By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (June 14, 2012) US Soccer Players — Zak Ibsen loves the beach. Always has. He also always loved soccer. It was no surprise that Ibsen combined those two loves a decade ago and used them to overcome a terrible drug addiction. Years earlier, Ibsen used what he learned on those same California beaches to make it as a pro in Germany and later win two MLS Cups.
Ibsen captured an NCAA title with UCLA in 1990. He then went to try his luck in Europe. Ibsen played for both German clubs FC Saarbrucken and VfL Bochum, but decided to return home when Major League Soccer got off the ground in 1996. He would play for five teams (New England, Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Jose) and won titles with the Fire in 1998 and Earthquakes in 2001. In Germany, Ibsen recalled that he struggled to get a contract.
“My experience playing professionally in Germany was equal parts rewarding and challenging,” he said. “This was by far the hardest and best decision I had made in my life.
“However, as most American players during this era, I encountered some major difficulties finding and signing with a team. Within a short time of my arrival, I quickly realized my agent was full of empty promises so I fired him and went at it alone. I used to get up in the morning, pack up my cleats and hop on the train en route to the nearest professional clubs with my (resume) in hand. I would wait for the coach to arrive, knock on his office door, and force my way in to plead for a tryout that very day.”
Ibsen said his effort to sign with a team “went on for some time before I played well enough to overcome my desperation” and offered a contract with Bochum. FC Saarbrucken, where Eric Wynalda played, also showed an interest in the young Ibsen. He said it was the former National Team star paving the way for other Americans.
“(Wynalda) was on fire, couldn't stop scoring and really laid the foundation for the American players who followed,” he said. “Eric's success brought much needed credibility to the American player.”
Ibsen, who earned three caps with the National Team, also played for the 1992 Olympic team. Ibsen won a silver medal at the 1995 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup. He also played in the 2006 and 2007 editions. These days, Ibsen, 40, coaches at the San Francisco Viking Soccer Club.
Ibsen said his MLS days were a wild, topsy-turvy time starting with the New England Revolution in 1996, but that things improved for him when he was traded to the Dallas Burn.
"Although the Revolution was probably the most dysfunctional professional team I played for, I made some wonderful friends, and lived smack dab in the middle of all the action Boston had to offer," he recalled. "I shared a sweet apartment with (teammates) Peter Woodring and Jim St. Andre on Newbury and Exeter streets and we had a blast. It was such a relief to get myself traded to the Dallas Burn mid-season, and I went from coach Frank Stapleton's doghouse on the worst team in the league, to starting on a very talented playoff-bound team in Dallas. In Dallas I scored my first MLS goal against the Los Angeles Galaxy, and got my first taste of MLS playoffs.”
Moving each year became a way of life. In 1998, he signed with the Fire.
"Bob Bradley was a first-year head coach of MLS first expansion team, so there was plenty of work to do when the season began," he said. "Bob was amazing, definitely one of my favorite coaches of all time, and he and general manager Peter Wilt put together an incredible group of talented players from all over the world.”
Ibsen said he felt "blessed" for the "opportunity to be a part of that group." The roster included Peter Nowak, Frank Klopas, Zach Thornton, Ante Razov, Josh Wolff and Chris Armas – one that Ibsen called “a virtual All-Star team of MLS greats.”
Another great memory was his second MLS Cup, won with the San Jose Earthquakes three years later.
“Worst to first! Frank Yallop is right up there with Bob Bradley on my list of favorite coaches,” he said. “Again, what a group of amazing players Frank and Dominic Kinnear were able to assemble through the draft and trades. That group included stars Jeff Agoos, Ramiro Corrales, Troy Dayak, Ronald Cerritos, Dwayne De Rosario and Joe Cannon."
“The best memory would have to be Dwayne De Rosario's Golden Goal in MLS Cup final against the Los Angeles Galaxy, who happened to be the team that traded me just before the season,” he said. “No hard feelings. It just felt great to know I ended up with the right team for 2001, if only by one goal.”
In 2002, with his pro career at an end because of drug addiction as profiled in a 2009 New York Times article, Ibsen came up a winner again. He got another chance to shine on the beach.
“I grew up all over, but spent the majority of my youth in Santa Cruz. What a great place to grow up, but back in the day there was no club soccer in Santa Cruz, so I spent most of my time training on my own," he recalled. “This included frequent running and training on the beach. There was no formal beach soccer, but my friends and I would play soccer, using trash cans as goals. (It is a) great training tool for the outdoor game and amazing fitness. Eventually, when beach soccer was officially created (as a world championship), my background, skills and athleticism were a perfect fit.”
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