RailHawks provide next step for Taitague's promising future
Posted May 5, 2016
Cary, N.C. — Ask Nick Taitague to list his strengths as a soccer player, and his voice begins trailing off sometime between “taking on players” and “scoring goals.” Ask about the dearth of de rigeur YouTube videos chronicling his playing exploits, and he starts his response with a shoulder shrug.
“I’ve never really gotten into highlight reels," Taitague said. "I never took time to make my own.”
He’s an unassuming 17-year-old with an unremarkable appearance beyond his hairstyle. He’s easily overlooked, until you see the ball at his feet and talk to those who have seen him play.
“He’ll be playing at a high level in the future, probably in Europe,” said Carolina RailHawks manager Colin Clarke.
Dave Amsler, longtime technical director of FC Richmond, added, “He’s a bit special.”
“The smart thing to do would be to temper expectations—you don’t want him to be another cautionary tale," said RailHawks and former MLS midfielder Austin da Luz. "But he’s as talented a 17-year-old as I’ve ever seen.”
“I consider Nick to be in the same breath as Christian Pulisic,” noted a longtime reporter covering American youth and college soccer:
Along his journey from the rec fields of Richmond to a U.S. youth national team regular to a potential pro career overseas, Taitague is currently taking a sojourn in Cary. Last month, he joined the RailHawks on an amateur arrangement that permits him to train and even play for the North American Soccer League club. It’s an opportunity regularly afforded to standout members of the Capital Area RailHawks Developmental Academy.
But Taitague isn’t a member of any soccer developmental academy, and no amateur player who has trained with the RailHawks’ senior squad has actually appeared in an NASL match.
Until Nick Taitague.
The Road Less Traveled
Raised in Midlothian, Va., a suburb of Richmond, Nick Taitague was eight years old when Dave Amsler began coaching him. A native of West Chester, Pa., Amsler played soccer at then-Campbell College in Buies Creek, where he was voted team Most Valuable Player all four years and was a three-time All-South All-American. He’s been a professional soccer instructor for 40 years, and in 1975, was one of the first 50 coaches to earn the USSF "A" coaching license.
Amsler founded the Richmond Strikers Soccer Club in 1976, the FC Richmond Magic youth club in 1985, and he’s coached and helped develop over a dozen youth national team members. Taitague’s father, a financial advisor born in South Korea, played college soccer at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and was a regular in the Richmond youth soccer scene.
Taitague developed through FC Richmond and the region’s Olympic Development Program, where he was noticed at age 13 by scouts for the U.S. U-14 national team. Since being the last player invited to the next U-14 camp, Taitague has regularly participated in the U.S. U-14, U-15, U-16, U-17 and now U-18 national teams, one of the few, if only players born in 1999 to do so.
“We’ve had national team kids come out of our program over the years,” Amsler said. “But Nick possesses some things that are of very high quality: speed, quickness, very good foot skills under pressure. I think the potential is pretty high.”
The one avenue Taitague has eschewed is the U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy, widely regarded as the top tier of U.S. youth soccer since it was formed in 2007. Aside from a handful of matches with Richmond United, the area’s developmental academy, Taitague has remained with FC Magic and national team call-ups/camps.
It’s a choice that Amsler admits is unique, but also one he believes is necessary.
“There are very few kids at this time who have been with the national team who are not with an academy,” Amsler explained. “Here’s a kid who has defied the odds and developed in a different way. Some of the qualities he has are different than the qualities kids have in the academies.
“Nick is a very creative player. If you look at some of the kids coming out of the academies, that’s not necessarily the norm, "Amsler added. "A lot of the academy teams play very methodical and similar, and he doesn’t play that way. He adds a wrinkle to the game.”
In January 2015, Taitague was among 28 players—and one of the few 1999-born prospects—invited to the U-17 men’s national team spring residency roster in Bradenton, Fla. After departing Bradenton, partly due to a myriad of nagging injuries, Taitague returned to FC Richmond.
In search of places to maximize Taitague’s development, Amsler reached out to Clarke.
Clarke first met Amsler in 1995, just after Clarke immigrated to America from England. Amsler gave Clarke his first U.S. coaching job at FC Richmond.
“I needed a place to train over the summer, so I came [to Carolina] last year for a couple of weeks,” Taitague said. “I guess they liked me, and I wanted to come again.
“I’m trying to get experience with older players, getting stronger," he added. "That’s what the national team coaches want for me to get prepared for what’s next in Europe. So this is a good place to start.”
The 17-year-old attacking midfielder quickly made an impression on the RailHawks’ coaches and players.
“He has tools you can’t teach,” said Clarke, a former forward with the Northern Ireland national team and the top division of English football during his playing career. “He has pace—a quick three or four steps and he’s past people. He has confidence, ability, belief. He’s a cocky 17-year-old who likes to play football, and it’s great to watch.”
“He’s a very intelligent player,” da Luz said. “He makes good decisions, which at that age is a rarity. He’s strong, quick, and he can play just about anywhere in the midfield, which again, is a rarity to have that kind of versatility.”
Taitague arrived in Carolina the first week of April this year. On April 23, he made his pro team debut at the tail end of the RailHawks’ win at the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
He then flew direct to California for a U.S. U-18 training camp, where he scored a goal in a win over Club Tijuana’s U-20/U-18 team on Tuesday.
He was back in Cary by Friday for RailHawks training, then joined Carolina for its match at the New York Cosmos last Sunday, where he subbed on in the 83rd minute with the RailHawks trailing by a goal.
“The idea was for him to go down and get used to the training environment of a professional team,” Amsler said. “If he got a sniff at playing time, all the better. After three weeks of training and so forth, he’s making an impact, and there are some positive feelings that he’ll be able to get more minutes.”
Taitague is slated to remain with the RailHawks through the end of its NASL spring season in June. He’ll then commence a series of trials and training in Germany and possibly Spain as a prelude to beginning his professional playing career when he turns 18 in February 2017. But he and the RailHawks are already discussing ways for him to possibly return to the club throughout the remainder of the 2016 regular season.
“He has some other obligations with a team in Germany that he’s been over there and worked with,” Clarke said. “But they can’t do anything until he turns 18. Hopefully we’ll be able to work it out where he spends more time here than there during the fall season.”
CollegeSoccerNews.com ranks Taitague as the No. 2 high school player in the Class of 2017. He’s one of just a handful of 5-star recruits, according to Top Drawer Soccer. But Amsler says Taitague’s rapidly approaching future lies in Europe, not American college soccer.
“Those [college] offers have been declined, all of them," Amsler said. "He’s not in any way playing college soccer. He’s earmarked for professional soccer. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”
Feet on the Ground
“I have a tendency to be very, very conservative in my guesstimates,” Amsler said, “because there are so many factors that determine how far players will go. But Nick’s 17, he doing very well and he hasn’t dropped his game, he’s only improved it. I feel he’s getting better and better, and could be somebody we’ll see around for a while.”
The American soccer landscape is littered with 'Next Big Things'. Forecasting the fortunes of teenage prodigies is usually a fool’s errand. There’s no guarantee that Taitague will overcome the odds. If he does, everyone agrees it’ll be due to his attitude as much his burgeoning abilities.
“He’s been exceptional, not just for his age, but in general,” da Luz said. “It’s fun and refreshing to see a kid that age, with that kind of talent, as humble as he is, That’s what I’ve been most impressed with, his personality. He’s here to learn, and you can see that every day he’s just soaking everything up, asking questions and listening. That’s kind of the coolest part about it.”
“This kid is grounded more than any other 17-year-old kid,” Amsler added. “His head’s not big, and he knows he hasn’t done anything yet. That’s the way he considers it, and we’ve done a good job keeping it that way. That’s why I think he’ll go a long way, because he doesn’t think in any way, shape or form that he’s done anything yet.”