June 15 was a typical hot, humid summer night in south Florida. But it was anything but typical for former FIU men’s soccer standout Jahbari Willis.
At Lockhart Stadium, home of the North American Soccer League’s (NASL) Fort Lauderdale Strikers, it was gameday. The aging soccer venue was abuzz with fans in red and yellow, banging on drums and waving flags, as the team played a closely contested late spring season match with the Atlanta Silverbacks.
Sitting on the Strikers bench was Willis, the newest addition to the team’s roster. Just a few days earlier, he had been a member of the Silverbacks, preparing with his Atlanta teammates for their match in Fort Lauderdale.
But on June 12, Willis was informed that he was being traded to Fort Lauderdale. The next day he packed his bags, leaving his hometown of Atlanta for south Florida. The 22-year-old forward made a similar journey in 2008 when he began his collegiate career at FIU.
“These are my two hometowns,” Willis said. “One I grew up in, and one I matured in.”
With the match still scoreless in the 78th minute, Strikers coach Daryl Shore decided to insert his new forward into the match, hoping to provide his team with a much-needed spark and to give Willis a chance to score against his former club.
“It was a rollercoaster of emotions. Adrenaline took over and it was all pretty surreal,” Willis said. “In the end, though, it was just another game.”
Ultimately, a defensive miscue in the final minutes led to a penalty kick for the Silverbacks and the Strikers suffered a frustrating 1-0 loss. But the Strikers are hoping that in the coming weeks and months, Willis will be able to provide something that the second division pro team desperately needs: goals.
“We’re glad that we were able to acquire him. We feel like we’ve been lacking a true target forward this year,” Shore said. “From what we’ve seen so far he’s picking things up pretty fast, and now it’s a matter can he put the ball in the back of the goal when we get it to him.”
Changing faces. Changing places. Changing roles.
A whirlwind of changes has marked Willis’ life since stepping onto FIU’s campus five years ago.
Upon arriving at FIU to play college soccer, he was expecting to play his natural position — forward. He became frustrated when he was asked instead to play defense. Now, less than two years into his pro career, Willis has had four different head coaches. This latest move, to a new team, has meant more adjustments to new coaches, new teammates and a new atmosphere.
“Change bothers you, but you have to get over it and be a professional about it,” Willis said.
The changes have been a test of endurance for Willis. He knows these changes can either make him stronger or break him down. The weight of change has done both during Willis’ journey, especially while at FIU, but he said the challenges have helped him mature.
“You get to a point where you’re not really satisfied with what you’ve been doing and you demand more of yourself,” Willis said. “Then you stop making excuses for your shortcomings and you start taking responsibility for everything you’re doing.”
Some of those changes have been critical to Willis’ development as a player and as a person.
While playing as a defender at FIU, he would return to Atlanta in the summer to train with the Silverbacks’ reserves as a forward, giving him an ability to understand what opponents are thinking on both sides of the ball.
“It was a quick shift in mentalities from defend for your life, defend for your team, to score goals, help your team win,” Willis said. “Having both of those mindsets, as a defender being now an offensive player, you know defensive tendencies and read them a lot better. And then going back at FIU, I know what attackers are doing. You read both sides of the game better and that’s a big part of the game itself.”
He’s also had a chance to learn from former U.S. Men’s National Team and Major League Soccer star Eric Wynalda, who joined the Silverbacks as an interim coach in 2012 and remains the team’s technical director, and current Silverbacks coach Brian Haynes. Willis made his professional debut just days after Wynalda’s hiring against Minnesota on July 7, 2012, and tallied two assists in a 2-1 victory to help give Wynalda his first win as the team’s head coach.
Together, Wynalda and Haynes have played a huge role in developing Willis as a player.
“[Coach Haynes] was like a dad to me. He took care of me more than most people in my life ever had,” Willis said. “He showed me a lot off the field as a person and on the field as a coach.”
A NEW START
Less than a week after the trade, Willis is still learning the names of his new teammates and being intentional about integrating himself into the locker room as he waits to see what role he will play in the team’s efforts to regroup after a slew of injuries has led to a disappointing NASL 2013 Spring Season.
“Here it’s a fresh new start. I’m ready to play whatever role I have to play,” Willis said. “Good players always play and find their niche. Good players who whine don’t last very long.”
Shore added, “He’s had a good attitude and he’s fitting in with the guys in the locker room so far. As long as he keeps up his good spirits he’s going to have a good future.”
The move to the Strikers reunites him with Raoul Voss, who joined Fort Lauderdale’s coaching staff this season and was a graduate assistant at FIU when Willis played there from 2008 to 2011.
“It’s rare to find someone with a good touch who is that tall and big,” Voss said of Willis, who is 6-foot-3 and 198 pounds. “He’s going to be a valuable piece to our team because he adds something new. He’s a target forward, the kind of player we haven’t had on this team, so that will be helpful.”
For now, Willis is working hard and looking for a chance to score his first goal as a professional. He doesn’t have time to worry about the changes that are out of his control.
Instead, he’s focused on making the changes he needs to make to get the ball in the back of the net, the changes that are in his control. Whatever it takes.
“Every game is a new game,” Willis said. “You just go out there and do your best, and when things don’t happen you press the reset button and start over.”