Ethan Bryant gave up soccer after one season at Brandeis High School to pursue a rare opportunity: At 15, he was invited to train with the hometown pro team, San Antonio FC.
That meant leaving home with his father every morning for a four-hour workout at the STAR Soccer Complex. That meant getting picked up by his mother every day at noon and going home to eat, shower, and take four hours of online classes.
A gifted midfielder and stellar student, Bryant made a smooth transition to the United Soccer League. He earned all As, claimed a roster spot in January at the age of 16, and signed a contract, one that allows him to compete as a professional but maintain his eligibility for college since he won’t draw a salary.
How often does someone Bryant’s age make a United Soccer League team? According to the league, Bryant is one of three players 16 or younger on an independent USL team roster. The youngest player in league history, Efrain Alvarez, signed with LA Galaxy II last season when he was 15 years, one month, and 14 days old.
In short, Bryant belongs to select company.
“To be in this position is awesome,” Bryant said. “It’s a big opportunity to play in my hometown with great players and a staff that believes in me. I’m really excited, but I’m ready for the hard work.”
The question for fans: Will Bryant see much or any action when SAFC opens its season on March 17 on the road against Sacramento Republic FC? Or when the team plays its home opener at Toyota Field on March 24 against St. Louis FC?
“If he earns the right to do so, he’ll have the opportunity,” coach Darren Powell said. “But we’ve got some experienced players on our roster and you don’t want to put too much responsibility on a 16-year-old so early in the season.”
Bryant is the prize product of the SAFC Pro Academy, a system that trains the area’s top youth players and creates a pathway to the professional team and to national and collegiate teams. He joined SAFC’s Elite Training Program at 14, began practicing against the professional first team roster at 15, and became the first academy player to earn a contract at 16.
“I might be the first,” he said, “but there’s gonna be many more. So it’s important to be a good role model and show them there is a path, there is hope to the first team.”
Powell believes the gifted teen is spot on, and is setting a fine example. “Ethan’s done a good job from Day One,” Powell said. “He’s come in and worked extremely hard. He has a really good attitude as well. He’s got a bright future.”
Kevin and Jennifer Bryant knew their son could play. But they did not expect to see Ethan on a pro roster so soon.
“I was surprised it happened so quickly,” Jennifer said. “I thought it would happen eventually. But I didn’t think it was going to be this year.”
Ethan does not consider himself a natural. He says he’s always had to work hard at the game. But Kevin recalls a precocious child, an athlete with extraordinary reflexes and exceptional skill. Ethan began playing at age 4, developed quickly, and started getting invited to national camps by the time he was 11.
“When he was very young, I coached him for a few seasons at the YMCA,” Kevin said. “But it became apparent his desire and potential exceeded what I could give him. So we put him in more competitive club soccer.”
Ethan turned his modest backyard – “about 20 yards in length,” he said – into a soccer field. He erected a goal, set up trash cans, and his parents installed two rebounders. He dribbled and kicked for hours. “That’s the way I got better,” he said.
In eighth grade, Ethan left home to train for a year at the IMG Academy, a prestigious athletic facility and boarding school in Bradenton, Florida. He returned home the next year, earned second-team All District honors at Brandeis, and impressed at the SAFC elite training program.
Soon after, Ethan began training with and competing against the SAFC first team. He stood out and showed no fear.
“He was a boy and you were concerned with him playing against men,” Powell said. “But that concern was quickly taken away by his performance and ability to play the game.”
SAFC players have embraced Ethan, offering encouragement and advice. In return, Ethan has put the instruction into practice. Powell loves the synergy. He won’t offer any predictions but acknowledges the possibilities: In time, Ethan will have a chance to play – and perhaps start.
“We don’t expect him to play a lot,” Jennifer said. “But just being in the day-to-day culture is so great for him. It’s extremely exciting.”
Ethan can hardly wait to make his home debut, to step on the field in front of his parents, his older brother, Carter, his younger sister, Laci, his friends and cheering fans. “When it comes,” Ethan said, “I’m gonna be ready.”
No one knows when Ethan will play in his first pro match. But the anticipation is building.
“The first time he rolls out on Toyota Field, that’s going to be pretty emotional,” Kevin said. “This is just the beginning of what is in store for Ethan. He’s writing a wonderful story.”