Severin Sørlie joins us today to discuss his adventure in the US starting at Gardner Webb University before making a transfer to head to the ACC and join Syracuse University.
We are located in new studios today and very nice to have you here.
Thank you for having me, I’m very excited!
It’s nice to meet you in person as we have known you are your family for a long time. It’s nice to see the full circle but how do you feel coming back?
It’s good coming back home as it is your home place. Looking back at it, it was four and a half amazing years and I wouldn’t have been without it. Definitely the best years of my life and it is good experience moving far away from family and friends as you can feel insecure and making huge decisions. Four and a half years was enough for me and it is nice to be home and start something else.
If we go back to the beginning, you were playing at a good standard with some great players in Norway.
It was some good years and played with some players such as Martin Ødegaard, Iver Fossum and Bersant Celina. The guys that can say they really made it and it was a great experience to play at the junior club, Strømsgodset IF.
At the time, many at Strømsgodset IF would have their eyes on staying there and trying to make it. You were actually looking into the US as an option quite early on. Why did you think about it so early?
I am not even sure, but I remember my dad telling me it was possible to go to the states and get a degree while playing soccer. I had a lot of fun at Strømsgodset IF, it was a great team but I also saw that players at same age as me were further ahead when it comes to playing professionally. I knew if I wanted to make it, I needed to move on. I had to switch clubs and I knew if I went to the US I could get a degree and play at a high level compared to staying in Norway and maybe getting to a second division club while trying to study on the side. I felt it would give me more going to the United States, learn a language and try a different culture. I hadn’t given up on becoming a soccer player and still wanted to get drafted in the MLS when I first went over there but things change when you get older and you start figuring out what is more important to you.
You came to our showcase and had quite a few options but had a tricky process leading up to going to the states. Due to a few issues around the SAT and academics it changed your options to begin with. How was the recruiting process from your perspective?
It was tough. I had a lot of good options but due to the academic part, I couldn’t go to the best schools. When you look at the ACC for example, and schools within this, they have a certain limit you have to reach on the SAT score and my score wasn’t good enough. So I had to go to a smaller school and that’s when I started speaking with Gardner Webb, a smaller division one club in Carolina. They said I could go to them and sit out for a year, practice, but I can’t play games. From year two I would be able to play games once I had shown I could do well academically and on the pitch. It was a long year waiting to finally start playing games but at the time my English was not great, so it turned out well in the end. Looking back on it, it was a tough year as I knew I wouldn’t be able help the team. I used this year as motivation and tired harder than ever so I could show everyone in my second year I was here for business.
You showed a lot of resilience even though your English wasn’t great, you went from a safe environment at home in Norway to go to the US. Did you learn much from this transition?
I learnt a lot. Just by going to another country, you learn so much. I remember telling my teammates that if you hear me say something wrong, pronounce it wrong, or use the wrong form, let me know so I can learn. I had three roommates, two Norwegians, and a guy from Germany, and he took me under his wing. Every time I said something wrong he would tell me it was wrong and tell me how to say it.
“When you feel comfortable, you have to step outside of the comfort zone to take the next step”
How did you find being around other Norwegians, did you only speak Norwegian to one another?
We did both. When we were with people who didn’t speak Norwegian around us we would always speak English but when we were alone we would generally speak Norwegian. That was a big difference between Gardner Webb and Syracuse because at Syracuse I lived with a Swedish teammate but we only always spoke English the whole time. I could probably count on my hands the amount of times he spoke Swedish in our time together.
You could ended up with a typical Southern accent…
It’s crazy to hear the difference but I still have a pretty strong Norwegian accent. I remember when they said I should start using the word ‘Y’all’ and I was like I don’t even know what that means. It was definitely the south, but it didn’t change my accent actually.
How did you find the difference in weather from Norway to North Carolina as it can get quite hot and humid?
It was different. Playing soccer it was way too hot and I remember not being able to breathe during my first game for Gardner Webb when we played in Wilmington, it was so warm. I could only play 45 minutes because I couldn’t breathe and had no air in my lungs. It was definitely hard but was always the same every pre-season where you had to get used to it in the first month. We would practice early mornings to get out of the sun and the humidity but after a while you get used to it.
Your first season was in 2016 and you started in every game. Scoring 3 goals, tailing 3 assists and being named in the ‘Freshman Team of the Season’ as well as being nominated as ‘Freshman of the Year’ for the entire school. Do you think having that first year sitting out was what allowed you to be nominated for these awards?
Absolutely. I think it helped me a lot having that one year of experience and getting use to how much they train, how tough the weeks are because you play a lot of games. They have a different training regime than back home in Norway. It is harder, and we were never the best team but we ran a lot. We had our first running test at midnight before we could start practicing in which we ran the Yo-Yo test.
Your Sophomore season is one of the most impressive ones we have seen from an individual. 11 goals, 7 assists from open play. How did you find it?
It was a good year for me. We had a great team in comparison to previous years. We had some Norwegians that were extremely good players as well.
You won ‘National Team of the Week’ a couple of times and scored some important game winning goals against very good opposition.
When I look back at it, I scored against the teams that should have beaten us and not just scoring against the teams you should score against.
What was your best memory as an athlete?
We travelled down to furmouth (NC) and we were not even close to being ranked that season. The opposition were ranked top 10 in the nation and had only lost one game. We knew we would have to play the best we could but just to try and get a point out of the game. They scheduled the game because they needed an easy win and the stadium was packed. The game started and people were roasting players after looking you up on the roster they figure out your name and then find your sister or moms name. We went 1-0 up, 2-0 up, 3-0 up and we were flying. My teammate scored a banger, I had one goal and we scored from a corner kick. Then they got a penalty and it was 3-1 going into half-time so we knew we had to stay focused. Second half started and they got another penalty 9 minutes into the half which they scored and then not long after scored an equaliser so around 60 minutes we were tied at 3-3. The fans were starting to roast me at this stage shouting ‘number 10 you have skinny legs’ and ‘what happened to your hair’.
How did you find coping with the pressure from the opposition fans?
It was a lot of fun as I used it for motivation. Next, a freshman on our team scores to make it 4-3 and in the 80th minute they equalised again through a third penalty so the game was heading into overtime. In the states if you go into overtime it becomes golden goal rules and the game ends as soon as that goal is scored. In the first half of over time their defender and goalkeeper have a misunderstanding and the goalkeeper plays it out. I get the ball around 30m out from the goal but would need to curl it around the keeper very accurately. I remember in the moment that I did not even hesitate, I just shot the ball and then I heard everyone screaming.
What happened after you scored game winning goal?
I went running to the home fans who had been screaming at me all game, sliding on my knees with my arms out wide. When they have been on at you all game you are almost waiting for a chance to get back to them and it was the best feeling I have ever had on a soccer field. Playing a top team like that and getting a game winning goal was crazy.
You made a lot of friends and had a great time at Gardner Webb, but how was it making the decision to leave?
It was a very tough decision, your friends are there, you are comfortable, and you know that you are going to play every single game and that you are important. But I also knew if I wanted to become good at something, when you feel comfortable, you have to step outside of the comfort zone to take the next step. I felt like after that season I am not sure how I would have been able to top it. I figured out if I did want to be noticed by the MLS teams I felt I had to go to a better conference. I felt I had done my job in this conference needed to go and do it somewhere else and prove I can do it there as well. I remember telling my mum and dad before the start of my second season that if I do well I would look into transferring schools to take the next step. It went well with the goals I scored and assists I had. Coaches care a lot about stats in the US compared to in Norway.
Was the analysis and stats something different from what you may have had while playing in Norway?
In Strømsgodset, we cared more about playing as a team and focused on us and how we played. In America I felt both schools I attended cared about the opponent just as much. We did a lot of work on analysis on the opponents: what style do they play? what formation do they play? Do they score from set pieces or more open play? Who is their main man? I knew all the little details about every player to the extent of knowing what colour shoe laces the right back would have. It summarises the culture of American soccer.
The ultimate goal was to play within the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). How did the process play out for you?
I remember I was disappointed not going to the ACC when first going to the US but it was still in the back of my mind when I spoke with Kim midseason. I honestly knew I did not want to go to another conference because I felt personally that it was the best conference and it would fit me as a player. When I made that decision we started talking about the type of schools I would like to go to. We figured Virginia Tech was still an option and I spoke with the head coach who called me and told me he was still interested. What I did not realise was at the time he had come to watch a couple of my games live during the season. That gave me a decision to make and made me doubt me whether to go to Syracuse or Virginia Tech. It was a tough decision but I also spoke with New Hampshire, Cal Poly, and some very well-known schools. Due to them not being ACC, I actually excluded them, even if they were better teams, as in my mind I knew I wanted to play in ACC. When we played Clemson away and you go to that stadium and see their fans and to play a team that played amazing football it was crazy. It was then that I knew what division and conference I want to play in if it is possible.
What was the deciding factor between picking Syracuse over Virginia Tech?
When it came down to it I had to think a lot and talk to different people but I had a heart for Syracuse, it just felt right. Two days after getting my release I knew I could go on a visit but which school should I visit? The assistant coach from Syracuse called me and told me that they had watched many of my games online and when into detail of my style of play and that I fit as the player they need for next season. He said for spring break they were going to Spain for a week and would play against Athletico Madrid youth teams and stay in Madrid and Barcelona. It was not the main reason, but the package of it of everything was great. The coach said he could fly me to the school tomorrow and stay for the weekend and look around the school, talk to the coaches and just see if you like it. I spoke with my dad saying I could go visit either Syracuse or Virginia Tech tomorrow, what do I do? He said put your phone away, go for a run, and just think. At the end of the day follow what you think is right. I picked up the phone and called Syracuse and said I am coming tomorrow.
How did the visit at Syracuse go and what did you do while you were there?
I got on the plane and it was freezing cold on the outside of New York (NY). I got to the campus and it was huge. I could not believe my own eyes and at the time the team was training. I went into one of the training facilities and it was something else. If you are a Norwegian citizen you can’t imagine what it is like. People think you are giving up soccer but the facilities are way better in the US than they are at top division in Norway. They had 8 different soccer fields and 2 turfs which I watched the guys train on. The locker room is unreal as it had 3 TV’s, your own seat and locker, nice showers, I have never seen something more professional. You had athletic trainers, medical staff, ice baths, hot tubs, you had absolutely everything.
As well as having a tour, did you speak with any coaches or players on the visit?
I met with the strength coach and he went through the program he goes through with the players. I had a good talk with the coach and one of the reasons I liked Syracuse is because the head coach and assistant coach was from Europe which made a huge impact on me. They said what I wanted to hear and after the meeting I met with one of the Norwegian players who had been there for one year who showed me around and took me to a basketball game which had 30,000 people at. We went down to the food court and there were 6-7 restaurants to choose between and then I spent some time with some of the guys on the team. I really felt the vibe and the next day the coach showed me some clips from my games and what they think I am good at and what I need to improve on and how they can help me. After this meeting I said, give me the pen I am ready to sign.
How did you feel going on that trip to see Syracuse before having to make the decision?
I was blown away and I understood that this was something else. I really felt connected to the place and it gave me a good feeling. I knew I did not have to visit Virginia Tech, I wanted to go to Syracuse.
Before going to Syracuse, you became a YouTube sensation at Gardner Webb, how did that happen?
It was the assistant coach of the women’s team who had a YouTube channel and one day he asked if I can do a ‘day in the life’ video. I would put a go pro on my head and just film everything I do. It was a game day, and just a regular day where we played a home match against UNC Ashville and we scored one goal. It was a normal day and I had no idea that it would blow up like it did.
As we speak, almost 8 million people have seen that YouTube clip.
Playing games for Syracuse some guys came up to me and were like ‘aren’t you that guy from Gardner Webb who did a day in the life video’ and even my teammates at Syracuse had seen it. When I was visiting they were like aren’t you that guy from YouTube. Even playing a game back in Norway I had someone say they recognise me and asked if I had played in the states as they had watched the video.
Check out the YouTube Video below!
Going back to your time at Syracuse, you had a tough start in the spring time.
The spring time wasn’t the best for me because I felt the pressure coming in as I was expected to be the guy that was going to score goals next season. Not that I care much about what people are saying but things start to matter when it doesn’t go well. The first practice I had with Syracuse is one of the best practices I have ever had. After that, I don’t know what happened. I lost a lot of confidence and it was tough because the level was much higher, the tempo was much higher, the work ethic way harder and we had longer and harder practices. I needed to get used to it compared to Gardner Webb where I had the year to get into stuff.
How did you find it after the spring time, starting your first full season for Syracuse?
I remember coming in after the summer of 2018 and my first season at Syracuse. We had some exhibition games and I scored in two in the first game. I started to get that good feeling in which people knew I could play. The first season game against Oregon state my teammate chipped the goalkeeper and it was 50/50 whether it was in or out. The defender was closing in and I just threw myself out there with my head and scored. I felt like weight had been lifted off my shoulders as I had got my first goal. We won 2-1 and a week later it was my first home game against Hofstra and I scored within 15 minutes and I felt unstoppable. I was doing well in practice and everything seemed to be going well. The next game though I was on the bench and confused as I had scored in two games in a row and was flying. They were rotating players and then I struggled more getting back into the team and it started to affect my confidence. I kept fighting and got back into the team and got a few more goals and assists and felt like it was a decent start on my ACC journey. It was something else because the level was so much higher.
In your last season as you were graduating in December 2019 and had one last season to play and you were named captain. How did it feel being named captain?
It is something special when the guys on the team are voting for who is going to be captain. It is not just the coaches who picked you. Everyone was voting for two captains and they told us at practice right before the season started. I was very surprised because I never played the most or wasn’t the best player, but I was good at seeing people and that may be one of the reasons why is because players could come to me. It is hard to explain but it is one of my proudest moments as a soccer player because Syracuse is one of the best programs and it is honour to be named captain of such a great university.
You won ‘Dean Foti’ award which is given annually to a Syracuse player with the most positive influence on the teams attitude. We think it sums you up very well, as you always managed to stay positive despite any bumps in the road you have maintained that positive mindset.
It was nice getting that award as it shows you are able to stay positive even if it is hard. When you are captain and struggling for playing time and seeing the guy in front of you scoring goals it is a dilemma. Should you be happy because he scored or should you be mad because you then play less as a result. It was tough, but in the end it was a good experience and you have to be mentally steady and believe in yourself. Be a good teammate because the team matters more than your own career and I figured out early on that I would not drafted so why not stay positive and get the most out of it. Score as many goals as I can, be a leader when they need you to be it. I felt like I did a good job of that as it is not easy to be a leader when you are not a regular starter. It felt good to win the award it shows people have seen what you have been through and can be strong even if it is hard.
“If you don’t know what to do with your life, just take a chance”
After you graduated, I remember you called me (Kim) and asked for a reference as you were applying for a job. Pretty much straight after this reference was provided, you were given the job.
I am glad you gave them a good response, it means a lot. I wasn’t sure what to do when I was done at Syracuse. I was in two minds. Should I try and become a professional and go to a team in the second division at home? Or should I be happy with what soccer has given me so far? If you asked me at the time, I had accomplished everything I wanted to with it. I played at a high level in Norway, I have played in the highest level in the US when it comes to college and I felt like it was time to grow up and get a real job. It was time to step down from the soccer part as it has given me so much that it is almost impossible for soccer back home to give me more than what the US has given me. I had a conversation with myself about what is the furthest step I can go when I am home and my honest best option would second division potentially. It did not give me a lot of satisfaction to keep on going down this avenue. I knew it was time to step down, play for fun, and get a job and try something else. Soccer has been a part of my life since I was born and still will be important, but I was 24 and I was ready to grow up.
How did you find it being offered the job? And secondly, do you think being a previous student-athlete in the US helped?
When I got this job opportunity I was in no doubt. I remember in the interview I told the director about my journey and luckily he was a football player when he was younger so he knew the type of personality you needed to have. He liked that I was able to combine soccer and education at a high level and knew my time management was good because it is not easy combining two things of high importance at the same time, so I was very happy. Going to America played a huge part of that because it makes you stand out compared to other people.
If you were to give advice to an 18 year old self, what would you say is important in making the decision to go to the states? Also, when you first arrived what do you think is key?
I think the key is that if you are unsure if you want to go or not, remember, if you go, you don’t need to give up on your dream of being a professional athlete because the system over there will help you become better at your sport. If you don’t know what to do with your life, just take a chance. What is the worst that can happen? You go home after 6 months, in which you will have had 6 months in America, its not the biggest risk of your life. Just do it. As Nike says!
Any final tips?
When you get over there be patient. It does not come free and it is hard in the beginning and hard for everyone. It is a new language, a new way of studying, a new coach, a new team, a new culture, be patient. That would be my biggest tip.
Thank you for joining us today and sharing your experiences.
Thank you for having me and allowing me to share my story.