Chris Duvall is a seven year veteran of professional soccer and is currently playing for the Portland Timbers in Major League Soccer (MLS). But before he went to Portland, Oklahoma City, Houston, Montreal, or New York, he played for four years under Jay Vidovich at Wake Forest. I recently interviewed him about his time at Wake, his career, and some contemporary issues.
Prior to being offered by Wake, you were planning on attending the College of Charleston. What brought about your Wake offer and what caused you to come to Wake?
My club team was playing a scrimmage against a team in North Carolina before a tournament and the team ended up being coached by Stef Hamilton, who is a Wake soccer alum and was pretty involved with the team. So in that scrimmage I played really well and I had a couple goals and assists and he spoke to coach Jay Vidovich about recruiting me. They were already recruiting one of the guys on our team pretty heavily so they were like “Yeah we’ll go watch.” Then they went and saw me play and they were interested, and that was kind of it. Considering I was looking at College of Charleston, you know, getting interest from Wake was almost impossible for me to turn down. They’d been to four straight Final Fours and they were a powerhouse and the other schools that were looking at me were nowhere near the same realm as Wake.
Did you have any go-to restaurants or meals when you were on campus?
Yeah, I loved Rose’s Deli off University Parkway. We spent a lot of time there; it was definitely a favorite. I feel like it was a pretty popular place when I was there, I don’t know if times have changed since I’ve gone. On campus, I loved Shorty’s in Benson, if that’s still there. I used to love having the Monday breakfast too on campus if they still have that. I know it’s always changing, I’m sure a lot of things have changed since I’ve gone.
Was there a moment other than your professional debut where it clicked that you were a professional soccer player?
When I was at the combine I talked to my agent and he said he thought that I would be a pretty high draft pick and I was like “Dude, I made it!” And he said “You can’t say you’ve made it until you’ve had a ten year career, then you’ll be able to know,” and I said to myself “Oh crap, I’ve got a long way to go.” I think the first time that I thought “Wow, this is real,” was the first day of preseason [with the New York Red Bulls]. We had a 3v3 tournament and they put me, the other draftee Eric Stevenson and another rookie on a team together, so it was three rookies together. In the first game of the tournament we got put up against Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, and Dax [McCarty]. And we got spanked, I don’t think anyone kept score after the first four or five goals, it was bad. Everyone was just kind of laughing at us, they knew what they were doing. That’s when it hit me where I realized “This is real, this is the level of excellence that is expected out of us, and we’ve got a looong way to go.”
During that time, New York had a lot of traditionally big names and big personalities in the locker room, what was it like being in that environment?
At the time I don’t think that I took advantage of it enough as I could have. Being a rookie in a locker room with guys that you’ve watched for your whole life, you’re not starstruck but you’re a bit shy. Of course they would help me with anything that I needed help with, but I don’t think I used their experience as much as I could have because I was a little shy. It was an amazing experience. They were all great guys and you could always pull them aside to get a moment of their time and just pick their brains which was just a priceless experience. They’d seen so much and done so much. A lot of the things I learned from those guys are some of the reasons that I’m still playing today, six years later.
Who has been most influential on you in your career and what did they teach you?
It’s hard to pick one guy. I think Mike Petke, signing me to my first contract and giving me a chance when there were two veterans ahead of me, he believed in me and gave me the confidence to grow. Jesse Marsch was a massive influence; without a doubt he was the greatest coach I’ve ever had. His ability to motivate players and to teach, his openness… He was the first coach I’ve ever had that let you disagree with him, but you had to go out and prove it. He would say “You think you could do this” and he’d find a way within his system to give you the chance to prove it and cater it to you. I thought that was amazing. And of course Thierry [Henry] was probably the toughest critic I’ve ever had in my life. The things that he demanded of the people around him… At the time it sucked, because he demanded perfection, but when he was gone you realized that you need a presence like that around to hold people accountable. Even if he played you a bad ball he would expect you to bring it down and be perfect with it, and if you’re not he’s astounded if you’re okay with it. In soccer sometimes you have a turnover and you say “Okay, well, I’ll get the next one,” but he wanted you to want to win every ball and to want to be perfect. And I think learning that from him was huge because it turns you into a perfectionist and that’s how you grow.
You suffered a serious injury in the 2015 United States Open Cup that you were able to recover from and secure a big role for the Red Bulls in the 2016 season. What was the process of coming back like and what motivated you to return?
I think the motivation is easy. You can’t throw away a lifelong dream that’s at the tip of your fingers for a setback. But that did not make the whole process easy. I think three weeks after surgery I was walking. Your body tells you when there’s pain and you’re supposed to shy away from it, but with the nature of this injury, they put a metal rod into your leg and the doctors want you to put as much weight on it as possible as soon as possible so you can stimulate healing on the bone. I didn’t like the way the pain meds made me feel, so after four days I stopped taking them, and I was walking on a broken leg after three weeks and it was excruciating, it was not fun. A lot of it on the mental side was tough. Jesse Marsch had me see a sports psychologist; he helped me with a lot of things but it was tough, it was tough… Especially with athletes, we take a lot of pride in our bodies and the things that we can do physically and our independence and all of a sudden one day I can’t put on my underwear without help, it was a rude awakening. It was something I was very happy to come out the other end of.
You’ve been a part of some memorable games and moments for some memorable teams, like the mid 2010s Red Bulls and this year’s MLS Is Back Tournament Winners in Portland. What, for you, is the most treasured moment in your career and why?
My most treasured memory is more of an individual accomplishment. My first game back after I broke my leg, starting at center back against Kansas City for New York is probably my favorite moment of my career. It was just the culmination of a lot of hard work and a lot of emotions I had gone through for almost twelve months. That was probably my favorite single moment, but I think winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2015 is probably the thing I’m most proud of. The Supporters’ Shield is kind of thrown away in MLS for whatever reason, the focus is on MLS Cup more than anything, but I think winning the Supporters’ Shield shows you’re the best team. Anyone can go on a six game streak and win MLS Cup and get hot at the right time, like Portland did a few years ago, but the Supporters’ Shield shows that you’ve got depth in the team because you need everyone to win it, that you can win at home, you can win on the road, that you can win midweek, that you can really do it all and you can beat everybody. So yeah I think that’s my most valuable accomplishment.
You played for a couple of years in Montreal after your time in New York, what was it like to live in a place where there is a bit of a cultural difference and definitely a language difference?
The language was actually something that I was excited about because I took French in high school and I took French at Wake too. But the French in Montreal was a bit different from what you learn in school, so it was a bit tough. The team was mostly French and the city is very proudly French, and they’ll sometimes look down on you if you’re someone who lives there and is not trying to speak French. So something frustrating would be like when I went to the grocery store and I would not feel like speaking French, you know you get exhausted sometimes speaking French all day when it’s not your native language, and they would pretend that they didn’t speak English. It would be a little frustrating, but it was a good experience. I felt like I lived abroad only I was just in Canada. It’s very French, it’s very different, it feels very European and that’s the way they like it. They want to be European, they don’t particularly love being a part of Canada. Quebec is its own European world on the tip of Canada, so yeah it was really cool, but it was definitely an experience I was ready to be done with when the two years were done; I was ready to come back to America and back to the things I was familiar with.
You have publicly made statements in support of the newly founded Black Players for Change group in MLS, in which your teammate Jeremy Ebobisse is a board member. How do you think that organizations like BPC can affect change in soccer, sports, and our country at large?
I think that they could have a massive impact. And they already have. They built a small soccer field in New York, they’ve secured funding from the league, they’ve made commercials, they’ve linked with the Black Players’ Association in the NBA and the NFL, and there’s just so much outreach that they can do in the community and there’s so much more that they can push the league to do for the community. It’s an area that I don’t really think has been impacted by MLS at all. We don’t really do much outreach in these communities, I think we even did more at Wake with how we would go and volunteer at the Boys and Girls Club, and in MLS it’s more geared towards helping the communities that help you make more money, because it is a business. So we’ll show up at schools but we’ll be going to schools with kids whose parents will be paying for tickets to go to games, and it’s not the kids that may actually need to see a role model and see someone like them that will show them that they can grow up to be more than what they think they can be. So I think the BPC will be a massive player in the future in what direction MLS takes, in how much they can affect the country and the people around them. I think it’s going to be very important.
What are your feelings about the dismissal of athletes opinions because they should “stick to sports?”
I always think it’s funny, because it’s an excuse to discredit an opinion that someone doesn’t agree with. If they didn’t want to hear what we had to say they wouldn’t put a microphone in front of us. Sports would just be sports. We’d play a game and we’d go home instead of all of the publicity that athletes get. The publicity happens because people want to know what we think and what we have to say, and they only discredit it when they don’t like what we say. Even if you go back to Marshawn Lynch, when he said “I’m only here so I don’t get fined,” he would get fined if he didn’t do the interviews. So people want to know what we have to say, and especially for some of us, especially in the soccer world and especially for Americans, we’ve all gone to school, we’ve all gone to college. I got a degree from Wake Forest and now I’m working on my Master’s degree. I’m fortunate enough to articulate my responses in a way that I think they can reach people, and for someone to be saying that I should just stick to soccer, the truth of the matter is I don’t make enough money just to stick to soccer. I’m gonna have to have a career after this and I’ve prepared myself for that. And I do have thoughts and I do my own independent research. I’m not just a mouthpiece for someone that may have said something that I overheard. I’m doing my own research even more so because I know, as an athlete people, are going to dissect what I have to say, so I do more research than I think the average person would do to make sure that, not only will I be informed when I speak, but if you want to debate it I can back up what I say. So the idea that we should stick to sports is a joke to me and it’s a flawed statement in itself because us speaking is a massive part of sports.
What are you studying in graduate school and why?
Yeah, I’m getting my MBA right now, MLS provides a program through Southern New Hampshire University where we can take classes online. The schedule meshes well with our soccer schedule to make it a little bit easier on us, because sometimes guys will try to get their MBA or try to finish college or whatever and the schedule is impossible to deal with. So I’m getting my MBA because I want to buy a franchise when I’m done with soccer, I want to run my own business, so this will help me understand a little bit more what I’ll be getting myself into with finances and accounting and management and all the things I need to know to run my own business. So hopefully it will prepare me for that, especially since I was a politics major at Wake, and that’s not going to help me in business much, so hopefully this will help me a little bit more with that.
Thanks again so much for your time.
I appreciate you reaching out and I wish you the best of luck.
If you want to keep up with Chris, you can follow his Twitter @chrisduvall91 and his Instagram @chrisduvall18. If you want to keep up with his Portland Timbers team, they play their next game on 10/18 against LAFC at 10:00 PM EST.