He didn't know it, but once again in his career, Union midfielder Vincent Nogueira was being judged because of his size.
On this day, it was a preseason match in Orlando in which Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes took exception to Nogueira. Sitting up on high in the press tower at Walt Disney World's Wide World of Sports, Vermes squared his gaze toward a pair of Union employees and asked:
“Who’s this little guy on the Union? Is he new?...little small for this league...”
That day in a match against Columbus while Vermes and his Sporting Kansas City group were onlookers, Nogueira torched the Crew in a roaming midfield role, never the wiser that his abilities were written off simply because he only stands five foot, seven inches, weighing just 140 pounds.
Brains, definitely not braun…
Nogueira, 26, knew at an early age that if he was going to make it as a professional in his favorite sport (tennis is his second favorite) that he’d have to adjust his game to rigors of soccer. His older brother, Nicola, 29, was that prototypical bruiser, a quality player says Nogueira, but one that relied on banging with the big boys, bumping people off the ball and using tough tackles to gain his advantage.
“Because of what I am [size wise], I knew I was never going to be that physical guy that could rough people around,” Nogueira said via translator following a recent training session. I had to work on my technique and make sure that I could outsmart whoever my opponent is. I had to make sure that movement allowed me to get away from the more physical defenders that would just try to knock me off the ball. I think the good thing for me is that I learned to play my game in France, which is a very physical league.”
Playing on small soccer teams in France, Nogueira and his brother Nicola were both discovered by scouts of his local professional club, FC Sochaux and joined the club’s youth academy at the age of 12. Growing up under the microscopic tutelage of a European club, Nogueira was exposed to all types of players and their ways of trying to gain an advantage. His skills however were so advanced at the time that Sochaux, according to Nogueira, played him in his brother’s division within the academy despite their three-year age difference.
“There were a lot of players from Africa who came over [to play with teams in France] and these players were always very strong," Nogueira continued. "I’ve played with players like that since I was about 15 [years-old], and I learned really quickly how to play against guys like that.”
Soccer was a passion for Nogueira from an early age. From the time he tried his first stepover at age five to the way he plays the sport now as a member of the Philadelphia Union -- mind you, the only other club besides Sochaux he’s ever known -- having the ball at his feet with a chance to go on the attack was something he's always relished.
“I was five years old; and every child in France at that age knows that when you watch soccer on TV you want to be just like [those players you see on the screen],” said Nogueira. “It isn’t like here in America where you have a ton of sports to choose from, really the first passion for kids in my country in soccer. I started playing when I was young and realized I wasn’t too bad at it.”
Coming to America…
It was going to take some convincing.
Nogueira wanted a fresh start and the game in the United States looked as though it could be a logical next step. But it wasn’t like the Frenchman had his bags packed ready to go to the highest bidder. In France, Nogueira had a good thing going, player on a respectable French Ligue 1 side, family, and friends all at his disposal.
But this club from this town he’d never heard from were asking about him and wondering if he wanted to test his mettle in the U.S. in a league gaining more respect from “Eurosnobs” every year, one that had his (and everyone’s) childhood hero Thierry Henry playing for one of its better clubs in New York...
But still it was going to take some convincing.
That’s where Sebastien Le Toux came in.
Le Toux, the de facto face of the franchise, its most proven goalscorer and a player with a lot of clout in his own right was asked by former manager John Hackworth to give this prospect a call and answer any questions he may have.
“We talked on the phone for about an hour,” Le Toux recalled. “He had a lot of questions about the team, the coaches, the facilities, the city and what it was like to play here. I just wanted to be there to answer any of his questions and let him know that he had a few familiar people here.”
On Jan. 30, 2014, Nogueira joined the Union but spent little time in Philly as the team quickly traveled to Florida for preseason training. He knew nothing, the signs were all foreign and if not for those “familiar people” it would have been a tough few weeks for the newcomer.
“I needed toothpaste and I had no idea where to go to buy it,” Nogueira remembered. "For the first 25 years of my life I have never been far away from my family. I’ve always lived in the same city as them and we are all close so it was difficult to leave both my family and Sochaux in the beginning.”
But it was the welcoming atmosphere of the Union locker room that made Nogueira feel a bit more comfortable with his decision.
“We have a great locker room here,” Nogueira continued. “I was lucky to have a few players who speak French here and having guys like Sebastien [Le Toux] and Antoine [Hoppenot] really helped with making things easier. They helped me with everything; all the paperwork I needed to go through and all the little things when you go to a foreign country and don’t know the language and customs very well.” I do miss my family sometimes because I’ve never left them like this, but it’s gotten easier as I’ve been able to enjoy my life and my job here in America.”
You wouldn’t think to look at him, but…
Nogueira isn’t your prototypical professional athlete.
He takes to himself after a match and has his own cool down regimen, win or lose. He could without all the hip-hop pumped throughout the locker room and has no problem wearing whatever he wants – even if it may go against societal norms from time to time.
He drives a Mini Cooper, for Pete’s sake.
For Nogueira, he’s happy being a bit different than what’s typically expected. On the field, he’s been a breath of fresh air at midfield, using quick footwork, phenomenal vision and pinpoint passing to put himself in the conversation for Major League Soccer’s Newcomer of the Year.
“He’s like a piano player,” says Union teammate Ray Gaddis. “You don’t know what keys he’s looking at but the music sounds beautiful, the same thing for Vince’s game. You never know what he’s looking at but he sees the field so remarkably that he keeps you on your toes. He can start the attack from deep and he’s so poised on the ball and making the right decision. I think the fan base, and everybody on the team can see that this year, nine times out of 10, he’s making the right decision on the ball.”
Perhaps it’s his renaissance approach to the game that continues to make Nogueira an enigma. To date, he’s only done a handful of interviews, and perhaps just as much in what was almost a decade long career at FC Sochaux. He’s okay with being the behind the scenes guy.
“I think you can see that his abilities are superior to a lot of players in this League,” said Union interim manager Jim Curtin. “He’s a special player, one of those guys that are rare and if he can stay healthy, I really believe he’ll be one of the best at his position in this League. You can’t teach what he can do on the ball and you can see his passion every time he steps on the field. People might say its bias because he’s on my team, but I think he’s one of the best players in the League.”
“I don’t have a crystal ball…”
The verdict has been delivered. Vincent Nogueira loves Philadelphia.
The city and its culture of course, but more importantly the way he was received as a relative unknown in February to the way fans have treated him during his season here along the Chester waterfront has been incredible – and he’s not the only one that thinks that way.
“Coming here, I really did feel welcomed by the fans and the city,” said Nogueira. “I was a foreign player, no one really knew who I was; it was the same for me and [Cristian Maidana]. He’ll tell you that the way the fans got behind us was great. I don’t know if it’s the same for every [MLS] team that gets new players, but these fans really made me feel like I made a good decision to come here.”
With the 2014 Major League Soccer season finally in the books for Nogueira, he can actually get some time to rest and recharge. See, he was in the middle of the French League season when he joined the Union so it’s been over a year since he’s enjoyed an offseason. The thinking starts now on what the makeup of the 2015 Philadelphia Union will look like, if there will be many changes, but this is where Nogueira looks to return – and hopefully prove a few more people wrong.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, so I don’t really think about my future,” said Nogueira. “My future as a professional, my future in Philadelphia, yeah, I don’t really think about it. I left France because I wanted to have fun and play soccer in a country and discover something completely new. I am doing that now with my life and I’m happy. I love playing for Philadelphia and I guess the only think I can say about the future is that I hope I continue to perform well and play a lot of games here."
What do you think about the play of Nogueira? Leave a comment below.
Contact Union digital editor Kerith Gabriel at firstname.lastname@example.org