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Angling for a niche

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By Brian Forbes

It’s no wonder Jay Nolly loves fishing almost as much as he does soccer.

Nolly, a 2000 graduate of Chatfield Senior High School and two-time national champion goalkeeper at Indiana University, has done all the right things during his young professional career, yet he has still watched potentially bigger and better opportunities swim agonizingly by, just out of reach.

Nolly, 26, was selected unexpectedly early in Major League Soccer’s 2005 SuperDraft by expansion club Real Salt Lake. He was the model rookie and became the model backup even after he was unceremoniously traded last year to four-time MLS champions D.C. United for teenage phenom Freddy Adu.

In 2006 he trained for two weeks with Scottish giants Celtic FC and probably would have joined Silkeborg IF in Denmark had he not taken an ill-fated detour to Romania.

Plenty of doors have opened for Nolly, he’s just never been given a fighting chance to muscle through them.

“It’s just kind of how it works,” Nolly said on the phone from Vancouver, Canada. “Sometimes you get that break.”

Sounds a lot like his other passion – fishing. Nolly was on the bass fishing team at Indiana (he was vice president once) and – with fly fishing rod in hand – will go after anything that swims.

Salmon was his intended target on his day off last week, just days after he had earned a shutout in arguably the biggest game of the 2008 season.

In search of more playing time, Nolly left D.C. United this past offseason and joined the Vancouver Whitecaps, currently the oldest member of the second-tier, 11-team United Soccer League First Division (think Triple-A baseball). He began the season on the bench but has emerged as the starting keeper and helped the Whitecaps shutout and upset MLS side Toronto FC on July 1 in the Canadian Championship competition.

Yeah, life is pretty peachy for Nolly. He’s finally been given a chance to play multiple games and establish a rhythm. He’s playing for a soccer-savvy crowd in one of the most beautiful cities in the Pacific Northwest, and he’s set to marry fiance Alicia Bathemeff this December in Utah.

No, he’s not in MLS, North America’s top soccer league, nor is he in Europe, the Promised Land of sorts for most of the top soccer players in the world, but he’s playing. And that is all that matters for now.

“I think eventually, yes, I would definitely like to try my hand somewhere over there,” Nolly said of Europe. “First, though, my loyalty has got to stay with Vancouver because this is my team.”

Euro Road Trip

Nolly got his first taste of European soccer with the immortal Celtic, which has won 42 Scottish championships since its inception in 1888 and holds worldwide sway due to a background of Catholicism.

Nolly called the experience unbelievable. He was invited to train for one week and was asked to stay an additional week by coach Gordon Strachan, a man known for strong expectations and sarcasm.

“He knew I was there and it was cool,” Nolly said. “He came up and talked to me and asked about some players he was interested in over here. He’s a real standup guy. But when training started I kind of stayed away from him because he has an edge to him.”

Nolly was ready to visit Danish club Silkeborg where he was told his signing would be a mere formality. En route, an agent informed him the more renowned Dinamo Bucharest in Romania would sign him immediately as well. So Nolly went to Romania only to find out the club had signed another goalie. Stranded in Romania for a week, Silkeborg officials couldn’t wait and signed a young American goalie instead.

Life in Vancouver

Nolly has played in seven league games for the Whitecaps this season and has recorded three shutouts. By comparison, Nolly made just eight starts in three seasons in MLS.

The Whitecaps are currently in second place in the USL-1. While the crowds are smaller and the travel never glamorous to places such as Rochester, N.Y., or Charleston, S.C., there is a local vibe that is unique to all of North America.

Vancouver, the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers are regional rivals from cities with strong international populations, most of which love the world’s sport. Seattle is joining MLS next season and talk is high that Vancouver could be on the short list to follow the Sounders in 2011 or 2012.

“The fans are just real knowledgeable about their sports and they stick with it,” Nolly said.

Fishing

Nolly might not trade soccer for fishing. At least not yet.

The greatest thing he does when not on the field is go to Wyoming with his high school buddies and camp and fish the Miracle Mile section of the North Platte River.

“I grew up with my mom fly fishing and bass fishing at the ponds in Littleton,” Nolly said.

As his mother, Diane, says, Nolly and his friends catch fish when others can’t get a bite. And when everyone is catching fish, Jay and his friends are landing the biggest ones.

Soccer life could be similar. If Nolly continues to shine in Vancouver it could open numerous doors around North America and abroad. Doors that should stay open longer than in the past.