The lanky striker found life tough in Columbus. But then he moved to the Israeli Premier League, started scoring goals, and has been linked with an Israel call-up
To Aaron Schoenfeld, this right here looks and feels like a rest: Tel Aviv, Israel, to eastern Tennessee. Columbus, Ohio, to Georgia. Parents. Friends. Colleagues. Grandparents. Short stops in familiar locales after a whirlwind first half of the year. A hello here, a goodbye there, as he attempts to cram in as many close ones before the itinerary takes him back to the Middle East. The 26-year-old Knoxville native has barely had a rest since December 2014, and this is it: flitting between states before pre-season training starts back in Tel Aviv on 5 July.
Its been an intriguing 18 months for a striker who was until recently a seldom-seen figure. Indeed, given his job description, his goals even less so. A bit-part player at Columbus Crew, there was little tangible evidence, on paper at least, for what was to come. In 2015, he made just one start and a number of substitute appearances, contributing a single goal for the Black and Gold. Previous campaigns, too, portrayed a similar level of return.
Then there was January. And, of all soccer outposts, Israel. The scene was set. Schoenfeld, fresh from a Florida vacation with teammates and the offer of a contract renewal from Columbus on the table, rolls up in the Holy Land at lowly Maccabi Netanya. The Israeli footballing public is bemused. The goalscoring stats, it seems, dont lie four MLS seasons, 51 appearances, 14 starts, five goals. Who is this impostor? Just 18 minutes into his career in Israel, after emerging off the bench for his first appearance, the eyes of several of Netanyas rivals start to turn in his direction. But for what? Still there are no goals. Netanya lost. Yet barely given time to blink, before he has even acclimated to a new league and new country, he is purchased by Hapoel Tel Aviv, one of the most successful clubs in the Israeli Premier League. They see something. On the outside, the befuddlement persists. Before heading for Hapoel there were another 90 minutes for Netanya, and still no sign of Schoenfeld on the scoresheet. So goes the superficial eye.
He wasnt to go without a goal for long. The first came in a baptism of fire, his debut, the Tel Aviv derby. From there to the end of the season in May, Schoenfeld went on a minor goalscoring blitz. He managed eight goals in 12 games by the close.
Crazy, remarks Schoenfeld. After 18 minutes. Unheard of. His quick transfer from Netanya, he explains, owed to a need for cash at the club in the face of financial difficulties. But there had been a few suitors. In addition to Hapoel, bitter city rivals Maccabi Tel Aviv were also among those interested in getting him to put pen to paper. Eventual league champions Hapoel Beer Sheva inquired. In the end, he went with Hapoel Tel Aviv under the belief hed have a greater chance of starting every week.
From one vantage point, all bizarre perhaps. Schoenfeld, a lanky striker at 6ft 4in, understands the initial wariness among local fans and media. His record did not look great. But, sprightly and direct, he offers an alternative angle with which to view his sudden rise to prominence.
I found form, he tells the Guardian. As a striker, once you have confidence and you feel comfortable somewhere, its no pressure. And I think the goal I scored in the derby changed everything. Because obviously there was a lot of questions of me coming in there. I knew the fans didnt really understand: How could a player who only scored one goal last year come in, why would we buy him? But I think if you knew the situation at Columbus with me, it was because Im playing behind the best forward in the league [Kei Kamara], whos a freak of nature.
I think I was ready to play. I feel like I developed a lot last year. I just needed the minutes. If you look at my records, I didnt really start much. Probably less than 10 starts in the league. Even last year, I had one start for 90 minutes. I had a total of 220 minutes total. That was it. And one of those games was for 90. So if you take that out its 130 minutes over 17 games, about five minutes of a game left. You run around for five minutes, so I think it was tough. I understand why there would be concerns but I feel like once I get in training and people can see what I offer, it changes things.
The goal in the derby against Maccabi Tel Aviv a club Schoenfeld knocked back and for which there is no love lost among the Hapoel faithful was a watershed moment. The media took notice. In a press conference after the Tel Aviv derby he was asked if hed paid much heed to the more negative press coverage that came before, to which he tersely responded with a stoic visage: Well I cant read Hebrew so it helps me keep away from that stuff. In the same post-game press conference, he was then asked if his joining Hapoel might effectively rob Maccabi of the title. Schoenfeld was cute, telling the reporter he was focused on Hapoels struggle near the Israeli Premier League basement. The record shall state Maccabi missed out on the title and Hapoel survived.
Still, that easy ability to deflect is not unusual in modern sports players schooled in the art of public relations. But theres a breeziness in Schoenfeld that might speak to the chains in Columbus from which he was freed. He referred to the man who stood in his way at Crew, Kamara, as the best striker in MLS. Few would disagree he had a job on his hands wrestling a starting spot from the prolific Sierra Leonean. At Hapoel, he himself quickly became something of a similar focal point in attack. He credits his athleticism as an asset in a more technically adept local scene to the one he was used to in the US.
Such was his form, his name has been mentioned in connection with an Israeli national team call-up. American-born, Schoenfeld comes from a Reform Jewish family. He went to Israel through the states right of return law for those of Jewish ancestry. He continues to pass through the citizenship process, currently possessing a temporary passport. To play for Israel, there may be Fifa hurdles to surmount, too, because he didnt obtain his citizenship through a blood relation. He is in no hurry but welcomes the prospect of turning out for the country. Which raises the question: with the kind of form he showed last season, and were it to continue, what if the US national team set-up came calling?
Its tough, Schoenfeld answers. Obviously if you ask me on the street, what is your nationality? Id tell you Im an American. I identify myself as an American. But if it happens and it comes down to it, its a very tough decision. Both offer completely different things.
He has a similar posture toward his club level future, perhaps mindful of the vicissitudes of soccer. He is happy at Hapoel. Theres the Columbus experience. He has also absorbed a different side of life. Israeli culture. Tel Aviv city life. On another plain, religious devotion in Jerusalem, an awakening moment for him. On another again, on a road trip for an away game, Israeli border life near Lebanon. Not to mention, Schoenfeld is tired.
His agent knows the script. Ive left it at last time we spoke about everything. I was, Look, I want to take time to vacation. I want to clear my head, its been a long run. Because I havent had a break since December of 2014. Because in MLS you had these mini-camps before the season. So by the end of the year, I was mentally fried, my body was fried. When I come back from vacation, well see whats going on, well start evaluating next season. I plan on staying. Well see what happens.