Born in North Carolina and raised in Nashville, Tenn. Ezra Armstrong seemed an unlikely candidate to become the poster boy for Sporting Kansas City’s (SKC) Academy Affiliate program. However, on March 10, 2016, that is exactly what he became. A 17-year-old high school junior, Ezra signed an Academy contract with the Swope Park Rangers that will allow him to train and play with Sporting KC’s USL side while maintaining Academy and NCAA eligibility, making him the first Academy Affiliate player to reach the USL through SKC’s player development pathway.
Growing up in Nashville, Ezra loved playing soccer, but harboring ambitions of one day playing at the highest level was not realistic. With the closest Major League Soccer (MLS) club nearly 700 miles north of Nashville, there were lots of questions to be answered. The son of Desmond Armstrong – a National Soccer Hall of Famer - Ezra knew that if he wanted to develop into a professional someday, his training routine & environment would have to change. Desmond had formed a small youth soccer club in Nashville where Ezra trained two to three times per week, but without strong competition day-in and day-out, Ezra’s ceiling was limited. Ezra continued training under his father until 2014 when many of his questions were answered.
In the spring of 2014, the FC Nashville Heroes (the small youth club operated by Desmond) partnered with Sporting KC and joined the Sporting Club Network as its ninth Academy Affiliate. After rebranding as Sporting Nashville Heroes, they immediately saw the benefits of the program, one of which is direct access to the Academy and its staff. Within a year of Sporting Nashville Heroes’ affiliation, Ezra, at the age of 14 moved from Nashville to Kansas City to continue his development with Sporting KC’s Academy. Although the move wasn’t easy for a 15-year-old kid, Ezra believed relocating would help advance his soccer career.
Ezra’s first two years in the Academy were challenging. Practicing three or four days a week with games on the weekends was a big change, not to mention getting used to the long distance from family and friends. Time outside of soccer was rare and finding a balance between soccer and a social life was easier said than done. While interviewing Ezra’s father Desmond, he told a story of Ezra calling him & stating, “I just want to be a normal kid.” Life as an Academy player wasn’t the easiest; as Ezra’s daily routine consisted of only school & soccer. However, Desmond constantly reminded his son of the ultimate reason he was in KC. “Focus! Why are you in KC? What are your goals?” were the constant reminders Ezra heard from his father. “Nothing about what Ezra is doing is normal,” Desmond said. He’s right, “normal” kids don’t travel half way across the country for an opportunity to further their soccer careers in hopes of one day playing professionally.
Focus is what Ezra did, and looking back now, Ezra can be thankful he took his father’s advice. As I reminded Ezra during an interview of those tough conversations just a few short years ago, he shook his head in remembrance & looked at me with a smile while saying, “Yeah, those sacrifices are worth it now.” Not only is Ezra happy and overwhelmed but his family is too. “We’re very proud. It takes a lot for any kid to move away from his family and go through that. And now to reap the rewards, soccer wise, from that sacrifice…We are over-joyed for him and humble knowing that this is just the first step,” his father said. It’s the natural progression for Ezra in what he hopes to be just another step in his playing career. From Affiliate to Academy and now the Swope Park Rangers….It’s one heck of a start for the 17-year-old kid from Nashville, who just three years ago had no path to the pros. “Stay humble. This is only the beginning.” – Ezra Armstrong.