Convey, 27, was once American soccers promising young star. He signed in 2000 with DC United at age 16 — then the youngest player ever to play in Major League Soccer. That year he went on to play 22 games, starting 18 of those. Sports scribes called him the next great thing. Expectations went stratospheric. He quickly got called up to the U.S. National Team and was a fixture under then coach Bruce Arena, earning 46 caps from 2000 to 2008.
Soon, English Premier League teams began to show interest in this rising star. Convey signed with Reading FC in 2004, where he helped the team earn a spot in the Premier League over three eventful seasons. He appeared in the 2006 World Cup for the U.S. in Germany. All seemed to be fitting into place for the promising left-footed winger.
But his rapid rise at an early age was followed by a sharp descent as he struggled to manage unrealistic expectations and several crippling knee injuries. Yet unlike other fading soccer wunderkinds — such as Freddy Adu — Convey fought back from injury and oblivion to restore his reputation.
Last season, he played like the promising player so hyped as a teenager — dishing out 10 assists from left side as a midfielder, or left back, and scoring two goals against New York Red Bulls in the playoffs.
“Im excited. Ive just tried to really enjoy myself after having my knee surgery,” Convey said, from Santa Clara, following training with the Earthquakes. “For three years, I’ve never been fully fit. Last year it all came together.”
For Convey, it has been a long journey to redemption. None of the early adulation and attention could prepare him for the struggles he has faced — and yet he continues to pass every test thrown at him.
Kasey Keller, a teammate of Convey on the U.S. National Team, has watched players like Convey come and go. Many times, he says, young players like Convey are built up so big without really earning the reputation. Then when they face the first setback, they crumble because they’ve never really had to struggle, Keller said.
“It first happened to Bobby when he went to England,” Keller said. “It took him a year to adjust to the higher level of play, and then he had a great two years in Reading, and then he picked up an injury. That’s when you’ve got to fight your way back and its difficult.”
For a player returning to the MLS from Europe, the challenge is often mental, Keller said. In the back of their minds, they’re still thinking they should still be in the English Premier League and they don’t mentally commit like they should, and their play suffers.
“It takes time for guys to mentally readjust,” Keller said. “What Im so proud of is when guys can fight through that and re-emerge on the other side. And Bobby has been able to do that on two different occasions.”
Returning to the MLS and playing for the Earthquakes proved difficult, initially. After all, Convey was used to 35,000 rabid fans watching every week, away games at Old Trafford against Manchester United and a culture steeped in soccer. San Jose does not have its own stadium and soccer in America is not even the No. 3 sport.
“Coming back to the MLS was difficult,” Convey agreed. “You have to work through the mental challenges.”
Though it wasn’t easy, he was willing to do the work, said Frank Yallop, coach for San Jose Earthquakes.
“He was talk of the town,” said Yallop. ” Hes had a lot to handle for a young man. Coming back here, The first bit was not easy for him. He adapted and he accepted that I wasnt worried about him being a superstar. I just wanted him to be a great player.”
Yallop had to show some tough love. At the beginning of last season, he needed to remind one of America’s soccer prodigies that you’re only as good as your last game. Yallop yanked Convey out of the first match.
“In the first game of season last year I took him out at half time to change tactics, and he wasnt playing well,” Yallop said. “I think that opened his eyes up. As a coach, it was the best thing I did. I told him his play was unacceptable.
“He gritted his teeth, worked hard, got back and played well,” Yallop said. “From then on, his general play was excellent. He got a lot of assists, he enjoyed playing, and I think he enjoyed the group of players.”
For Convey, this re-emergence peaked in the playoffs last year. San Jose was the surprise team and Convey had surprised everyone who expected him to fade away. He scored both goals against New York in a game the Earthquakes were expected to lose.
His man-of-the-match-quality performance against the Red Bulls capped a three-year recovery from that knee injury suffered while playing in England. Convey was among three candidates for the leagues comeback player of the year award, after starting 28 games. And in the return leg against the Red Bulls, Convey not only flashed his old offensive prowess, but he also marked the speedy winger Dane Richards out of the game.
“I was just motivated by wanting to do well again and proving to others that I could play at a high level again,” Convey said. “That was basically my motivation every day to do well again.”
Convey’s strong performance last season once again catapulted his name for national team consideration, although he alluded to a chilly relationship with Coach Bob Bradley. He has not yet been selected, but he is taking a more mature attitude. Whatever happens, happens, he said. It’s out of his control, though he said “you don’t play on the national team at 17 and then think you won’t be on it at 27.”
“Basically, I just try to enjoy myself here and being part of the good team,” Convey said. “With the national team, I haven’t spoken to the coach. I was just very happy I did well last year and people saw I wasnt injured.”
True, playing again for the national team would be another point of validation for a player that had become so used to the adulation. But now, playing with a group of players that he respects in San Jose, and enjoying his soccer again, may be as good as it gets.
And the renewed and much improved Bobby Convey can live with that.