Every week, NewYorkRedBulls.com will feature a NYRB II player, and tell their story. Here is the fifth installment of the USL Profile Series.
“I must have been nine years old, and I went to a MetroStars game, the first game of the season at Giants Stadium. They brought me on at halftime on the field and I ended up winning a juggling competition. I saw myself on the big screen and I said, ‘this is what I want to do the rest of my life.’”
Mike Da Fonte, defender for New York Red Bulls II, signed his USL contract on March 27, 2015. Since signing with the team, the 24-year-old leads NYRB II in minutes, appearances and starts.
A native of Ossining, N.Y., Da Fonte began playing soccer at the age of five. Reaching the professional level, however, was not an easy task. In 2009, he started his college career at Bryant University, but transferred to Longwood University the following season. The following year he transferred once more to University of Rio Grande.
“My first year was good, I had been doing well, but then I had a couple problems with injuries and I really wasn’t in the college [mindset],” Da Fonte said. “I just wanted to play professionally, I didn’t want to go to college. So it was frustrating for me to balance school and soccer and I just wanted to focus on one thing, so I kept going around and I just wanted to get straight to it so I ended up just leaving school.”
After three years of college, Da Fonte dropped out without a degree, a job, or a place to stay.
“I was literally living from couch-to-couch, training wherever I could, going out to tryouts,” Da Fonte said. “I was with D.C. United for a little while, I was going to NASL teams like Minnesota, I was with Harrisburg for a little while and nothing was working out, this was when I was 20 years old, and it was getting frustrating for me.”
“I was sleeping at airports, sleeping at bus stops. I was running out of money, and finally after three months I spoke with my parents and went back home and they took care of me and I went out to try out with the Westchester Flames.”
The Westchester Flames, a Premier Development League club in the fourth division of American soccer, hosted a tryout where Da Fonte impressed playing right back, a position he had never before played. An agent happened to be present, told him he liked the defender, and later signed him. Soon afterward, Da Fonte would find interest in Portugal and sign his first professional contract with Espinho, a club in the Portuguese third division.
He enjoyed a successful first season, making 23 appearances and scoring one goal. He earned a move in 2013 to another second division side, G.D. Chaves, but played with Pedras Salgadas, a third division club, due to roster restrictions. Da Fonte had another successful season, appearing in 23 matches, but he wanted to take his game to the next level.
“I was training with their First Team so it was a good experience and I liked playing with players that played in the first division, played on the national team,” Da Fonte said. “It was an experience that you can’t even put into words. I learned a lot being over there, but coming back home was something incredible.”
After two seasons in Portugal, he decided he would only stay if he could play in the second division or higher. He received a few offers, but none were the right fit and he was again without a club.
“I was training on my own every single day, waking up at six in the morning every single day to go run by myself,” Da Fonte said. “I was trying to find teams. I was able to play with the Cosmopolitan League, I had gone to a tournament in Toronto and played with a team, started playing with a couple other teams, started training with teams in the NASL. It ended up that I didn’t sign with a team in NASL, but the coach from that team coaches for Red Bulls youth teams and he told John [Wolyniec] about me and I came out to the tryout.”
The defender came to the New York Red Bulls II tryout at the Red Bulls Training Facility in February, impressed, earned a contract and has been leading the back line ever since. He even earned his First Team debut for the Red Bulls against Chelsea FC in the International Champions Cup on July 22. He entered the match as a halftime substitute in what he called, “the best moment of his life so far,” and played 45 minutes in the win, 4-2.
Thanks to his persistence and hard work, Da Fonte has made it as a professional soccer player and earned a consistent place in the Red Bulls II Starting XI. He’s also donned the captain’s armband in multiple matches.
“Over the years you realize, and when you’re young you don’t get it at first, but once you get a little experience, you play overseas and it’s a fight every day,” Da Fonte said. “My mentality since I started playing in Portugal is kill or be killed. You have to go out there [thinking] someone else is trying to take food off your plate and money out of your pocket and every day you have to be willing to work your ass off.”
“Every day I get to practice, no matter if it’s the First Team, the second team or whatever, I’m in there, I come early, leave late, everything…it’s a blessing to be able to play with Red Bulls.”
You can catch Mike Da Fonte with New York Red Bulls II at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. on Saturday, August 29 against Wilmington Hammerheads FC at 5 p.m. EDT. For ticket information, visit //www.newyorkredbulls.com/2/tickets. All matches are streamed live at NewYorkRedBulls.com/Live.