Joe Greenspan has an exceptional story to tell, on and off the pitch.
Anyone who has watched the Pittsburgh Riverhounds this year has witnessed a re-branding and one of the best seasons to-date in franchise history. They also are witnessing a very special player—Joe Greenspan. Greenspan has a fascinating resume: a Naval Academy graduate who served a year of active duty before transferring to the Navy Reserves, allowing him to pursue his professional soccer career while serving his country. I had the absolute thrill of talking with him about his journey, both in the Navy and as a professional soccer player.
Beautiful Game Network: Growing up in New Jersey, you decided to enroll in the Naval Academy in high school. What led you to that decision?
Joe Greenspan: It was during the recruiting process in high school that I came to realize what a great opportunity it would be to attend the United States Naval Academy (USNA). To play Division 1 soccer at a historic institution, receive a top class education, and earn a commission into the United States Navy were, among other things, the main reasons why I chose USNA.
BGN: While playing at the USNA, you became a two-time All-American and Defensive Player of the Year. You were also a member of the Navy team that won its first NCAA Tournament game in over 40 years. Can you describe your collegiate soccer career?
JG: It was an experience filled with learning and growth. We collectively, and I individually, struggled during my first two years. During the last two years, our hard work paid off and we found success. It taught me that there is no success without struggle, there are no substitutes for hard work, and all the hard work you put in makes the success that much sweeter.
BGN: All your hard work paid off as the Colorado Rapids selected you in the 2015 MLS Super Draft. The draft occurred while you were finishing your time at the USNA. Can you recall back to the moment you were drafted?
JG: We had a little watch party in my dorm room before our afternoon classes and when I got the phone call and heard my name announced it was a bit unreal. It’s every player’s dream to become a professional and to have that dream come true was very rewarding.
BGN: Did you ever think playing professionally was something tangible before being drafted?
JG: It was always a dream of mine but when I decided to go to USNA, I had accepted that it wasn’t going to happen. No player had ever gone on to play pro from there and I had decided to attend USNA for different reasons, obviously. In the end, having the opportunity to not only pursue a professional career but more importantly to serve my country as an Officer in the United States Navy is a dream come true.
BGN: After serving a year of active duty, you were able to transfer to the Navy Reserves and start a professional soccer career, where you saw playing time for the Colorado Rapids and Minnesota United. Can you describe the early stages of your professional career?
JG: It was an interesting experience. There were a lot of ups and downs for the club as well as myself. But, it was another learning experience for me individually and it helped me grow as a person and player to battle through the head injuries, and have some successful playing spells with Minnesota as well on loan here in Pittsburgh.
BGN: What was it like playing for Minnesota United?
JG: The biggest thing there that I enjoyed was the fan support. To see a first-year club in MLS put 20,000 plus in the stands every home game and be loud and supportive was a lot of fun.
BGN: How would you describe the difference between MLS and USL?
JG: A level up across the board (in MLS). There are good players and teams in USL, but MLS is a bit more consistent overall and there are some real game changers in that league. The quality is a step up as well as the speed of play and decision making. But, if you look at the results in U.S. Open Cup between MLS and USL teams as well as USL players stepping into MLS teams and adding quality, the gap between the two leagues is not that big.
BGN: At the end of last season, Minnesota United declined to pick up their team option on you. This allowed Riverhounds SC, where you played 10 games on loan last season, to make an offer. Did your previous time on loan help in that decision process?
JG: For sure, having spent some time here last year definitely helped in my decision-making for this year. I was familiar with the club, fans, and the city so it was nice not having to completely start over somewhere else. Rather, I was able to pick up where I left off from my loan spell.
BGN: Listed at 6’6”, it is very hard for players and fans to not be aware of your physical presence on the pitch, however, you weren’t always a defender. In fact, you were a forward until your junior year at the USNA. Tell us about that transition.
JG: Things had gotten a bit stale at USNA and my coaches weren’t happy with how I was playing and thought I could be better used in the back. It just so happened that it was a pretty natural switch and we went with it. It’s gotten me here, so I’m not complaining.
BGN: The Riverhounds backline has been strong all year, and you are one of the leaders of that line. How does it feel to help lead this group?
JG: Somebody has to do it so why not be the one, right? There are some different elements to it in regards to the communication aspect as well as just leading by example and giving everything for the team every match. We’ve been lucky to have multiple guys this year step up and lead during different times, so it’s really been a collective effort where everybody contributes.
BGN: Are you surprised at how successful the group has been?
JG: Our coaching staff is very straightforward with what they want out of us and we have a talented team. So, as long as we go out there, put our best foot forward, and try to execute the game plan as best we can, we give ourselves a good chance to be successful.
BGN: You have to balance your life as a professional soccer player and a member of the Navy Reserves. You’re a Public Affairs Officer at a local Navy Operational Support Center, during the offseason supporting different commands. How have you been able to find that balance?
JG: The Navy has been fantastic in supporting my soccer career by allowing me to be flexible in how and when I fulfill my obligations as an officer.
Outside of soccer and the Navy, Joe ensures that he keeps himself ready (it’s actually a requirement of a Naval Officer) with a finely tuned diet, extra fitness, as well as some yoga and meditation. He attempts to split his free time with his family on the east coast and his girlfriend on the west coast. (He describes the western states as “insanely beautiful”) as well as fishing, hiking, reading, and developing his own photography.
The photographs included above are photos taken and developed by Joe Greenspan and used with permission. The first photograph was taken by his father.