Eight by Eight’s Andrew Helms spoke with young Canadian international Daniel Haber about his footballing journey from the Ivy League to the Israeli First Division, Cyprus, and beyond.
During Daniel Haber’s junior season at Cornell University, the Canadian international scored 18 goals and assisted on seven others, earning All-American honors, being named Ivy League Player of the Year, and earning a semifinalist nomination for the Hermann Trophy, an award given annually to the best college footballer in the United States. While you might expect a player with his collegiate pedigree to seek out a contract with Major League Soccer, Haber chose to take his chances in Europe. As more American stars choose to play domestically, why did Haber decide to leave college early t0 try his luck in Europe’s footballing hinterlands? Eight by Eight’s Andrew Helms tracked down Haber at Cypriot club Ayia Napa FC to find out.
Eight by Eight: On Saturday, you started your first match for Ayia Napa FC, a recently promoted team in the Cypriot First Division. How did it go?
Daniel Haber: It was okay. We lost 2-1, but there were positive signs. It’s just going to take time for the team to gel. It’s a totally new starting eleven from last season. We’re going to be good, but it’ll just take some time.
Compared to your time in the Israeli league and in college, how did you find the level of competition?
I think the quality is very similar to the Israeli League, but the tackling is probably harder in Cyprus. It’s much better than in college. The teams here are better tactically. In college, chances could come out of nowhere, and very few teams played a nice style. Each team had big holes you could exploit. Here, you have to do more to break down a defense. Most teams play with four players in the backline and two defensive midfielders. It’s not easy to break them down.
Let’s take a look at how you ended up in Cyprus. You had a really big junior year at Cornell, scoring 18 goals, being named an All-American and a finalist for the Hermann Trophy. After that season, you chose to go abroad. What was going through your head? Why did you choose to play overseas instead of finishing college?
MLS is not something that I really thought about that much. I think the biggest thing for me was the question of if I was going to make it as a professional. I’d never been with a Canadian youth team, and I wasn’t a hyped up player. What was pushing me away from MLS a bit is that if you don’t succeed there right away, there’s nowhere to go. There are no other leagues close by where you can get seen. So there were a lot of question marks, and I didn’t know how good I could be at the professional level.
From talking to my college coach, the option would’ve been to stay at school another year and hope to get invited to the MLS Combine and raise my stock [Editor’s Note: Every year, the top college seniors are invited to a training combine to showcase their skills for MLS clubs]. From that perspective, I thought my stock would never really be higher in college, and there’s just more options in Europe. If anything were to go wrong at a club in Europe, there’s another place to go for a trial. If you have a decent season, there are so many bigger clubs and leagues to choose from.
From a mental standpoint, my youth coach from Toronto had always wanted to send me overseas for tryouts. Emotionally and mentally, I said to him once my junior year was done, “I’m ready to go, I’ll finish my degree when it’s time, but I’m ready to go and just take my chances.” I felt like one more year at Cornell wasn’t going to help my development so I left, and I went for a tryout.
Your agent set up a tryout and you got picked up?
An Israeli team [Maccabi Haifa] bought me a plane ticket, put me up in a hotel, and I went on trial for twelve days and then they signed me to a professional contract.
What was your first season like as a professional player?
So it was really short, first of all because I signed in January. It was a big club in Israel, and all throughout the fall, they had struggled and all their strikers got injured. But as soon as I got there all their strikers started scoring, and the team went on 12-game winning streak and I wasn’t even making the bench. So I got unlucky, and the coaches said stay patient, you’re doing well in practice there’s no reason to change anything up right now. And then at the end of the season I got to play in four of the last five games, and I scored a couple goals, and they basically said to me that they’d like to keep me, but then Apollon Limassol in Cyprus offered me a contract. I spoke about it with my agent and chose to come here. They’re a club with Europa League ambitions, and I played with them for a year and I’m now on loan at another club in Cyprus, Ayia Napa FC who were just prompted to the Cypriot First Division.
Eight by Eight: So you’re playing in Cyprus now on the outskirts of Europe. Do you eventually want to move a bigger club in Europe?
Absolutely, I want to try to go as far as I can. I see it as a stepping stone. Even though the MLS is gaining a lot of traction, realistically, other than the players who make big moves like DeAndre Yedlin there are more options for me over here. That move [Yedlin going to Tottenham Hostpur] is a huge move, but this move is not happening because of his performance with the Seattle Sounders. This move is happening because he made a name for himself at the World Cup. It was obvious. I watched that game where he came on against Belgium and said just wait a couple of months someone is going to come in and pick him up.
But realistically not that many players are getting scouted from the MLS to go to clubs in Europe, even mediocre clubs. I feel like for me, this is just an adventure. I didn’t think three years ago I’d be negotiating contracts or trying really hard to be in this lifestyle. I feel like this is a good stepping stone. Even though it’s not a big team in a big country, there are many medium teams along the way that I would be able to have exposure to. Even the second division in Germany, the first division in Austria, Hungary, Belgium, you name it. There are so many countries out there that have good leagues that I think would be fun to play in.
So you’ve picked up a few caps for Canada. Do you hope to continue to play for the national team?
Yeah, I’m hoping so. I’ve got five caps but haven’t played a lot. Twice I played for 20-35 minutes, once for fifteen minutes, and twice for five minutes. But I think if I have a really good season or a few really good seasons, I’ll get more looks.
Is there some apprehension that by being abroad and not in MLS that you aren’t getting as much national team exposure?
I think that every game that you play, if you show well, you’re getting exposed to someone somewhere. Maybe the national team coaches favor the MLS. I think that new national team coach [Spanish manager Benito Floro] is a really, really smart coach and has a plan. And I think that he tracks all the players. He knows if i’m sitting on the bench or sitting in the stands, getting five minutes or starting and playing the whole match. Even though the MLS players might be a little closer and since Canadian and U.S. media like to hype up the MLS Players, he knows what’s going on.
Playing for Canada is such a huge, huge honor though. Realistically, if you asked me three years ago if i’d ever be playing for the national team I’d say it’s a longshot. Every time they call, it’s honestly a surprise. It really is a cliché, but it’s a huge honor to wear the country jersey.
So would you say there’s a lot of pressure on you this season?
I would definitely say there’s a lot riding on this season. To this point, I’ve played about 35 games as a professional, and I’ve only started two. I think as a professional there’s a lot riding on every season even if you’re getting limited chances you have to show well.