Jochen Graf, a 29 year old center-forward American who spent four years playing for European sides before returning to play for the Rochester Rhinos, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, and now, most recently, for the New York Cosmos, made time to sit down with First Team Podcast to discuss his background and his newest club.
FTP: Jochen, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Tell me, what do you think you bring to the team?
JG: It's strange to me now to be able to say that I'll bring experience to the club, but I guess looking back now it's true. The years fly by, and I've been lucky to play and go through so many different experiences on and off the field throughout my career.
Along with the experience there comes what I do on the field - attack. I love scoring goals and being a part of my teammates' scoring of goals. I work as hard as I can, regardless of whether I'm having a good or bad day on the pitch. I will always work my socks off - it's the bare minimum you can do as a professional. I enjoy being a member of a club, connecting with the people working day in and day out, the fans, and the community.
FTP: What are your expectations for the 2019 NPSL Season and the Founders Cup?
JG: Two competitions in the same season simply means two trophies that we have to go and win. A club of the Cosmos stature has to expect to win, and with that pressure brings working and performing at a level that honors the club's reputation and history. It will be a new experience for me in NPSL and a new experience for everyone in the Founders Cup. But the key is to enjoy the grind and, with the incredible staff and players we have, push ourselves to win both competitions.
FTP: In Europe most players play in the lower divisions to prove their talent. You have had the experience of first starting your professional career at the amateur level with A.A.C. Eagles. Can you please talk a little bit about that, and what you learned that propelled your career to the next level?
Jochen Graf: To be honest, I spent just a little time with Eagles and Schwaben. I think I must have played seven or eight games for them total. But it was a good experience for me to get some games before I left for Europe to play. Seeing clubs at the grassroots level in the US was awesome and I still am in touch with a lot of the people I met at the Eagles. It's a great place. I have to say that, from a career standpoint, it wasn't necessarily the turning point for me but it was one of the many experiences I had along the way that brought me to where I am now.
FTP: Playing in Germany and Sweden must have been a very exciting stretch of years for you. I think it’s great when American soccer players have the opportunity ply their trade abroad. The response from local players is not always positive, however. What was the reaction from your teammates when they learned you were American?
JG: Playing in Europe was an incredible time in my life. It was such a positive experience for me on and off the field. There are pros and cons to being an American playing overseas. On one hand, you receive a lot of attention and as long as you do well, then it can help propel you up the pyramid in whatever country you're playing. However it can also lead to more pressure and some unwarranted scrutiny as well. My teammates in each club I played for, 99% of the time, were amazing and so welcoming to me. There are always a few guys that wont like you for one reason or another. In an ideal world, you would be friends with everyone you work with but that's not reality. At the end of the day you're there to play soccer and do a job, not be besties with everyone in the media or that you play with.
FTP: Do you think playing a couple of seasons abroad was better for your career than playing in the U.S?
JG: I think that there were so many things I dealt with and learned playing abroad that playing in the US at that time (2012-2016) wouldn't have let me experience. Soccer and life are so different over there, and I learned things that I still rely on today as far as being a professional player, and to be the type of person that people will want to help succeed. I always recommend to young guys that if they have the chance to go overseas and play then they should do so at some point during their career.
FTP: In 2017 you played for your first American club, the Rochester Rhinos of the USL. After the Rhinos you went on to play for the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Reno 1868. What was your experience like in the United Soccer League?
JG: I've really enjoyed my time in the USL and being back in the States. All three of the clubs I've played for in the US have been very unique and different. Overall I'd say that being back in the US has been an immensely positive experience for me. I've gotten the chance to play for different managers that have taught me alot (both good and bad). I consider myself fortunate to have represented some great clubs and fan bases and Im really looking forward to adding the New York Cosmos to that list.
FTP: Will there be pressure from putting on the Cosmos jersey because of former players that have played over the past couple of seasons such as Raul and Marcos Senna?
JG: When you go to a club with a name and history like the New York Cosmos, there is automatic, instant pressure. It's something that you have to enjoy experiencing. Otherwise you're in the wrong business. Following after world-class superstars at the game's highest level is an honor. That pressure is the whole reason you want to play for a club like the Cosmos. The feeling from looking down at that badge and representing the same club as have so many legends is just one of the many reasons I wanted to come and play in New York.
FTP: New York Cosmos captain Danny Szetela has said in an interview with First Team Podcast that he could have made more money at a fast food restaurant than playing in the USL. What are your thoughts on player wages in USL? Player wages is a real problem in lower division soccer.
JG: Danny definitely has a point. There are some shockingly low wages in the lower divisions of pro soccer in the States, and to be fair it's similar in other countries as well. Clubs rely on "the dream" of making it as a professional in order to pay players less, hoping the experience is enough compensation. And it works for sure. But as more leagues develop their Unions and other programs to help protect players from earning such small wages the hope is that it changes. I will say that for the most part clubs do a good job taking care of players. But there will always be the desire from players to earn more, and as the leagues grow the players deserve a bigger piece. If you look in comparison to MLS - and I'm not saying that the levels in MLS and USL are the same - however there are plenty of players in the USL, as well as playing for clubs like the Cosmos, that are showing in preseason matches and cup competitions that the performance gap isn't so big anymore. There are guys making six figures turning out for MLS clubs this preseason who are losing 3-0 (Reno over San Jose, for example) to guys making 1,000 dollars a month. The pay gap is way off. Just my opinion.
FTP: What are you most looking forward to, off the field, with living in New York City?
JG: I am so excited to live in NYC. It's something I didn't think I'd experience. My fiance and I are really looking forward to exploring the city, seeing friends i've never had the chance to visit, and all the food...cannot emphasize that last one enough, haha! New York City has so much to offer and I really cant wait to represent this city on the field.
FTP: Finally, do you have a message for Cosmos Supporters?
JG: My message to the Supporters firstly is - thank you! The welcome I've received on social media and all the messages has been incredible. I already knew how amazing you guys are, you showed it straight away. I'm so excited to represent you guys, and everything the club stands for. We are going to give you everything we have, and bring even more Championships to you. You all deserve it and I can't wait to be a part of it.
James Izurieta contributed to this report.