“Thank you, I appreciate it.” It is not often that a lowly scribe is thanked by a professional athlete at the end of an interview but that was my experience Sunday evening at Yankee Stadium as I wrapped a brief locker room chat with Ben Sweat just after the NYCFC fullback had put in a tidy 90 minute shift in his club’s thrilling 3-2 Hudson River Derby victory over the New York Red Bulls.
Sweat cut something of a lonely figure when I approached him in front of his locker in the boisterous NYCFC dressing room. The Derby win had the players buzzing and with the media scrum waiting for resident superstar David Villa to discuss his first MLS hat trick I sidled over to one of the lesser known players on the club’s roster.
In Major League Soccer’s salary capped feudal system the serfs line up alongside the lords with contributions from both classes needed on any team with Championship aspirations.
And Sweat has fulfilled his role to a tee since grabbing hold of the starting fullback job in recent weeks. A first round pick by the Columbus Crew in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, Sweat came to NYCFC as a trialist, having spent the previous two seasons with the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the NASL, after being cut loose by the Crew without having played in a league game.
On Sunday, I asked Sweat what it feels like to go from a trialist to a regular starter on an MLS contender.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” the 25-year-old defender told me. “To come here to such a prestige club and to impress Pat and some of the coaching staff and to be able to play with David and Andrea, it’s definitely been a huge confidence boost.”
A fan of England’s Premier League, Sweat knows full well “Pat’s” – NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira’s – reputation as a star in the game, and he is delighted to have impressed the Arsenal and France legend.
“Oh, it’s huge. You know I’ve got to make sure I not only keep impressing them but that I’m giving them exactly what they want. They took me, they signed me, so I’ve got to make sure I do everything possible to give back and prove and show day in and day out that I want to be here and be a part of this club.”
The 6’2” Texan comes off as humble but don’t mistake that humility for a lack of self-belief. Sweat has 15 starts under his belt now, so I asked him if he is beginning to feel comfortable.
“Yeah, of course. I’ve been comfortable for quite some time now,” Sweat began. “After five, seven games, (you get a) good rhythm, you start to understand the players around you and you start to understand what they expect out of you. It’s been consistent confidence and consistent rhythm out of me,” Sweat added.
Comfort and rhythm are good but given where he came from I don’t see the fullback taking his hard earned status for granted.
“Nothing is guaranteed – signed or not signed,” Sweat said in talking about his initial contact with NYCFC. “I decided to come in and prove myself right away, work hard and show these guys I wanted to be here and be part of this club and this movement. It was a lot of hard work and it’s paid off so far.”
So, why has it come together for Sweat here with New York City and not with Columbus? The player himself seems unsure, still Sweat took a shot at working it out for me. “It’s tough, you know? Not everything breaks your way,” he started.
“I ended up leaving Columbus and going down and getting a ton of matches and that’s kind of shaped me and gotten me to this point in my career where I had an opportunity to come here and try out with NYCFC and I was ready because” – here is that confidence again – “I knew I could play at a high level and it definitely helped out getting games in the lower leagues.”
Sweat’s road has had more than a few detours, though being part of Sunday’s win over NYCFC’s cross river rivals demonstrates that Sweat was right to stay on that road.
“Oh, I love it,” Sweat answered when I asked him about playing in the Derby. “I’ve always watched the rivalries, growing up watching the Prem League and everything, with Man City and Man United and it’s pretty awesome to be part of one.”
So, does Sweat have any advice for any soccer strugglers out there? Yes, the starting fullback on New York City FC does.
“You can’t quit, you can’t give up. If this is really what you want to do in life, if this is your love and passion you’ve got to stick it out.” Speaking from experience, Sweat continued. “You know, not every player is lucky enough and fortunate enough to get the luck that bounces their way and you’re going to have up years and down years, so just sticking through it and battling and you’re going to have success and one break and that’s all you need.”
Oh, and Ben? You’re welcome.