Fafa vs. NYCFC

Family comes full circle as resilient Picault finds a new home in Philadelphia

On the banks of the Hudson River, in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the Riverbank State Park welcomes some three million visitors per year. Its riverfront landscape provides a scenic backdrop for an otherwise innocuous piece of property. New York City is called a concrete jungle for a reason; here, you can find concrete flanked by basketball hoops, or covered by a layer of unforgiving Astroturf, creating valuable green space for local residents.

If you were to visit here in the mid-1990s, no matter the day or the weather condition, chances are you’d find a young boy and his father at either location – sometimes playing basketball, but most often playing soccer on the turf, every day. One borough away, that young boy’s grandparents wait in Queens for him to visit, most usually while enjoying Chinese food and watching boxing on Saturdays. And a different borough away, about 20 years and three countries later, that young boy would return to his hometown and score a goal that brought everything full circle.

Fafa Picault laughs as he recounts the memories of playing soccer as a child with his father. Undeterred by the rough surface at Riverbank State Park – “at that age, you’re just enjoying it” – a young Picault honed his speed and skill in the shadows of Manhattanville and Hamilton Heights. His father Leslie would take him to the park every day, rain or shine.

Picault can’t remember a time growing up in New York when he didn’t go to Riverbank State Park regularly, and it was always soccer followed by a little basketball. It was part of life growing up in Manhattan, a staple for him.

“Your childhood is pretty much what paces you. My dad and I were just this close to the point where I was like, ‘Dad, we gotta go train.’ I didn’t care about anything else,” says the winger, who also fondly remembers time spent away from the pitch with his grandparents.

His grandfather Henry and his grandmother, affectionately called Tata, lived in Queens, a short train ride away from Picault’s childhood home.

“My grandma, just because of her character, we just got along really well, but she passed in 2008,” remembers Picault, describing what he calls his most vivid memories of growing up in the city. “She was definitely a big part of my life, just because of the way she was. There’s no specific reason, she didn’t have any special quotes she gave or anything, it was just the way she was as a person. My time spent with my grandparents on the weekends would be mostly me clowning with my grandma and my brother giving me a hard time for giving her a hard time. Then the night would usually end by watching boxing with my grandpa, that was pretty much how it went.”

When the family business broke up, Fafa’s father made the difficult decision to move to Miami for a fresh start. Picault was nine. For many kids, such a move would be traumatizing. And while Picault didn’t like the move at first, a theme emerged that would serve as a construct throughout his entire life: it was always football and family that got him through the tough times.

The first two things he did in the Sunshine State were find a new team to play on and a new church to attend. He also made it a point to check in with his grandparents as often as he could. Much the same as it was in Manhattan, Picault’s father kept him focused on the big picture as he continued to excel both on the soccer pitch and in the classroom. It became increasingly clear that his future was bright.

“Growing up, my schedule was full, but it was really just church, school, soccer, church, school, soccer," Picault said. "That was my day, and I was a really good student. I was in the gifted programs. It was tough, but since I was like three or four, I told my parents I wanted to play professional soccer. The deal from them was, ‘Always make sure you take care of your school, that comes first, but we are going to give you everything you need and what is necessary.’ We weren’t rich, but my father gave me all of his time to be able to push me for whatever I wanted to become.  So if I wanted to be a pianist he would have given me everything, he’s just that type of guy.

“Soccer was always my aspiration, I did have a mini time of hoop dreams too. I was a good point guard, but as I got to high school they wanted me on the basketball team and that was a time where I was like, ‘Alright, I have to make a full decision,’ and soccer was what I loved more.”

That love for the game led to him joining a new youth team in Miami that was run by Cagliari Calcio, an Italian club, and it didn’t take long for him to leave an impression. The club’s president, Massimo Cellino, had a home in Miami and let Picault know early on the club had big plans for him. Cellino also had a son that was Picault’s age, and the two became friends. When he was 15 years old, less than a year after he started with the team, he traveled to Italy to tour the main club’s training grounds. It was then that Picault realized this was his future.

“We all went just to get a visit," Picault said. "So we saw it and I was just like, ‘Wow, this is where I want to be.’ A year from there, they sent about four of us to try out for the reserve team. It was about a month trial, we trained with the reserves daily and did the same things they did. One day Cellino came over, we had a scrimmage and I scored three goals in that scrimmage and he came to me yelling ‘Fafa!’

“I didn’t know what he was going to tell me, he just came out of a bush. He really came out of a bush. I didn’t even know he was watching practice, I didn’t know anything because the way the training center is set up, everything is blocked off, just trees or bushes. So I couldn’t see anything. He said that he was on the phone with his son and asked if I wanted to speak with him. We spoke, but I gave him his phone back, I was all sweaty. I gave it back and he said to his son, ‘Listen, I think Fafa is going to stay. Fafa, do you want to stay in Italy?’ That was how he told me I was staying. And I said, ‘Yeah, of course, why not?’ I knew for sure, this is what I want. He made out a letter as an official request and then I called my parents after I received it.”

As you could imagine, the offer to stay in Italy represented a dream come true, a first step for Picault in his goals that his parents knew he could achieve – but like any responsible mother and father would do, they made sure Picault took the necessary steps to develop as a person in addition to a soccer player.

“My dad was super happy," Picault said. "(Going to Italy) was what we had pushed for my whole life. My mom of course was sad when I actually did leave, but she was really happy for me, she knew that was what I wanted. We made a deal that I had to complete my online school through Miami high school. They sent up a program, I had to complete everything and I couldn’t drop under a certain grade point average, if not I would have had to go back.

“I got calls daily from my teachers, they were on me, my parents, my mom especially. It was terrible, it was so hard. Because of the time difference you had oral presentations or just lessons, so I would stay up sometimes until 3:00 a.m. and wake up at 7:00 for practice. The first year and a half was rough, then finally I graduated, went back for graduation and my years after that were a bit easier.”

Beyond the schoolwork, Picault had to adjust to life’s finer points such as living alone for the first time, being in a locker room with professional athletes sometimes twice his age, and an entirely new culture. He also stayed in touch with his grandparents regularly during this time, using technology such as three hour phone cards to dial internationally – “we didn’t have FaceTime or easy access to web cameras,” he laughs.

Compounding Picault’s adjustment to a whole new life, tragedy would strike his family while he was in Italy, as Tata would pass away in the middle of the 2008 season, a day that the midfielder described as “surreal.” Although just 17, a battle-tested Picault had already moved away from home twice, once overseas, and was now struggling with the death of his beloved grandmother, circumstances that would be overwhelming for anyone, let alone a teenager so far from home. Yet, if anyone could make it through, it was Fafa.

“I think it was a mixture of three things that made it easier for me than it would for a normal kid," Picault said. "I think my relationship with God was wherever he was sending me in life was where I was meant to be. It just made it easier for me to cope with. Also, having a strong parental base of support knowing that they were always there for me even if they weren’t present for me, I always had them back home. Third, I would say just for the most part I had such a close circle. I have always been a friendly person, but I don’t really let a lot of people in. I had my base, I have had my friends, and it made it easy my whole life.”

Fafa persevered, but soon had a choice to make after not fully cracking through the first team ranks with Cagliari, although he did receive his first taste of international football, as he was called in to the United States Under-20s under coach Thomas Rongen. Ultimately, he went through so much mentally that he decided that a move back home could be best for him. He went to the NASL Combine in Florida and performed well, receiving multiple offers. He decided to attempt to work his way back up by signing with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, which also allowed him to be close to his parents, who were still in Miami. His father supported the decision, and Picault won the NASL championship with Tampa Bay that year.

He then signed on with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers (alongside current Union assistant coach Oka Nikolov) and continued to play well, allowing him to get back on the European radar. The Strikers’ coach, Günter Kronsteiner, gave Picault the personal freedom to excel, and he took advantage of it in his play. A teammate helped connect him with Sparta Prague, where he had a strong preseason, scoring four goals in seven games against some quality opponents, including Giliano Wijnaldum and PSV Eindhoven, but he soon suffered an injury and the coach who recruited him there left shortly after Picault’s arrival. Once again looking for a home, Picault found FC St. Pauli in Germany, where he credits a position change for really helping him take off.

“At first, I was playing on the wings because they saw me as a fast guy," Picault said. "I hadn’t really played the wings. Maybe when I was younger, but I was more like a second striker. Normally I would play a free floating second forward or striker with two or one, just me. Playing the right wing, I had some good games and some not so good. I was just not comfortable on the right wing. So at a point I told the coach, our striker hadn’t scored for about ten games I think, so I asked him, ‘Hey coach, the season is coming to an end, we have seven or eight games left, put me at striker. You see me in training, I can score a lot.’ So we talked about it, we had long talks and long talks and finally he gave in and the night before a game he called me at the hotel and told me he was putting me at striker tomorrow. Then that month I scored five goals toward the end of the season.”

Although Picault had moved back overseas, he was once again turning some heads in the USA, including from the then-USMNT head coach Jürgen Klinsmann, who provided Picault one of the most memorable phone calls he’d ever receive.

“I get a call one day in bed and I see a California number and I was asleep," Picault said. "I thought it was a telemarketer. I looked at it and picked it up last second and I groggily said ‘Hello?’ Right away I heard his voice, and I knew that voice, I had speculation because I heard rumors that it was possible, I just wasn’t confirmed yet. ‘Hey! Is this Fafa?’ came through the phone, and I was like, ‘Oh, crap, it’s him!’

“He asked how I was and I said I was good. He asked me how I was feeling at St. Pauli and I said I was good. He said that he wanted to invite me to their next camp and he wanted to do it personally, he’s a very nice guy. So he brought me into that camp. It was a game against Puerto Rico. Midday, super hot. It was nice to get the feet wet.”

Tasting United States National Team success for the first time, Fafa again experienced an injury setback, preventing him from an additional call-up to a camp later that year. Looking for options, Picault had his eyes set on MLS. He spoke to Earnie Stewart, Chris Albright, and his old teammate Nikolov. After talking with the Union brass, he knew that this was the place he wanted to solidify his career and get back on the USMNT radar.

“I think it was a case of it was MLS," Picault said. "The league has grown. Being on the east coast, being close to New York and Miami. Bruce (Arena) being a new coach. I figured why not come play domestic, show myself against other American players that are in high regard and prove it here, so that way I can match up against the guys week in and week out and show what I am worth. And I thought also that Philly was a good spot. The organization, the facility, everything seemed like the right decision to come here.”

Picault joined the Union in preseason without a guaranteed contract, which he earned in short order through a strong trial. The news was exciting for his father and grandfather, who welcomed Fafa home for a second time. While life was looking up for Picault, he again suffered adversity with an injury that curbed his preseason playing time. Despite the slow start, he worked his way into the starting XI, he started his first match for the team at LA on April 29, adding electrifying speed to the Union attack since. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Union are 6-4-2 in his starts as he has made an impact on the club’s left flank, scoring five goals and adding one assist.

In spite of the team’s success with him on the field, it was perhaps one of the losses that Picault will remember most fondly: June 3 at Yankee Stadium, when the midfielder returned home, scoring a goal in front of his soon-to-be-90 year old grandfather, who was seeing him play live for the first time as a professional. He had told his grandfather about the date in preseason, who assured him that he would be there. Indeed he was, and he saw his grandson live as Fafa took a pass from CJ Sapong and buried a right-footed curler into the low corner just a short distance from the park where he honed his game as a child.

“I tried to figure out when I saw the tickets where they were sitting, and I couldn’t figure it out, because I wanted to see them if I scored," Picault said. "I had it in my plan, but I did not know where they were. I don’t know if anyone knows this, but I threw up a 2-1-2 (in my celebration) because that was our area code. My grandfather was so proud, we went to a Dominican restaurant later that night, one of our favorite places in the city, and he would not stop showing everyone the goal. He was like ‘Fafa, where is your phone?’ He would go show the waitress, the owner, he was showing other customers. He is there at the restaurant a lot so they know him as the old man. It was nice. He was super happy and proud.”

The moment represented closure of sorts, completing a full circle for Picault that took him to Florida, Italy, Florida again, the Czech Republic, Germany, and finally to Philadelphia. It is here that Picault has found his professional home – and the city has embraced him back.

“I’ve started to get in touch with more Philly people," Picault said. "I have awesome neighbors, their kids, they leave me a sign before every game. The kids will make me something with glitter like ‘Fafa you’re the best, kick their butt!’ Something cute, it’s the nicest thing ever. I’m getting to feel comfortable, getting a lot of visitors coming every other week, family or friends, and I show them around Philly.”

From his parents in Florida, to his grandfather in New York, Picault continues to be supported by a solid base which has shaped him and continues to do so each and every day.

“My family are old school, very old school type of people, work, work, and know you can," Picault said. "That really formed me because I think without them, and mind you I left young, hit some stuff on my own, but having that base and that mentality woke up my whole life. My parents were always working. My grandfather still works, he doesn’t have to, he still drives a taxi at almost 90 years old. He refuses not to work, he enjoys it. He screams at people on the street, still tells them they are wrong, he is enjoying living and that is what is keeping him young.”

With a role model like that in his life, it’s easy to see why Picault refuses to quit and why he believes he can thrive here in Philadelphia.

“I look at other guys careers and lives and sometimes I wish mine were as easy," Picault said. "I’m not boasting about myself for the talents and the gifts and the work that I have put in in my career, but I never felt like I have been valued for it, and it has gotten frustrating. I have fought my whole life for everything – where some guys have to fight to get a yard, I have to fight to get an inch, and I would rather fight every inch to get that yard than look back and wonder what if.

“That is what’s gotten me over every hump in life, because it’s easy to just shy away from the hard parts, it’s more than easy. I have been through ten times worse in life in general to not fight. We could be 4-0 down with eight men and I still think in my head we can win. That is just how it is until that whistle blows.”

Recently, Picault has been sidelined with a hamstring tweak, just another setback on a personal road that has featured many, whether large or small. But given all that he’s been through over the years, the cities, the continents, and the clubs, is there any doubt that he’ll come back even stronger?

Don’t bet against it.

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