Three years ago, RJ Allen wasn’t sure if he’d make it in pro soccer. The 25-year-old was training with Spanish star David Villa, a World Cup winner and the first player NYCFC ever signed, Mike Grella, who would later sign with the Red Bulls, and Jason Kreis, the newly-appointed coach of NYCFC, and his staff on a mediocre pitch at Ramapo College.
Allen was desperately hoping he’d receive an invitation from Kreis to join NYCFC before preseason began.
“Preseason came and went and they didn’t call me,” Allen tells Best of NJ. “I was like ‘Oh, my God. What am I going to do?’ I was a little worried, I wasn’t sure if soccer was going to happen for me, you know that’s when I really started to pursue coaching and then a month later, a few months later, after they got off to a slow start in March, they called me in and that’s when my career picked back up and turned the corner.
A Good Start
The assist against the Red Bulls was the first of 11 Allen would notch with NYCFC over the course of three seasons (he made 42 starts and appeared in 53 games in that time), including a fantastic assist to Villa against the Portland Timbers on May 15, 2016. In 2016, his six assists were tied for the most among MLS defenders; he didn’t receive as much playing time this past season, however, and NYCFC did not exercise his option for the 2018 season.
This decision proved to be the start of a new chapter in Allen’s career.
The Journey Begins
On December 18, Orlando City SC acquired Allen from NYCFC in exchange for Orlando’s 2018 MLS SuperDraft third-round pick. Allen agreed to a three-year deal with Orlando.
“Orlando City wasn’t the only team coming after me,” Allen, 27, said. “It’s a blessing in disguise that I had to make my own decision.”
But it’s a far cry from the days when Allen longed for an invite to NYCFC preseason.
“It’s an opportunity for me to re-establish myself back in the league again and I think last year was kind of a quiet year for me and I have more to show,” Allen said. “I still think that I can take my game to another level and be better than I was last year and the year before, when I had a goal and six assists.
“I’m hoping for another like that this season. I’m going to a team that’s going to compete for every trophy. Hopefully, I can make history and, for the first time, make the MLS playoffs for a great city like Orlando.”
Not only will Allen have the opportunity to show what he can do for a new club, there will also be some familiar faces greeting him in Orlando. NYCFC fired Kreis and assistant coaches Miles Joseph and C.J. Brown in November 2015, after the team’s first season in the MLS. In July 2016, Orlando hired Kreis as its head coach and he brought in Joseph and Brown as his assistants.
Even with the promise of a staff that he’s familiar with, leaving the Northeast, where he’s spent nearly his entire life, wasn’t any easy decision for Allen.
At 13, Allen, who was born in Staten Island but grew up in the same house in Old Bridge his entire childhood, picked soccer over hockey when both sports became really demanding and his parents wanted him to choose one.
“I was more passionate about it,” he said of soccer.
Allen played varsity soccer all four years of high school at St. Joseph’s in Metuchen (he also dropped down to play junior varsity sometimes) and initially gave a verbal commitment to compete at Rutgers under its longtime coach Bob Reasso.
A few months later, he had second thoughts and reconsidered an offer from Monmouth University. Allen retracted his commitment to Rutgers and ended up playing for coach Robert McCourt at Monmouth.
It didn’t take long for McCourt to notice that Allen had the tools to play professionally.
“He always had professional attributes, so he was always doing extra workouts in the gym – almost to the point where you had to curtail it a little bit,” McCourt said of Allen. “You know, when college seasons get a little bit tough, you want guys to maybe get their recovery done properly and he was a guy that was always doing the extra work.
“He was coming out early, working on service from wide positions, getting down the flank in the attack and working on serving balls in the box. He would stay late after training and work on free kicks and stuff like that. So we always say that the guys who are going to get a chance [to play professionally] are the guys that show the most commitment and really work on the craft, and he’s been like a young pro since he was here as a freshman.”
Allen, who graduated from Monmouth with a degree in health studies in three-and-a-half years, was a four-year starter for the Hawks and was selected to the NSCAA Men’s Division I All-America Second Team as a senior. On January 17, 2012, Chivas USA selected him fifth overall in the MLS Supplemental draft, but he never signed with the club.
“I think coming from a Division I program but a smaller school made it a little more difficult for me early on in my career to get started,” Allen said. “So I had to take the long path, I guess you can say.”
Across The Pond
The longest leg of Allen’s odyssey required an international flight. The 6-foot, 177-pound defender spent the 2013 season playing first-division fútbol in Denmark with Skive IK.
“I went there, I played every game week in, week out,” he said. “Got some really solid professional minutes, gained a lot of experience and yeah, it was great for me.
“But for me, early on in my career, it was definitely minutes that I needed in order to have these other MLS clubs and these other clubs here in the states to give them a real… opinion on me – as to what I can do. To have real film and to have professional minutes, it was something that I needed at an early age.”
Allen coached Staten Island United’s U-10 boys’ team after returning from Denmark, prior to signing with NYCFC, and considers coaching to be both a passion of his and something he might pursue after his professional career. In addition, Allen said that he’s considering going back to school for “physical therapy or some sort of athletic training” — occupations that are connected to his health studies major and another passion of Allen’s — after his playing days end.
RJ Allen isn’t the only member of the family with soccer prowess. The 27-year-old has four siblings; an older brother, Vincent; two younger brothers, Brandon, who starred at Georgetown and now plays professionally in the MLS (the Red Bulls loaned Brandon to Minnesota United in July for the remainder of the 2017 season), and Cameron, who plays in college (first for Siena College before transferring to William Patterson University); and a younger sister, Arianna, the youngest of the five, a defender for Old Bridge High School, who plans to play soccer at William Paterson.
If you want to know how important family is to RJ Allen, just look at his right bicep. He has a tattoo there that reads: “Family. Where life begins, and love never ends.”
On his left arm, he has another tattoo: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged. For the Lord your God will be with you where ever you go” -Joshua 1:9
Allen’s family was certainly on his mind as he pondered one of the biggest decisions of his pro career.
“I spoke to, obviously, my family,” Allen said. “It’s never easy to just get up and leave where you’re from, so I think, first and foremost, I had to speak to my girlfriend who I’m very close with, my family, and kind of get their support, and they’ve been very supportive throughout the process, and, in particular, my girlfriend, who I live with now, and we’re going to be apart. But she’s very supportive and it’s going to be a really good challenge.”
“Obviously, I have a relationship with the staff already after playing with them in 2015,” Allen said. “For me, it’s new goals, it’s new adventures. Hopefully, I can help achieve history with Orlando City in making the playoffs for the first time next year, obviously that’s the first and foremost goal. And then there’s other trophies, like Open Cup and Supporters Shield, that I think – with the players that Jason’s going to bring in – we’ll definitely compete for that.”
For Allen, remaining optimistic and keeping his eyes on the prize ahead has helped him hurdle the challenges of navigating a career in professional soccer. He also heeded the advice of McCourt, who urged him to keep pursuing his dream of a pro career.
“We’ve stayed in touch, obviously, from his time here at Monmouth to when he went to Europe to play, and then obviously when he came back and wasn’t sure what to do,” McCourt said. “I just told him he needs to continue to try and play because when he gets to 30, 35 he can always get a job, but you only have one window in life to continue to play, so the story was a pretty incredible one for him with the whole New York City thing and now he’s an established pro, so it’s great to see the whole transition from college soccer to Europe to being a pro to a guy that’s now almost like a veteran in the league. It’s been fantastic to see.”
And he’s particularly excited about his opportunity in the Sunshine State.
As Allen tells Best of NJ, “For my professional career, it’s going to be the best decision I’ve made.”
All Photos: © RJ Allen