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Person to Watch: Chris Konopka
Whether it’s football or soccer – the Union goalkeeper knows how to play
By Cynthia Marone

It’s easy to understand why Chris Konopka uses the term “football” when he talks about his career, most recently as goalie for the Philadelphia Union soccer team.

Konopka spent much of the last five years in Ireland, where he racked up accolades as the goalkeeper for three separate organizations — the Bohemian Football Club (nicknamed the Bohs) in Dublin, the Sporting Fingal Football Club and Waterford United.

“I tend to say ‘football,’ but people understand it. If I’m talking to other players or speaking to my mom or dad, I call it football,” says the Toms River native.

Konopka12 (3)Whether referring to it by the European term “football” or the Americanized “soccer,” Konopka is said to be one of the game’s toughest and most talented players. The Union signed him a little over a year ago and the move brought him back – after stints in the aforementioned Europe, as well as Ohio and New York – to his home turf. At least nearby it, since he fostered his love of the game by playing with the Jersey Shore Boca Soccer Club when he was barely double-digits. He credits his 10 years with Jersey Shore Boca, which is based in Ocean County, for making him the player he is today.

“We were active in the South Jersey league. I traveled to Cape May, Cherry Hill, Medford. We played all the way to Minnesota,” says Konopka, 28. “During the summer tournaments, colleges come to see you play. Jersey Shore Boca helped with that. It helped me get recognized for college. Boca still plays a big role in a lot of players’ lives.”

Snatched up by Providence College in Rhode Island, Konopka led his team to three-straight Big East Championship Semi-Finals during the 2003 to 2006 seasons. There was never a doubt in his mind playing soccer was what he wanted to do, but he made his name in Ireland before he made his way back to the States.

“I was in Ireland for three years. It was fantastic to see more of the world,” says the 6-foot, 5-inch athlete.

The notoriously intense “football” fans had no trouble loving him, especially when he was winning games and honors. Konopka became the first American-born player to win the Irish Double – two championships. A 2009 championship with the Sporting Fingal secured his place in history as the first American to take home back-to-back trophies.

As hard as it was to leave his adopted country, Konopka returned to the states and Major League Soccer in 2011. He joined the Goalkeeper Pool, which supplies players to teams going through hardships, such as not having enough healthy goalkeepers. It gave Konopka the chance to play for both Ohio’s Columbus Crew and the New York Red Bulls in the same season before he was signed by the Union in March 2012.

It was good to be close to Jersey, he says, and to see the sport he loves becoming a powerhouse of popularity.

“Coming back about two years ago with the Red Bulls – the league had changed greatly and for the better. It’s a world-renowned league,” says Konopka. “I was in England, and they were watching the American finals.”

Konopka-Action (1)The growing appeal is evident when Konopka looks into the crowd that packs the Union’s home, PPL Park, in Chester, Pa. The 18,500 seats are routinely filled with families. Typically, the adults grew up, like he did, playing the game, and the kids are playing now.

“Our fans are some of the best in the league, if not the best. They are always there, we hear their voices,” he says. “They are a great support group.”

Konopka grew up watching the Phillies and Eagles, but playing basketball and soccer. There wasn’t an epiphany that made him chose one sport over the other, but he knew he had a drive to clear plateaus on the field rather than the court.

“Soccer is the first sport I played growing up. I always wanted to keep playing. It was varsity, then college, then Division 1,” he says. “I was always shooting for the next step, even when I was younger. I wasn’t thinking at 5 about turning pro, but being on the next level.”

When he was about 13, he made the decision that soccer would be his life’s work and, since that moment, he has put all his energies into perfecting his game. It took center stage (with time put aside for basketball) in high school during the academic year and, in the summer, he dedicated his days to South Jersey Boca.

In 2003, 18-year-old Konopka took his first steps toward making soccer his profession. He played for Boca’s Premier Development League, which is an elite, highly organized amateur league that covers the United States, Canada and Bermuda. The next year, it was the same league, but this time Konopka played for the Jersey Falcons. (The Falcons have since disbanded.)

He kept crushing it, eventually making his way to a Division 1 college. While getting his degree, he was also getting a massive number of firsts: First Providence goalkeeper to appear in an NCAA Tournament, second round; first Providence goalkeeper to record an NCAA Tournament win; and the first Providence player in the college’s history to be drafted by a Major League Soccer team – The Kansas City Wizards – in 2007. When his time with the Wizards ended a year later, Konopka packed up his gloves and cleats and headed to Ireland.

Europe may not have been in his plans when he was 5, but being a goalie was at the top of his must list. The role is a critical one for a team. The position is one of leadership that requires balance, agility and quick reflexes. Konopka didn’t mind keeping a barrage of balls at bay or getting whacked by them, either.

“I was tending goal as a little kid,” says Konopka. “It’s crazy, I know, but I’ve always enjoyed being the guy in the back who’s digging his team out of holes.”

Konopka dedicates his body and mind to the sport even when he’s not on the field. He has a year-round workout routine that prepares him for games. He’s in the gym four days a week during the offseason and twice a day, every day, when preseason rolls around. During the 34-game, March-to-October season, it’s a punishing six-day-a-week regimen. His one day of recuperation gives him time to pick up his guitar or any of the other instruments he plays.

It all pays off on the field and in the stands, apparently. Respect for and interest in the sport on these shores has surged since the league took shape in 1993. There has been at least one expansion team added to the league since 2005, save for 2008. The Montreal Impact from Quebec, Canada, was the 19th team to join the league in 2012. The Union became part of MLS three years ago.

“It’s grown,” says Konopka, “whether it’s through TV or at matches. People can see why it’s a prominent sport throughout the world. It’s not a little-kid sport.”

June 2013
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