Sports

Orben Hopes to Inspire Students with His Journey to the Pros

For Will Orben, Co-Head Coach of Boys Varsity Soccer and Instructor in Mathematics, playing professional soccer was never the plan, but the journey was more than he could ever ask for.

Despite living in Southern Indiana, Orben grew up playing hockey, only dabbling with soccer on the side. When the hockey program at home dissolved, Orben turned to boarding schools hoping to continue his education and athletics.

He went into Taft his 11th grade year with the intent of playing both hockey and soccer, and although hockey was his preferred sport, he made the biggest impact on the soccer pitch.

“My soccer went really well at Taft, so I ended up playing that in college,” said Orben.

Recruited to LeHigh University, Orben played his freshman and sophomore years there before taking a year abroad and play for a semi-pro team in England where he got his first taste of professional soccer.

When he returned to LeHigh, soccer was just beginning to pick up momentum in the United States.

“I majored in civil engineering, and obviously that was a big part of my time [at college] but athletically I had just given everything to soccer. The MLS started in 1994, which was the year that the World Cup was held in the United States, so that was really the beginning of me even thinking about whether I could even consider playing outside college.”

Immediately after graduating he decided to try his luck at professional soccer, playing for a semi-pro team in New Jersey. After the summer he got a job as a construction manager and sidelined his soccer career.

The next year Orben took a leap of faith and traveled to Pennsylvania to tryout for the Hershey Wildcats, a professional team in the USL-A, one league below the MLS.

“[The process] was tricky, you can’t just ask for a week off of work, so that was a big deal to begin with. But I think once I knew that I had something, it was harder.. expressing this [playing soccer] is something I really wanted to do because I was worried that I might lose my job and not get anything out of the opportunity, because I had gone to a tryout in Minnesota and that hadn’t worked out,” said Orbin

“It was one of these 100 people show up for two spots and I happened to make it out ofthattryout,”

After making the team, Orben dropped everything to play a summer for the Wildcats.

“I think that’s an interesting piece of my story: I really had no business doing what I was doing, I didn’t come from a top ten college program, I didn’t grow up playing at the highest level with the national team or anything like that, but for me it was just about how good I could get at it, so I kept having these opportunities to sink my teeth into it,” said Orben.

The real test however, came when the summer ended and Orben was handed the opportunity to train with the under-18 team of FC Copenhagen in Denmark. Originally planning to merely stay a couple weeks, Orben’s detour turned into a four year adventure.

“I was very naive about I. I knew I was learning a lot and that i was improving a lot…So I was just training hard and looking for the next opportunity and seeing where it went,” said Orben.

A two week stay became a six week and as the visa drew closer and closer to the expiration date, Orben realized how reluctant he was to let his journey end. Although the coach told Orben he was not good enough to play on the under-18 team, he was willing to let Orben continue to practice if he could find a means to support himself.

Orben was not willing to pass up this golden opportunity and turned to a study abroad program for American college students which bought him a six month student visa to Denmark. Supporting himself on the money he made from construction managing and playing for Hershey, Orben trained with the team while taking courses on the side.

“The semester started in January, and by March they were willing to let me play for the under-18 team, and by May they were willing to pay me to play. So i was on it,” said Orben.

However even though he was finally playing with the team and making money, Orben was handed a modest contract, only making 2000 dollars a month.

“They said you’re aren’t ready to be a full time professional, so they made a contract with me and I would take care of the stadium field,” said Orben.

“I would drive the tractor doing all the stuff, but that allowed me to work in the morning from 7-12 and then I could go to training. So i could give a little to them and they could give a little to me and we met in the middle,” he continued.

Although Orben was 23, the team was allowed to field two overage players.

“I was a little bit older and I was a leader. My story was so absurdly uncommon that I think they liked that factor in the group; here’s this guy who’s too old, who’s been to college, who isn’t even from here, but he’s going to school and he’s working the field just to train with the team.”

But being a leader on the under-18 was not enough for Orben, who relentlessly pushed himself to the brink of exhaustion, always wanting to see how far he could go. Practicing as much as 13 times a week and nearly breaking down Orben’s big break finally came a little over a year of practicing with the team, when he was called up the first team.

“I wasn’t 18 and I was competing with 18-year-olds. forthemitwasokaytobea professional and not play for three years, but when you’ve left home and you’re living far away, I didn’t have the patience. I needed it to happen, now,” he said.

Orben divides his playing time into three separate phases. The first, the high school phase, was about building a personal connection to the sport. In college it was centered around the physical aspect, running and lifting weights. The last and perhaps the most important piece came together in Denmark where tactics reigned. Despite being good technically and the strongest physically, Orben did not know how to operate in the system: a problem he sees in American soccer today.

Four years later, after playing six matches at the highest level, Orben broke his footand it did not heal properly. Ready to leave, Orben got married and returned to Taft as Head Coach in 2003.

“For me it wasn’t being a pro, it was becoming as good as I could be and I definitely felt that. I still have the feeling that I got to that point… I realized that I wasn’t really interested at that point; I could still play and get paid, but it wasn’t the best and I think maybe that’s because of how was developed. I was always in school, and for me it was about being a student and an athlete, and for them it was always just about being an athlete.”

He hopes his story can help provide guidance to Andover students no matter what path they seek to follow in life.

“The biggest thing about my story is how unlikely it is; whether it’s soccer or football or math or physics or theater, there’s not necessarily a straight path. I think that comes in to the college admissions piece too: your path is very much determined by how you seek things out, not necessarily where you end up. I could have never charted that path, so you just have to work hard, pursue things that you’re really good at and get lucky. But anything can happen; for me, that’s what I think, the possibilities are really open.”