As a former professional soccer player at a few different levels, I have seen many players succeed, and fail, to make it a long term career. What is the difference? What did the players who make it have in common? And of those who did make it at the highest level (national team, European careers), what did they do differently? 

You might be an aspiring professional player, a parent of a high-level youth player, or just a soccer fan curious about how it works – these insights will help your appreciation of those who have made it. 

What makes soccer great is that you don’t have to have any specific quality to make it as a professional. In basketball, for instance, if you’re not at least 6 ft tall (at the very bare minimum), you have almost no chance to make the NBA. For football, if you don’t have superhuman size/strength/speed (or some combination of the three), you probably won’t make the NFL. 

It’s not the same for soccer. You see people of most sizes and shapes in a game, and not all have elite level athleticism. While this can give the average person hope, you need to accel in many areas to make it. Let’s dig in to what it takes.


You need a certain level of talent to make it as a professional soccer player. Obviously. But don’t let the people you see playing on TV fool you. Although most may look like normal sized people, they all have at least one exceptional ability (and the best have multiple) that they have built their game around. 

While you don’t have to be a certain size/shape/athlete to make it as a professional, you do need exceptional talent in at least one area. And probably multiple areas if you want to make a long career out of it. 

Whether it’s speed, technical ability, size/strength, quickness, intelligence, or even psychology/mental strength, if you are not among the best in at least one of these areas compared to almost everyone you currently play against, it might be tough to make it as a professional. 

Unfortunately, no amount of hard work can make up for a lack of elite-level talent or potential in at least one of these areas. 

Clint Dempsey is a great example. Having played against him in college, you could easily see that the combination of his technical ability and athleticism would give him the potential to reach the top. He had something special in both of those areas. There’s no amount of work that an average player could do to reach his technical ability – he was simply another level above everyone in this regard. He didn’t always apply it in a way that was most effective to help win games (he liked to showboat a bit, because he could get away with it), but he had the raw ability.

Clint Dempsey had exceptional talent as a young player
Clint Dempsey’s raw talent was apparent in his college days

And even though he wasn’t the best player in the country at this age (he wasn’t a starter at the U20 World Cup when he was on the roster that year), he eventually ended up surpassing everyone else in this age group. His talent, and his mentality (which we will discuss later), gave him the edge as an attacking midfielder.

If you’re reading this as a player, you probably know whether or not you have elite ability or potential in at least one area of the game. If you do, build your game around this, but also realize it is not enough. Dempsey worked very hard to hone his talent AND became a great team player, which enabled him to maximize his natural ability to become an all-time great US player. 

While this is an all-time great standard, the principle remains the same. You can train a donkey all you want, but it will never win the Kentucky Derby.


Which leads us nicely into the dedication required to make it as a professional. Another fairly obvious factor in making soccer a career. Even the most talented players cannot make it to the top without applying themselves properly. 

You may understand this conceptually, but in practice it takes so much time and mental dedication to make it as a professional. Hours of practice every day. Endless travel. Living places you don’t want to. No social life. Constantly competing, even with your own teammates. Dealing with difficult teammates and coaches. Pressure to always win. Always playing your best, because you never know who’s watching.

You have to really love the game, or else the grind will wear you down and you’ll lose your edge. That’s what eventually happened to me, and why I only made it a few years as a professional. If you want to do better, you need to understand the dedication necessary to emerge at the top.

I’ve seen countless players with the ability to make it as a professional fall short because they lost their dedication. Which is fine, the professional life is not for everyone. Sometimes you want to have a social life, not put your body through the ringer, and not have to put up with the harsh realities of a professional soccer lifestyle.

There are literally millions of kids all over the world playing and practicing almost every day. And many do so just because they love the game. I had a stint in Germany with a Bundesliga U23 team. They were mostly 18-20 years old and trained twice a day for 10 months out of the year. You are competing with them. Without an extreme love for the game, you won’t last in this type of environment.

And hard work is a huge aspect of this dedication. In a recent interview, US National Team player Brendon Aaronson had a great observation. He said “When you think you’re doing enough, that’s not really enough.” 

US National Team player Brendon Aaronson on what it takes to become a professional

From my experience, I didn’t really emerge as a top prospect until I started training every day in the offseason and putting in extra sessions during the season. I also had a great individual coach. He helped me work harder than I thought was possible. When I saw the improvement, it made me want to keep going. 

You should aim for this same feedback loop. If putting in this much work sounds too hard for you, then you will find it tough to make it as a professional. 

A Mix of Arrogance and Humility

The first two areas we discussed, talent and dedication, are pretty obvious needs to make it as a professional soccer player. But mindset is not talked about nearly enough. You need the right balance of arrogance and humility, or else the grind will crush you.

Back to Clint Dempsey. Yes, he was clearly an exceptional talent. But he also had a seemingly unreasonable amount of self-belief. As a college player, this would often seem like cockiness or arrogance, as he nut-megged people for fun and was pulling out rabonas for no reason. This illustrated his clear mindset that he was simply better than everyone, and he wanted to show it off.

He eventually reined this in as a professional and used his energy to become an effective team player, showing moments of flair when needed. But the mentality that he was the best always stayed. And I’m convinced this was the edge he had against other similarly talented players. I’m not saying you need to toy with people, but knowing you can is a huge advantage.

Dempsey honed his talent to become an effective team player

As a contrasting example, there was a player I played with who was on a similar talent level to Dempsey. But he didn’t have this self-belief. He would worry about the crowd, what the coach was thinking, his mistakes, and anything else that could get in the way. He still became a very good player just based on his talent alone, but he could never break through because he didn’t have this arrogance. 

On the flip side, you need a certain level of humility. Getting better requires learning from your mistakes, listening to coaches and more experienced players, and constantly assessing and improving your game.

The right attitude to accept criticism and use it to improve will help tremendously. Talented individuals are notorious for not being able to accept feedback – it’s part of what makes them great. But they still put this aside to look at their game critically and constantly make improvements.

The Right Environment

Another factor that people do not stress enough. The right environment is crucial to make it as a professional. I was lucky to have a few great coaches along the way who believed in me and gave me the tools and know-how to reach a high level. I played for good teams and was exposed to high level competition.

This was in the late 90s and early 2000s. Would I have been a better player if I had grown up in Europe? Or was coming through the ranks now? It certainly would have given me a better chance. 

The youth soccer scene has developed so much in the past 20 years that it’s almost unrecognizable. And we’re producing much better players than before. This proves that the right environment is crucial for development.

It’s vital to get the best coaching while exposing yourself to the highest level of competition possible. It also means playing for a coach who believes in you and will put you in a position to develop. If you’re not getting either of these, look at your options and don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone. 

Now, you should only focus on this after the age of 12 or so. Before that age, studies have shown that overspecialization can be a detriment in the long run. 

Focus on getting in the right environment after this age. Before then, have fun and make sure you’re developing skills and a love of the game. I can’t tell you how many players I’ve seen burn out because they were specializing too early with position-specific coaching, overtraining, and too much travel for practice and games. 

I digress. In a recent interview, Clint Dempsey wonders how much better he would have been growing up Europe, for instance (he’s from rural Texas). He had an all-time great US career, but even he imagines a better outcome in a different environment. That’s how important it is. 

What Are the Chances?

The odds are against you. A high school player has a 0.08% chance of playing professionally. They were against me too. Even though I did not have a long career or play at the highest level, it still took a lot for me to get there. And everyone who has made it at the highest level will tell you that they went through a lot to get there.

If you aspire to play at this level, you have a lot of work to do! And the right combination of talent, dedication, mentality, and environment gives you the best chance.

Similar Posts