Jonny Steele was just 12 years old when he first visited the United States. Little did he know how influential that trip would ultimately be.
Traveling stateside for the USA Cup youth soccer tournament, Steele met some friends that he stayed in touch with over the course of his budding career. When the Northern Ireland Under-19 international departed the Wolverhampton Wanderers organization five years later, he evaluated his European options before deciding a more dramatic change of scenery would do him good.
"I had opportunities to stay in England," Steele said. "But I said I'd just come to America and give it a go."
Nearly a decade later, Steele is a veteran of six lower-level North American clubs, as well as four indoor soccer teams. The 26-year-old, whose body is as heavily inked as his resume, has got the journeyman thing down.
But this season, Steele is finally getting a shot to contribute for a top-flight club — eight years after he first went on an MLS trial, with the Dallas Burn. While the Real Salt Lake midfielder has contributed toughness to coach Jason Kreis' midfield in 12 appearances since signing during the preseason, he has made a name for himself across the league thanks to his flair for the dramatic.
Steele's first MLS goal came March 31, when he slotted home an 89th-minute equalizer for Salt Lake at Portland, moments before Kyle Beckerman capped the 3-2 comeback win with a stoppage-time strike. And his second tally was an exquisite 93rd-minute winner in a 3-2 triumph over Toronto FC on April 28.
"He's brought energy, passion, aggressiveness — things that you just don't find in everyday players," Salt Lake midfielder Will Johnson said. "He's got a great left foot on him as well, and he's been able to get some big goals for us."
Before heading to the Rocky Mountains, Steele played for the Syracuse Salty Dogs, Rochester Raging Rhinos, Carolina RailHawks, Puerto Rico Islanders, Vancouver Whitecaps (prior to their MLS entrance) and FC Tampa Bay. In 2008 with Puerto Rico, he was named the Most Valuable Player of the United Soccer Leagues' top division.
To make some extra cash and stay fit during the offseason, Steele also had stints playing indoor for the Kansas City Comets, Baltimore Blast, Philadelphia Kixx and Syracuse Silver Knights. Although adjusting to the rapid-fire nature of the indoor game, in which players log quick, high-octane shifts, was difficult at first, Steele said the tight confines helped him clean up his touch and develop his one-on-one skills.
Steele first got wind of Salt Lake's interest in him while playing with Carolina last season, when he was paid a visit by RSL assistant coach C.J. Brown. Steele's days waiting for another MLS opportunity, it turned out, were coming to an end.
"They flew C.J. down to meet me personally and talk to me about RSL and what they believe, the team is the star and stuff like that, and did I buy into it," Steele recalled. "And I was like, 'Of course I do.'"
Steele signed with Salt Lake after a trial, adding wide midfield depth to a team that needed to replace departed wingers Andy Williams and Arturo Alvarez. And as Johnson pointed out, it didn't hurt that Steele's entrance also gave the club another strong locker room personality.
"Anybody who has ever met Jonny knows there is nobody in the world that's like Jonny Steele," Johnson said. "He's the most loyal and passionate person that I've ever met. Those are two really great qualities when they're handled in the right capacity, which they are now."
For Steele, his emergence as a key role player for Salt Lake means he just might be staying put for a while. As far as he's concerned, he couldn't have picked a better organization to settle down with.
"You learn something new every day in soccer," Steele said. "Every day we come in, it's about working hard and getting the best out of it. We're really held accountable. The standards are kept very high here.
"And hopefully I'm here for a while."