Aidan Flynn has an intense perspective on life – one not shared by many 16-year-olds.
“If I have a plan B, in the back of my head, it serves as an excuse for me to not work as hard for plan A,” he said.
For Flynn, that has been his mantra for about six years.
In fifth grade, Flynn decided he would not be an ordinary kid who watches cartoons and lazes about during weekends and after school.
From an early age, soccer was much more than merely a sport he enjoyed playing.
Flynn grew up in Seattle where he and his dad, Cary, would pass around a ball and play made up games on the sidelines while watching his sister play her own games.
Aidan was raised around soccer and developed a deep love for everything about the sport. At the age of 10, he began telling himself the only way he would be successful in soccer was to move forward without a safety net.
“There was just a turning point where I really started taking things serious,” he said. “I came to the realization in fifth grade that I was saying it, but I wasn’t doing the things I knew I had to (in order) to get there.”
From that point, Aidan didn’t stop working every single day to improve as a player. Camps, training, extra practices, and more – he put his head down and dedicated himself to his craft.
“He’s very determined,” Cary said. “He puts his mind to something and it’s hard to shake him off it.”
Cary has been realistic with Aidan since day one about his desire to become a professional soccer player. He has made sure to keep the goals in perspective since Aidan first started taking things seriously.
“So few people have the opportunity to be a professional athlete,” he said. “It’s easy to read all the superstar, wonder kid stories. But really, what’s behind every one of those stories is a kid who’s really busted his ass for a very long time.”
Aidan’s work ethic and drive are in a league of their own.
One of Aidan’s former coaches in Seattle was former Jamaican national team player Heron Grey. Grey came to the U.S. in 2007 and has developed and coached kids at all levels since his career was cut short due to injury.
Grey said while Aidan wasn’t the fastest or most skillful when he first started training, he could tell there was something special about him.
“Some kids are just born with it,” Grey said. “He was not one of those. But he always had that fire.”
Grey noticed early on that Aidan took his training to heart and worked day and night to continuously improve. Although he may not have been a child prodigy, Aidan worked hard to refine his skills and get to the point where he could take his abilities to the next level.
As part of his training, Grey would task Aidan to get 2,000 touches with a ball, excluding practices, every day for five days a week. To achieve his weekly quota, the 16-year-old had to wake up at 5 a.m. to get training in before school and also make time after school.
The number may seem daunting, but Aidan never complained and always completed the task. Referring to him as a “coach’s dream,” Grey was comfortable pushing him because of his own professional background and knowing what it takes to get to that level.
“After a year, you started to see him make such a big jump in improvement,” Grey said. “The following year he was playing on a team that’s two, three years up.”
Aidan heard his coach tell tales about once juggling the ball 1,000 times without allowing it to touch the ground. Grey recounted one day where Aidan nearly quadrupled his record; he gave up for the simple reason of being tired.
Aidan quickly rose through the ranks and started competing above his age group with kids bigger, older and more experienced than he was, but that didn’t stop him. Of all the kids Aidan played with and against, none measured up to the drive and heart he displayed on and off the field.
One of Aidan’s former teammates, Kaleabe Abebe, played alongside him for four years. Abebe is three years older than Aidan and said the age difference never played a factor in Adian’s ability to compete.
“Three, four years, that’s a big difference,” Abebe said. “He’s a guy you want on your team. So much heart. Fights for every position and never gives up.”
Abebe describes Aidan as being a smaller guy when they started playing together, but that changed as the years passed. He now stands at 6-foot-3 and 165 pounds. Aidan plays center defender most of the time. Outside the goalie, he is the last line of defense.
“Frankly, it was a piece of junk mail,” Cary said.
One day, while searching through his email, he noticed a particular advertisement for a soccer academy in Casa Grande. Initially, he thought nothing of it, other than it was just another camp or maybe even a scam.
Barca Residency Academy. An organization designed to develop young athletes serious about competing in soccer at a high level through Barcelona FC.
Not immediately dismissive of the email, Cary decided to look into it a little more and ask around to see what it was about.
“I validated it with some other parents who had heard of it,” he said. “A young man in the area was going to it, so I spent several hours on the phone with his dad talking and understanding the program.”
After plenty of research and thinking it over, Aidan went down to the unfamiliar desert for a tryout in March.
“I had a training session [Friday] night, two on Saturday and another on Sunday morning,” Aidan said.
Players are either asked to come back and try again or join depending on how they perform over the weekend. After only one tryout, Aidan was invited to join the academy.
Then came a decision to truly test just how dedicated Aidan was to his dream of becoming a professional soccer player. To join the academy, he would have to drop everything he knew, leave home and move to Arizona, a place where he had no friends or family.
Most young adults have a hard enough time leaving home for college when they’re 18 years old.
According to a research study done by College Atlas, 30 percent of college freshmen will drop out after their first year. A number of factors, including homesickness, health and being unprepared to live on one’s own contribute to this figure.
Aidan had to make this decision at 15. However, with his desire and passion to become a professional someday, the choice was clear.
“I’m lucky enough to be in a family that’s super supportive,” he said.
Aidan enrolled in the Barca Academy to continue playing soccer at a high level and pursue his education.
Although he has no plans to go to college for any other reason than to play Division I soccer, Aidan takes his academics very seriously. Cary said he is a straight-A student and always makes time for homework and soccer.
The students are enrolled in courses through an Arizona State University preparatory academy. The courses are a mix of classroom and online work, so the students can complete some of the work on the road, which is important with their traveling schedule.
Life at Barça
“The day I got here, it was 113 degrees,” Aidan said.
A literal warm welcome gave him an idea as to how much his life would be changing in the coming months. Outside of weather, Aidan embarked on a journey unlike anything he had experienced to that point in his young life.
“[Homesickness] is absolutely an element of it,” Cary said. “But I don’t know if it was harder for him or for me.”
While the transition was tough initially, Aidan found a way to help himself cope and get through those feelings.
“I just would tell myself, ‘It’s supposed to suck,’” he said. “That part of the experience is what brings you closer to your teammates, which develops that connection on and off the field.”
It’s a necessary evil for what he wants to do, but Aidan admitted to missing his family and friends back home.
“In a lot of ways, it brought me closer to them because it made me realize the saying ‘You don’t know what you have until it’s gone,’” he said. “It was an adjustment in a lot of ways but helped me develop an appreciation for what I had and do have.”
Although the homesickness is something nearly all the student athletes experience when they first start at the academy, their schedule keeps everyone busy throughout the week.
Every day during the week, except Tuesday, the players have practice or training, provided there are no games scheduled during the week. On the weekends, they usually travel to tournaments or games all over the country.
While the level of competition is at an all-time high, Aidan said some of the biggest challenges come from within the team.
“Learning the Barca style. They’re trying to make it ingrained in us,” he said. “It’s so different than what coaches in America teach, but it’s so much better and a lot harder to execute.”
The style is harder, Aidan explained, because a lot of it is depending on team chemistry. ‘Tiki taka’ is a style of play that was popularized by Spanish players and specifically Barcelona FC for its long possessions, short passing and gradually moving the ball forward into the offensive zone.
The dorm environment at their school facilities has helped players get to know each other better off the field, which Aidan said is pivotal to performing together on the field.
“When you live together, you get to know someone like the back of your hand. That translates to the field,” he said. “Do you feel comfortable? You have an idea of what they’re going to do, what to do as a team, and it makes that process a lot better.”
The future path
Aidan is 16 years old. He lives more than 1,000 miles away from home, all in pursuit of his dream. The center defender for the U18s Barcelona Academy team – playing a year up again – has been working toward opportunities like this since he was 10.
Aidan is about to finish his junior year of high school and hopes to sign a professional contract or a D-I scholarship to play collegiate soccer, the latter being much less desirable.
Aidan refuses to give himself any alternative to soccer as a professional career. Then again, it was in fifth grade when he developed his mantra, and he has stuck by it for six years and counting.
“If I have a plan B, in the back of my head, it serves as an excuse for me to not work as hard for plan A,” he said. “I cannot envision myself doing anything else that would make me half as happy.”