While professional sports can be lucrative, Jake Keegan ’12 isn’t motivated by thoughts of a big payday as he pursues a career in professional soccer.
“My goal is to play at the highest level possible. I’m not doing it to get rich,” says Keegan, who is the first Binghamton University player to be drafted by a club in Major League Soccer (MLS), the top soccer league in the United States.
At the same time, he knows he’s fortunate to be traveling the world at no cost doing something he loves. “When I get older, there will be plenty of time to get a real job,” he laughs.
Keegan was drafted in the third round by the Philadelphia Union after drawing positive comments for his energy, scoring skills and work ethic at the MLS Combine earlier this year. The four-day showcase gives scouts, coaches and general managers the opportunity to evaluate new prospects.
“Very good goal soccer, he’ll drift off people’s shoulders and finish,” one scout wrote in a report. “Love his attitude and work rate,” wrote another.
While gratified to be drafted by MLS, Keegan chose, instead, to go overseas after being offered a tryout by Maccabi Haifa F.C., a top team in Israel’s main soccer league.
“The pay and level [of play] were higher in Israel. It was too good an opportunity to pass up,” he explains.
Playing in Israel was a great experience, but, in the end, Maccabi Haifa did not offer Keegan a contract. He then went to Austria to train with FC Lustenau, a club in a lower league, before returning to the United States in the spring.
This summer, Keegan played with the Jersey Express, an amateur team based in Newark, N.J. The team is part of the Premier Development League, which is the top-level men’s amateur soccer competition in the United States and is considered a professional development league.
This fall, he’s playing with the professional Austrian Football First League in Lustenau, Austria.
Keegan played forward at Binghamton after earning all-state honors in his senior year for leading John Jay High School in Stormville, N.Y., to the Section 1 title.
“He had a knack for putting the ball in the back of the net,” says Paul Marco, men’s head soccer coach at Binghamton, about Keegan’s talent in high school. Still, it wasn’t clear that Keegan could succeed at the next level, Marco says. He watched, with pleasure, as the young man improved throughout his four years while showing “a great competitive spirit.”
“I wouldn’t rule out him making it [back] into MLS at some point,” Marco says. The Philadelphia Union holds contractual rights to Keegan and could activate him in a subsequent season.
Keegan says he’s always had a feel for the game: “I’m not necessarily the strongest or the fastest, but I know where to be on the field and where to move to.”
Playing abroad gave him the chance to gauge himself against foreign players and draw some conclusions. “The players abroad are more technical, have more skills and are better on the ball. The players in the U.S. are more physical, more fit and stronger,” he says.
As for the fans, “people are more nuts over there” — nuts about soccer, that is, Keegan says.
Although he doesn’t know if soccer will ever be as big in the United States as it is in Europe, he sees the sport’s popularity growing in this country. Media attention has been slow in coming, but MLS is now an established league, almost 20 years old, with attendance comparable to that of the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League, he says.
“The fan base is growing everywhere,” he adds.
Keegan plans to give soccer about five years and then, if he’s still at a lower level, look into coaching or another career.
Until then, “I love the day-to-day challenge to improve at something,” he says. “I like getting better.”