By Brian Hoffman
Former Salem High soccer standout Paul Duffy was on a mission this summer. He was determined to become a professional soccer player and was close to realizing his dream. At the least, he visited some cool places and had a great experience.
Paul played for a team in Puerto Rico in the spring and this summer he played for the semi-pro Grove United team in Richmond. He was the leading scorer for his team in Puerto Rico and felt like he had the ability to make a living playing the game he loves.
“A little over a year ago I decided I wanted to pursue professional soccer,” he said. “Since then I really fell back in love with the game.”
Paul was an outstanding player for coach Dean Jones and the Spartans in his high school days, graduating in 2016. He was the conference Player of the Year as a senior at Salem and also earned first team All-Region honors and second team All-State in Class 4.
He went on to play collegiately at Randolph-Macon, earning third team All-ODAC honors. When Randolph-Macon selected the school’s All-Time soccer team Paul was named to the third team.
He thought he might be done with soccer when he graduated in 2020, but the love of the game never left him and Paul hooked up with the U-23 Roanoke Star team, where he was a teammate with former Spartan Alec Mowry. Alec went to Mary Washington after high school, but transferred to Randolph-Macon the year after Paul graduated.
“The Star team is a really good team,” said Duffy. “It’s mostly a summer league for college players and they play in a high level league, against teams from all over.”
Paul practiced every day, heading to Roanoke College to work out on the turf field at Kerr Stadium. Then, in October of 2021, he found out about a developmental center in Costa Rica that drew his interest.
“You go there and you play soccer every day,” he said. “You have to apply, and if you’re accepted you have to pay to go down there. The cost is reasonable and they provide food and housing, but the important thing is scouts come to see you play.”
There was a group of over 50 hopefuls at the center, mostly from the United States with a few locals as well. They played games against teams like the Saprissa reserve team, with players hoping to be pulled up for the professional Saprissa team. With so many players in Costa Rica the center had two teams, a first team and a second team, under one head coach. His name was Joe Funicello and there were also assistants and a goalie coach.
“Everyone fights to be on the first team, because that’s where the scouts will see you,” said Duffy. “Costa Rica was a great experience, a really cool cultural emersion.”
Paul thought he had a big break when a Portuguese team asked Funicello to send five of his best players to try out for a team in Portugal. Paul was chosen for the fifth spot and the five of them flew to Portugal for a chance to play there. However, it never did work out.
“They were only looking for players with European passports, and even at that you had to be considered to be a real difference maker,” said Duffy. “Sadly it didn’t work out. We trained there for a few days but were only there for about a week. Luckily, when I was coming back we had a long stop-over in Lisbon and I got to tour a soccer stadium there. That was really cool.”
By that time the three month period in Costa Rica was coming to an end so Paul came back to Virginia. His next move was to go to as many try-out camps as he could, and he went to camps in Georgia, Tennessee and Richmond hoping to catch a break. He hooked up with the Grove United team in Richmond and played just one game before good fortune found him.
“I went to a tryout in Georgia and met up with a friend I knew from Costa Rica,” he said. “He said he had a friend who was playing in Puerto Rico and they have five international spots available and would I be interested in playing there. It was on a trial basis, but they liked us and within a matter of a week and a half I was on the team.”
Paul was a member of the Academia Quintana team in Puerto Rico and he thrived there. A center back for most of his career, he decided he wanted to change to striker and a smooth transition followed. In fact, he scored 10 goals in eight games playing for Quintana and was the top goal scorer in the league.
“Things were kind of clicking for me,” he said. “But it was difficult being that far away from home. I have a girlfriend here and our family was dealing with some issues, so it was hard being away so I decided to move back.”
Paul didn’t regret his time in Puerto Rico, living in San Juan.
“If the circumstances were different I might have stayed, they accepted me like family,” he said. “They have a cool culture down there and beautiful beaches. The food was really good. They have sweet plantains that I just loved and this stuff called Mofongo. I would recommend to anyone visiting there.”
However, if you do so take a fan.
“If you think it’s hot here it’s nothing compared to San Juan,” he said. “There was no air conditioning where I lived and it was hard to sleep. After a while you just have to learn to love the heat.”
Paul returned to the states in early June. By that time the Grove United team in Richmond was in mid-season and they were happy to have Paul return. They were struggling at the time, but made a run for the playoffs, including a 1-0 win over the first place team in the conference. And all the while, Paul could see himself improving and becoming more confident his dream could become a reality.
He got another break in July when he got a tryout with the Loudoun United FC team in northern Virginia, a professional team that looked at him for several weeks. He was invited back after the first week of tryouts and came close to making the team before being told there weren’t enough spots on the roster.
“It really didn’t boil down to my abilities, just the timing was off,” he said. “I think the tryout taught me the importance of consistency and character. You want to show up every day to training playing at a high level. Also, you’ve gotta show up and believe in yourself and the abilities God has given you. Believing in yourself when the road is unsure gives you the energy and confidence to rise above the ‘What ifs’.”
Paul returned to Salem after the tryout and he’s decided to put his dream of playing professional soccer on hold.
“I’ve decided to stop pursuing the professional soccer career to put more time and energy into my family and girlfriend,” he said. “The travel was really tough, and it was becoming impossible to pursue all my goals in life. The travel was never gonna slow down, and I felt like it was time to put up my boots. I’m so thankful for the opportunity, and I’m really at peace with the decision because I gave it my all over the past year.”