Hear Thomas Vancaeyezeele’s story, in his own words.
If you have watched Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC this season, you’ve probably noticed Thomas Vancaeyezeele. The young midfielder/defensive player seems to fly around the pitch, always ending up exactly where he needs to be, and never seems to run out of energy. In fact, until August 4, he played EVERY minute of the 2018 season (20 games for a total just over 1,800 minutes). Fans who stay for the autograph sessions after home games are always welcomed by his smile and positive outlook. I recently caught up with Thomas Vancaeyezeele and discussed how his soccer career brought him from France to Pittsburgh.
Beautiful Game Network: You played for the Stade Malherbe Caen’s youth side for 6 years. Could you explain how you got involved with that team and what it was like playing for a Ligue 1 youth team?
Thomas Vancaeyezeele: I wanted to play professional soccer since I was very young. In my first year of middle school, I tried out for their academy and it was successful. At the beginning, it was very hard because the kids there were technically way better than me. But quickly, with a lot of work, I reached the level. Every year, they recruited and released a lot of players. It gets harder and harder as you go up the ladder. When you are in those academies, you play against other academies such as Paris SG, Lille, Rennes etc..I was lucky to be trained by one of the best coach for young players in the country, Francois Rodrigues, who used to coach Pogba or Lassana Diarra, Today, he is the director of the PSG academy. I also played with unbelievable players such as Thomas Lemar, Raphael Guerrero or Mbaye Niang, which helped me to learn a lot about the game.
BGN: In 2011, you were promoted to their reserve side, Caen II. What was it like to be called up and make an appearance?
Tommy V: I was 17 at the time. I was training with Caen II for a year. It was very hard to make an appearance with the team, most of the players were under a professionnel contract that were playing in the team at that time. I was very proud, but we lost 3-0 that game so it was not a good memory. The coach was missing a player in the midfield and made me play that position for the first time. Since then, I realized that it was essential for me to be able several positions on the field.
BGN: You transferred to Herouville SC for the 2013/14 season and played in 20 games. What made you feel the need to transfer, and was Herouville a team that you specifically targeted?
Tommy V: I was 18 turning 19 in 2013. The team decided to release me. They considered that I was not good enough to play in Caen II. Herouville is a city right next to where I live. They play in the same division as Caen II . I wanted to prove the coaches from Caen II wrong. And it worked because I ended starting the majority of the games at 19.
BGN: In 2015, you came to the United States and attended the University of Charleston. What was the deciding factor to come to the United States and how did you settle on the University of Charleston?
Tommy V: During my last year in Caen and my year in Herouville, I was studying at the University. After my year in Herouville, I realized that it was more likely that I would never sign a professional contract so I decided to travel. I earned a scholarship to go and study in Spain. I played there for 6 months while I was doing school. The general manager of the team told me that I could still make it if I worked hard. I saw potential in me. One of my friends from Caen, Paul Marie who got drafted by San Jose Earthquakes, went in the US and told me that I should do the same, I could get my degree and keep hoping about signing a professional contract. I started the process to go in the US receiving a lot of offers from DI schools but the French college credits would not transfer in the American DI college system. I had to go DII. I received an offer from Charleston who lost in Final Four the year before. I chose to go there.
BGN: While at the University of Charleston, you made a name for yourself. In fact, after Charleston won the NCAA DII Championship, you were named Player of the Year. Can you explain what your college experience was like and how it felt to have such a successful year?
Tommy V: In Charleston, most of the players had the same profile as me; almost pro in Europe and willing to pursue an education. I felt very comfortable there. In West Virginia, there is not much to do so you get very close to the people around you. My coach taught me a lot and we had a very good relationship. He trusted me making me as captain so I gave him the trust back trying to win that NCAA DII Championship. I never thought that I would finish Player of the Year during the season, the only goal was to win the championship with my friends. I will never forget this year, it was unbelievable
BGN: After the season was over, you received an invite for the MLS Combine. Was that something you thought was going to happen? Could you also explain what participating in the MLS Combine was like?
Tommy V: At first, I was not invited. There is no look in DII. My coach and my agent made a lot of calls trying to put my name on the list for the MLS combine. I got invited after a last minute injury from a Stanford player. I was lucky for once in my whole career. I was so happy to be at the combine. I met Patrick Vieira which is a big star especially for me being French. It was in Orlando, we play in the Orlando City’s beautiful stadium. And also, I was with my friend Paul Marie that I did not see since I was playing for Caen.
BGN: Unfortunately, you weren’t selected, but were invited to a trial with the Riverhounds. Could you share the process of how you got the invite and what it was like when you received an offer?
Tommy V: I was not selected. After the draft list came out, the coach from Charlotte Independence invited for preseason. After a week, they released me too saying that I would not have enough impact in the game for someone who takes an international spot. I went back to Charleston to finish my degree and they had a friendly game against the Riverhounds. My coach let me play and told Coach Lilley that I was available being a senior. So, Bob Lilley invited me in try out.
BGN: This season, we have seen you play almost every position, except keeper, and you had a streak of playing every single minute of the season until a few games ago. How open were you to playing all over the field? Do you have a favorite position overall?
Tommy V: I wanted to play professional soccer since I was a kid so I do not care what position I play on the field. From the academy, I have good tactical awareness. I think my favorite position is center back. It is the position that I am the more comfortable with. I almost only played that position back in the academy
BGN: With your experience of playing in France for most of your life, then in Spain, and now in the United States. How much of a difference in the level of play and support is there between the countries?
Tommy V: The highest level that I played was in France. I played against very good players so it was such an achievement for me. In Spain, everybody loves soccer. On Saturdays, all the bars are packed during the whole day to watch La Liga games. I have never witnessed a passion like that before. And here in the US, I was lucky to play against Nashville and Cincinnati where the crowd was close the 20,000.
BGN: You were 4 when France won their first World Cup, walk me through how it feels to see your home country win the World Cup this year and twice in your life.
Tommy V: In 1998, I do not have many memories; I was too young. This year, it was unbelievable, I was so happy and proud of that team. I just wished I was there to party. The country has literally blown up.
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