We most recently got the chance to talk with PDL national champion and recent MLS Combine invitee James Pyle! The UNC Men's Soccer standout enjoyed a successful college career and we were lucky enough to recap his journey as well as talk with him about what is next! Read it all below.
Growing up, did you play a variety of sports or was soccer always your main focus?
Growing up, I was fortunate to have a twin brother who enjoyed playing sports as much as I did. Our parents always put us in team sports because it was a good way to burn off never-ending energy and build social skills. We were both quiet, introverted kids. We played baseball until about 10 when we realized we didn’t like wearing long pants while playing a sport. We also did not like standing around waiting for something to happen (kind of ironic now). We played basketball until we were 11 years old during the winter months. It was fun, but both our hearts were into running around outside and kicking a soccer ball
At what point did you start taking soccer seriously? Was your goal always to play in college?
I don’t remember a certain time in life when I decided to take soccer seriously. I was always one of the better players on the team so that helped motivate me to commit more fully to the sport. I think soccer was always something me and my brother did for fun. I remember in 8th grade we were on the top team in North Carolina for our age group, playing to qualify for Region lll. We had a great season and were winning all games and would certainly qualify for Region III. But the coach wasn’t the best and my brother and I weren’t having fun. We were excelling as players, but the game was about us having fun together not listening to an out of control, irate coach. We dropped down to the second team in our club for the spring season. We ended up having a blast and enjoying soccer again. We were fortunate to still have coaches in our club that believed in us and recognized our talent and passion for the game and put us on the USSDA team the following year.
Talk about your recruiting process a bit...was division one always your goal? How did you decide on UNC Chapel Hill?
I think the goal; and the goal still is, to always play soccer until you feel the passion and love for the game is gone. Passion and love for the game is what drives and motivates me. I loved playing the game in high school. I was a quiet kid. I didn’t express myself much except with the team and on the field; I found it was a release. It was a passion and when it’s your passion you work hard at it to keep it alive. This was especially important and the case in high school. I knew our parents wouldn’t let us play college soccer unless the school was ranked high academically. Soccer was never an intent or identity that our parents wanted for us.
Division One was the goal mainly because it would have the schools that could support the academic foundations that my parents wanted me and my brother to lay for ourselves. I was also very lucky to play in a state where a lot of top soccer college programs are located and would provide the most exposure if I wanted to purse a soccer career beyond college. I decided on UNC Chapel Hill for a couple reasons. My first real exposure to UNC soccer was in the fifth grade when my English teacher had a son on the UNC 2001 national championship team. My teacher had a poster of her son and the UNC soccer team on the wall right in front of my desk. I looked at that poster whenever I sat down for class every day. The Carolina blue looked nice and I liked playing soccer. I decided to attend UNC due to the repeated exposure burned into my brain from my soccer teammates and coaches to go to Chapel Hill because it had everything I wanted academically and was an outstanding soccer program. (far superior to Duke). Also, a big factor into my decision to attend UNC was I wanted to stay in state. Born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, I didn’t want to go too far from my family. The other option was Georgetown which was aggressively recruiting me to come and play. I was scheduled to go for a visit to Georgetown, but the trip got cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy. I had always wanted to go to UNC but had been invited to visit Georgetown so I decided to check it out. I am superstitious as I would like to think most goalkeepers are and when the Georgetown trip got cancelled, I took that as a sign that UNC was the place I needed to go and play soccer.
How do you think the Development Academy aided in both your recruitment process and your preparation for the next level?
In high school I was fortunate to train with some great coaches that greatly influenced my soccer career. The Charlotte Soccer Academy USSDA at the time had on its staff Phillip Poole, Richard Butler, and Jeremy Gunn (the now 3-time national champion coach for Stanford). There was also a great team of players who were going through the youth ranks that developed into some of the best players in the country. The level of training was high and so were the expectations. Scouts from US Soccer came to games as well as D1college coaches. The reason CSA Development Academy was so successful at the time was the people there. The coaches who were really invested in the players as people. Those years of expected winning or at least giving your best helped when translating to playing at one of the best college soccer programs.
Describe your first year at UNC. What was the adjustment process like both on and off the field?
The adjustment from high school to college was a rough one but allowed for the most growth. I left for UNC after the winter of my senior year in high school. I was ready to begin the next step in life. That spring as well as the following full freshman year was hard. I am a hardcore introvert. I stick to myself. Freshman year I was very afraid of social situations. That being said, these “weaknesses” became some of my strengths when it came to college soccer. Most guys come in and then go out and drink until they are sloppy drunk every weekend. Make terrible decisions about their sleep schedules and diet. This type of behavior usually doesn’t work when you want to start for your team and hate not feeling good enough. The anti-socialness and hesitance allowed me to be myself. Not be influenced by others. Soccer was still an escape, but I put a lot of pressure on myself. A lot. No matter how many times I practiced, I was always very critical of myself and performance. If I made 10 great saves, I’d think about the 1 I maybe could’ve done better on. And it’s tough because it pushes you. You can never be good enough. But you have to ask is it worth it ? I think I learned to enjoy the game and still push myself to be what I could over the years but the first year was rough. It paid off because that spring I won the starting job over two older keepers, but I wouldn’t go back in time and go through that again.
UNC is historically a strong soccer program in one of the most competitive conferences in the country so naturally they attract the top talent around the country. What is it like competing every day with some of the top youth talent from all over the United States?
Going into the program at UNC you know you will be with the best youth players in the country. A lot of U17 national team guys and MLS academy players. I was a local Charlotte Soccer Academy US Development Academy player. I started the program thinking these guys are out of my league. Why am I here? But then you realize they are only as good as you make them. And in some ways, they come in maybe better than you are at your position but that changes because I think a lot of players who come into the program think they have already made it. They think they are already good enough. They had all the resources any youth player could want from their MLS team or youth national team in Bradenton at the time. So yes, they may be the best when they start the program, but I have seen the superstars fall as other players have risen in their performance, mental aptitude and strategic vision. I think this is because a lot of guys get recruited on natural ability and they thrived in their home environment. But throw them into a new team and setting where the coach is expecting nothing but the best and isn’t going to hold your hand. Most superstar players from high school will falter. That is when some rise and some fall. Just because they come from better environments doesn’t mean they are resilient. It doesn’t mean they will push themselves. As most college kids, they were going out all the time; partying and drinking. Not focusing on their craft. Not gaining a growth mindset. So they were some of the best soccer players but a lot fell while others caught up and surpassed them. I came in and realized I didn’t like sitting on the bench even if I was redshirting. I never felt I was good enough. But it would push me beyond what these MLS kids or youth national team kids would ever do. I figured it out which is what I think a lot of top college kids don’t. The competition was high but that was from the coaches creating the right environment, not the players.
You dealt with some injuries during your time at Chapel Hill. In a competitive environment at a top program, how do you deal with injuries and the uncertainty of getting back in the lineup knowing there are capable players waiting in the wings?
After two games into the 2017 season I had sustained a perforation in my small intestine from a hit in practice. I went into surgery at 3am and stayed in the hospital for 3 days. I then lost 15 pounds over 2 weeks of not being able to digest anything. At the time I was kind of relieved to not be playing soccer. I had gone from a very team oriented and positive environment that summer of winning a national championship with the Charlotte eagles in the PDL to now back to the UNC environment. I was burnt out. At a strange part in life. I’d kind of wanted an injury to happen. I recovered slowly but surely. The thought of getting back into the team was never really on my mind because I didn’t know why I wanted to go back to playing. I remember about 7 weeks after surgery I was about to go to my first practice and the head coach called me and said he didn’t think I was going to play again that season because I was unfit and had to build some muscle back. I have never been more pissed in my life. I didn’t know what soccer was to me or my motivation anymore, but the injury wasn’t going to control me like that. I went to practice that day and had the best practice I ever had while playing at UNC. I played the next game and continued to play the rest of the season including the College Cup game in Pittsburgh. I knew my coach had faith in me more than I ever had in myself. The thought of not starting never crossed my mind because of another player. The only person stopping me from returning and playing was myself. Regardless of soccer, that injury was the best thing to happen to me at UNC. I met my now girlfriend through being behind in class and getting help from her to complete an assignment. I started to see a sports psychologist which has served as a catalyst in pursuing a career in sports psychology and has become a passion that has grown immensely in my heart and is something I would like to pursue post soccer career.
How was your PDL experience with the Charlotte Eagles? Describe the feeling of winning a National Championship with them and how that season prepared you for your upcoming college season?
The summer of 2017 with the Charlotte Eagles was hands down the best soccer experience I had over my four years of being in college. Not because we won the national PDL championship. But because the environment Andrew Pierce and Dave Dixon created for the players and organization. Dave Dixon (now Charlotte independence assistant coach) opened practice and pregame talks with inspiring lessons that applied to soccer and to life. He opened up and shared his thoughts on the game, strategy and life lessons.. He encouraged the whole team to do the same thing with one another. The Christian ministry focus became the focus of all of us. It’s not about us. It’s about each other. Being the best for the guy in front of me at defense. Or the guy on the bench. Coming from a program at UNC you find yourself with top youth players focused on their path to pro or playing time and that wasn’t the case at the Eagles. It was a group of guys, from all over the world and socioeconomic backgrounds, that loved each other and the Eagles Crest. I remember enjoying soccer for the first time in a long time that summer. I didn’t want to win because of a trophy or getting to have a title that would make me feel good about myself. I enjoyed that summer because of the players around me. Seeing them happy. I have been fortunate to have a lot of wonderful experiences in my soccer career. I had played multiple top 5 ranked team match ups in college with thousands of fans. I’d been in a college cup. Most of my teammates weren’t going to get to experience those type of games. I wanted to win and give my Eagle teammates the the best experience I could. . Dave Dixon really wanted that too. In some ways we were the Leicester city of PDL that year. That Charlotte Eagles team environment and team bond is what I think a lot of coaches search for in a team but don’t get. A team that truly cares about each other and has everyone’s best interest at heart, and is placed in an environment that supports this type of philosophy, wins. This is especially true when the one and only focus is about winning.
What's next for James Pyle? You've always been a highly-rated goalkeeper at the youth level and in college, is professional soccer the goal or do you have other aspirations?
Not to go the Sports Psychology route on this answer but I have no idea what is next for me. I am currently answering these questions on a flight to Portland for a Timbers goalkeeping combine. I also am pretty sure I have the MLS combine coming up. But what I’ve learned the most out of the past 5 years at UNC, and life in general, is it’s a journey with no destination. No use dwelling in the past or focusing on a destination. I’ve found a spark for soccer again I didn’t have at UNC for a long time. And that’s leading me to whatever is next. If I love the game then it has lead me to who knows where. Same as growing up, if you love it and the soccer is worth it then go after it. I will say that grad school and pursuing clinical psychology and sports psychology has been on my mind. As well as just being a student for once at a university. So for now what’s next is hopefully this plane landing!
Last question but it may be the most important...Who has the better sports program, UNC or Duke???
That is the most important question. And I think the answer to that lies in national championships by the schools. But that could be biased, given the legend and someone I got to train by and listen to; Anson Dorrance has 22 of them.