This weekend, I went to the 2016 MLS Cup, but not exactly for the reasons I had always imagined.
See, after the conclusion of this year’s regular season, I thought that my team and I — NYCFC — would be there. I thought we’d be playing for the trophy and putting our name in the young league’s history books by making it to the Cup for the first time in club history. But our first trip to the playoffs had been cut short when we lost to Toronto FC in the first round.
Last weekend, I travelled nearly 500 miles to watch Toronto FC host the Seattle Sounders in the final. And instead of bringing soccer boots, I lugged along two Canon DSLR cameras, four L Series lenses and five memory cards.
I wasn’t at BMO Field as a player — I was on assignment for The Players’ Tribune, doing something that has become my second love: photography.
Taking pictures has been a hobby of mine for some time. It all started in high school when a friend got a camera so that we could take nice pictures of each other’s shoe collections. What better way to show off our Nike runners, Jordans and Nike Dunk SBs? Soon, we were taking portraits of one another, and eventually, I was bringing a camera with me wherever I went. The only thing was, I always had to rent or borrow one. It wasn’t until I became a professional soccer player in 2011 that I had the money to buy a camera of my own. After I became almost embarrassingly good at FIFA my rookie year at DC United, I knew that I needed to pick up a constructive hobby.
But I kept my hobby quiet for a long time and, for the most part, didn’t share my pictures on social media. But when I came to New York this year to play for NYCFC, I couldn’t help myself. I shot the U.S. Open, some NFL games, the UFC 205 press conference, a UN event and, as always, I also took some portraits of my friends. When I found out that The Players’ Tribune was offering internships to off-season athletes who wanted to learn about sports media, I jumped at the opportunity.
I had been here for a few weeks when my editors told me they wanted me to shoot the MLS Cup. I was immediately both excited and nervous. But here’s the thing: Even off the pitch, I’m a competitive guy — and that side came out. I wanted to do my league and my sport justice, and I wanted my own experience as a soccer player to elevate the pictures I took. Just like when I’m on the field, I wanted to be the best out there.
Over the last year people have become more aware of my interest in photography, but I’m still sort of the new guy when it comes to this stuff. So when I got to the stadium it Toronto, the photographers and journalists who know me as a player were surprised and happy to see me at the game in a different role. I think some of the players and former players who were there had to do a double take when they saw me on the sideline with my camera equipment.
Of course, I wish NYCFC could have been one of the clubs in the MLS Cup final, but to have the chance to bring together my love of soccer and my love of photography was an incredible experience. Even standing in the photo wells, I still felt this energy and I still had a job to do.
From the Toronto FC fans marching to the game, to the Sounders fans singing from the nosebleeds, to the 20° cold that froze my hands to the camera, it was an exhilarating challenge to really capture the spirit of this match. Hopefully, the fact that I know exactly what the final meant to the players who were playing — and what it had taken for them to get there — comes through in my photos.
And when the match ended and I was shooting the the Seattle locker room celebration, I was just as pumped as the Sounders — because my hard work had gotten me to that moment as well.