When Thomas Rongen released the roster for the Under-20’s trip to South Korea in late August there were the usual names, and then there was Erik Hort. You may have been surprised to see the unknown name, but you weren’t the only one as Hort himself had to re-read the U.S. Soccer email a few times before believing he was actually invited in to the national team.
Like his good friend, Johann Smith, Hort is a bit of an unknown player that is starting his professional career overseas. The N.Y. native has been with Sparta Prague for over a year playing with the reserve team and at just 19 is hoping to get a sniff with the full team sometime this season.
Before he traveled to South Korea to meet up with his new teammates we talked with Hort about playing right back with the Sparta reserves, what it’s like living in the Czech Republic and his goals with the Under-20s as they prepare for the 2007 World Cup.
Center Circle: This is your first call up to the U-20s, but were you kind of expecting to get a call up at some point?
Erik Hort: “I wasn’t expecting to get a call-up right now. It was really shocking.”
CC: Why was it shocking to you?
EH: “I didn’t look at my email for awhile and all of a sudden as I’m in Prague I check my email and out of no where I saw ‘National Team Under-20s.’ I looked at it like twice, it was shocking. It was a little out of nowhere.”
CC: You’ve been at Sparta Prague for over a year now, but before we get into how you were discovered by the Czech club, let’s go back. Can you tell us a little bit about you younger days playing in the New York area and being part of the Regional teams?
EH: “I grew up in New York, Rockland County, Suffern to be exact. At first I played just around the New York area with some local teams and my first real big club team in America had to be PDA in New Jersey. I was with PDA Conquistadors and we were actually ranked five at one time and that was pretty much the biggest club team I’ve been on. I started playing ODP right from the first year we were able to and every year I made the regional team pretty much except the second year when I was 13 or 14 and broke my leg. It didn’t work out that year for Regional and National, and that was the year for Nationals. It was kind of funny how that worked out.”
CC: And you were discovered by Sparta Prague during a Region I trip overseas and eventually signed?
EH: “Yea, we were in Austria. We were there for a good week or week-and-a-half, but we were in a couple countries. Lichtenstein, I was in the paper there with a picture that was good exposure.”
CC: How did Sparta get in tough with you then?
EH: “They got in touch with me by phone. They called first and then one of their English speaking colleagues e-mailed me, and we started off from there. We set up the trial to come in the winter and then it just went from there. When I went for the tryout, I went first to my age, which they called the ‘B’ team, it’s right below the highest youth team. At the time it was like 17 and 18 year olds. My trial was pretty much two weeks they said. So, I was there for a good four or five days with my team (the ‘B’ team) and the coach pushed me up to the highest youth team. It was a bit shocking. I practiced with them one night, I played really, really well, and the coaches told me that tomorrow we have a scrimmage and if I did well then they were going to take me to the camp.
The game came and I played really well. They told me to get my skis and everything because the preseason here they do, we go away for a week or week-and-a-half and have three sessions a day. Especially, the winter here is one of the hardest ever. If you can survive the winter in Prague, especially with these trainings, than you can survive any it anywhere in the world. We went skiing, everything. In the winter we don’t even touch the ball the whole time. It was really intense. The whole entire week, three sessions a day we went running, aerobics, spinning classes, anything you could think of.”
CC: When you came back then and trained with an actual ball were you with the reserve team?
EH: “Well, first I was with the highest youth team. It was my first season, so that half season. It splits up in the winter and in the summer. There are two seasons of 15 games. I came there in the winter in the middle of their season and we actually ended up winning the championship for the first time since 1998, which was a really big thing. After that we got a new coach because our coach went to another team. I played the first half of the season around November at right back and I played pretty well. I was showing really well and setting up goals pretty much every game. I wasn’t as nervous as the first time, everything was just going well.
Before I left to go home for my vacation, (the coach) told me that when I came back I’d be with the reserve team for a tryout. When I came back after a month-and-a-half, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. It wasn’t that I forgot (what he told me), but I wasn’t sure if I was going to be with the youth or the reserves because my coach hadn’t told me anything for sure. So I called my coach and he told me that I had training tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. with the reserve team. He told me to come early because he wanted to talk to me. I went early and he explained to me that I was basically on a trial for about a month and they will decide. For a foreign player to be playing in a different country, especially the Czech Republic where the mentality is totally different coming out of a hard regime from a couple years ago, they don’t just pick you for no reason. We were training every day and I was working really hard. My coach...sat me down and talked about a renewal.”
CC: What was the most difficult thing to adjust to?
EH: “The kids are actually all really pretty nice. I wasn’t like France where I was before this for a couple weeks. I don’t think I could last with the mentality of the kids there. Not to say anything bad, but it just wasn’t warm walking here. Here (at Sparta) they were warmer so it made it a lot easier. I would say the difficult part, especially since I’m living on my own, is adapting to a whole new life. The football is the same. The first few months obviously were nerve-racking because that was a whole trial for me. They were testing me, asking me questions, always making it harder for me, so it was a big test, which was annoying but when I look back on it now, it was all worth it. Just adapting (to that) was the hardest thing.”
CC: Have you learned the language?
EH: “Yea, right when I got there after I knew I was staying I found a teacher and I had her for pretty much every other day for two hours. She spoke perfect English and we still keep in touch. I had the lessons for a year-and-a-half and I just stopped before last winter. I speak with the kids all the times and can get around by myself. It’s actually pretty cool, you know. When I sit back before I go to bed it’s just really weird.”
CC: There are not many Americans in the Czech league. Do you feel you have to prove yourself every day?
EH: “Yea, I always feel I can’t let down. Especially being a foreigner in any country. From what I hear from my friend Johann (Smith) it’s the same exact thing in Europe or outside the U.S. I always have to work harder. Not that I’d slack off, but you always have to show more, you have to act more professional than the other kids there, you have to show that you belong there. It’s not easy, but the coach always tells me your doing super, everything’s good, we like you, you have a future here, so I just have keep doing what I’m doing.”
CC: Have you always played right back?
EH: “I actually grew up playing sweeper. I played sweeper with PDA and as PDA was going on I went to defensive midfielder and from there, the summer right before coming to the Czech Republic, that’s when I started to play right back. It was pretty funny because it was like I had to learn a new position while I was here.”
CC: I’m sure your comfortable now though…
EH: “Well, I’m really comfortable now. Even then I was really comfortable. The St. Benedict’s Tournament was my first time playing right back with PDA and I scored three goals in five games. I felt really comfortable. I always want to create and attack and coming from the back with the overlapping and everything, I just love it. It makes it fun for me.”
CC: A lot of Americans are now playing overseas, but not many people probably know about Erik Hort. Are you hoping to change that with performances with the U-20s?
EH: “That’s what I’m really hoping. That’s probably the biggest thing. I really want to make the (U-20) World Cup team as this is a really big year. And it’s going to help get my name out bigger. Especially, if everything goes well and I go for qualifying and the World Cup in Canada. That’s my biggest thing to get my name out there, so people know there’s another guy out there that is playing overseas, another future prospect.”
CC: You talk to Johann Smith quite a bit, right?
EH: “I pretty much talk to him every day. I call him and he calls me.”
CC: Did you talk to him about getting called into the U-20s as he just got called in for the first time this year as well?
EH: “Yea, definitely. I didn’t even know he went actually. I just found out three weeks ago and we were talking about it. And then out of nowhere I get the e-mail and I called him right away and was like, ‘Johan, you’re not going to believe this’ because we’ve always talked about (playing with the national team). We’ve always been there for each other to pump each other up to keep going and everything. It’s been really good to have a good friend that you could trust and is on your side for support.”
CC: Now that you’ll be in with the U-20s, what are your goals during this initial trip where Thomas Rongen will see you for the first time?
EH: “That was probably the most shocking thing because usually it’s a camp or something. I haven’t even been in with the U-18s or anything, so it was a bit shocking that it was a tournament. I have a lot of experience with a lot of teams as I’ve played Ajax, Barcelona and have a lot of experience with it. Obviously, national teams are different but it’s not like I’m coming onto a stage I’ve never been before.”
CC: Well, before we let you go, you have to let us know what it’s like living in such a beautiful city as Prague. How much are you enjoying it?
EH: “Prague is probably one of the most gorgeous cities in all of the world. I would rank it really high and not just because I’m here. It’s amazing. It’s so calm, it’s one of the safest cities in Europe and very quiet, especially living by myself. It’s just amazing to go out and do what I want. Everyone probably always thinks that since I’m by myself I can go out to clubs and about the age difference for drinking, but I hold a very, very professional life here. I don’t take advantages like that, I don’t even drink at all, I don’t like it. I go to sleep at a decent hour and wake up for training. I have responsibilities now, obviously, such as paying the rent, going here, going there. It’s like I’m a man already, I’m really going on 35.”
CC: You must have loved the city except when the U.S. lost to the Czech Republic in the World Cup…
EH: “(Laughs) I didn’t even really care about the World Cup except for that game to tell you the truth. I was so excited for that game and it was a disappointment, but the kids on the team didn’t really say much about it because they didn’t just look at that game and they didn’t play up to the quality they wanted in the next two games. They didn’t want to beat the U.S. so they could laugh at Erik. They really didn’t play up to their ability, so it wasn’t that bad. I got some comments, but I just tried not to listen to them.”