shine again dulled when a knee injury and icy relationship with Arena’s national team successor, Bob Bradley, led to Convey being left off the 2010 World Cup roster.
Back in the U.S., Convey’s time with the Earthquakes received mixed reviews. He helped San Jose to a playoff victory with two goals and an assist against the New York Red Bulls, but publicly questioned the team’s willingness to build on that breakthrough.
Asked to take a pay cut, Convey instead requested that he simply be allowed to move on, which landed him with Sporting KC and, he believes, a better shot at winning the MLS Cup.
“We are happy to have him on the team,” said Sporting KC midfielder Roger Espinoza. “We know what he has done throughout his career. His experience has been good, and he fit in right away. He probably has the best technique on the team, which helps us because he keeps so much possession.”
Convey’s impact was immediately noticeable during Sporting KC’s season-opening 1-0 win against D.C. United last week.
“I watched the game when I got home Sunday, and that’s as well as we’ve ever possessed the ball,” captain and goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen said. “We were smart with the ball and looked like a smart team, and a lot of that had to do with Bobby.”
If Convey keeps it up, Vermes will look pretty smart, too.