In Europe, soccer is a religion — a lifestyle where you are forced to live and breathe the sport. Kids who aspire to play professionally start from a young age. They leave their families, homes and, in some circumstances, countries to pursue this dream. Enrollment in a European soccer academy means receiving education, food and shelter, all provided by the club.
Imagine having the opportunity to travel the world because you posses a skillset and talent most kids don’t have at your particular age. That’s exactly where 12-year-old Simon Lekressner, now a forward for Cal men’s soccer, experienced. While some athletes spend a lifetime with the hopes of one day playing on Europe’s grandest football fields, Simon was dribbling on their pitch before he could legally drive a car.
“We got to practice at (Inter Milan’s) youth training grounds. It was just a whole new level of play,” Simon says. “They were so intense. It was their whole life. They cared so much about the sport (and) it was an incredibly, incredibly big step up in level of gameplan.”
Most adolescents are still mentally maturing, not thinking about pursuing a profession. But Simon was beyond his years, standing out from a pool of young Crossfire academy players in the state of Washington. And although he had already secured a spot in the academy, his mentality was shaped as if he was evaluated every year.
“These kids were focused on a future profession, and they weren’t going to go to college,” says Anita Kressner, Simon’s mom. “Every year there is a weeding out process and they’re sent home if they don’t make it out of the process. So they knew they had to compete ferociously for those spots.”
During his stay in Milan, Italy, he got a taste of this ruthless competitive nature everyone around him carried. He had expected everyone to be friendly, cooperative and supportive, so the level of intensity was new to him. It wouldn’t take long for him to embrace the pressure.
Since the age of 5, Simon’s mentality was always about having focus and remaining goal-oriented. Once he had a goal in mind, he’d find a way to get it done and not get detracted from it. His greatest example was learning how to ride a bike solo in his garage.
“He would spent hours in the garage just riding in circles on his bike until he mastered it,” Anita says. “You couldn’t stop him from doing it. That is his characteristic, focusing on something in order to achieve it.”
From the early stages of Simon’s childhood, he was required to have an extracurricular activity to learn how to balance out his life. Anita and Tiep Le, his father, didn’t necessarily push sports as that activity, but implementing the desire to compete was the most important thing. Years after getting on his bike, he was now going to demonstrate his competitive capabilities on the soccer field.
Simon’s dad wasn’t aware of any elite competition for his son in his area, so he began researching and came across an academy called Crossfire. He gave his son a shot and signed him up for a tryout to see if he had what it took. The end result was Simon making the cut and joining an academy that would come to define his lifestyle.
“I played soccer for fun. I started very young in recreational (leagues) like every other kid playing youth soccer,” Simon says. “I always thought I was going to leave sports one day and just focus on school. But soccer just stuck around and I stayed with it.”
Speed separated him from the rest of the pack during his tryout. Crossfire wasn’t any ordinary academy; it had seen the likes of Deandre Yedlin come through its doors before. The opportunity was there for Simon to take his game to the next level with his driven force.
A year into the academy, his coach Bernie James saw that it was necessary to insert him with older players. As an 11-year-old, he wasn’t intimidated by playing with the U14 squad. He’d go on to score two goals in his very first game.
“By playing him with older guys, he needed to use more than just his speed but his technique,” James says. “I think that helped him personally to play up three to four years, because if you can outrun and out jump everyone you kind of get bored, so he needed to get challenged many years ahead.”
His coach was very nitpicky, so much so that Simon, at times, wanted his coach to give him some breathing room. But James knew he had a very special player to develop. He paid particular attention to him by screaming at him when he didn’t do things right on the field.
James had a very old fashioned personality and didn’t allow flashy gear or flamboyant personalities. Everyone had to be the same and never get too high on themselves, which is something Simon took value of and carried with him even if he was one of the premier faces of the academy.
While Simon was good, he would have to dedicate almost all of his time to soccer in order to reach elite status. And in soccer, being part of an academy means players don’t have the flexibility to play for their respective high school teams. If a player stands any chance of being recruited, it requires full dedication to the academy, with everything else coming second.
Simon was ready to take that commitment and became one of those rare players to have gone from a child to a young adult during his time in an academy. It opened opportunities to travel the world throughout the years to play against teams residing in Canada, Hawaii and Spain.
“There were times I felt (that) he focused too much on soccer, that it was limiting his universe, that there wasn’t time for him to do other things,” Anita says. “He sacrificed quite a bit for the academy — lots of school events, parties, dances you name it, because they were either having a game next morning or they were traveling that weekend.”
The recognition of his time with the academy came during his junior year when Harvard came knocking at his door. What started as emails became phone calls and eventually led to a recruitment letter in his inbox. Young and ecstatic, he automatically committed as the thought of actually being able to attend an Ivy League school intrigued him.
But committing to Harvard came with a twist. After committing, he realized the school demanded grades higher than he could actually maintain. He took a step back and deeply reconsidered the opportunity. Regardless of how flashy it appeared, he ultimately decommitted.
“I was like, ‘I don’t want to risk putting my eggs in one basket and just have the rug pull out of me,’ ” Simon says. “‘I’ll play it safe and decomit and go somewhere (else) and get in 100-percent.’”
A year later, every Pac-12 school except Stanford took notice of him. He traveled to every school to see what they could offer and was instantly awestruck when stepping onto the UC Berkeley campus. His fascination with the school, as well as him always wanting to live in California, led him to ditch cold, rainy Washington for the Golden State.
Cal head coach Kevin Grimes’ patience played a huge role in Simon’s commitment. Unlike other coaches, he didn’t pressure Simon to commit by a certain date. For him, everything had to be a process, and basing it on his previous life experiences it helped him make the choice to commit to Cal on Valentine’s Day of last year.
For a freshman, transitioning to a new team will bring forth many challenges, and Simon knows that he will have to learn from his mistakes. Simon is relying on his preceding experience in order to adjust to the collegiate level as his only highlight of his season was a lone goal.
The transformation from academy star to a freshman coming off the bench has been a difficult one for Simon. The harsh reality of now being the bottom of the totem pole has been demoralizing for him, as it’s something he’s never had to deal with. He’ll have to start from the beginning, but now he’ll have to do it against potential pros.
Simon is certain about one thing in his future; regardless of how his career goes, he’ll finish college before declaring for the pros. If he develops into a top-tier talent in the upcoming years, he’ll wait until he graduates before making that decision. He will always be reminded of where an impulsive decision could have led him, which is why it’s now all about exploring his passion inside and outside Edwards Stadium.
“He’ll continue to drive himself to whatever his goals end up being,” Anita says. “He will be successful as he defines the success for himself.”
Contact Oscar Oxlaj at [email protected]