Justin Braun was plucked from the minnows of Utah in 2008 and lifted off to California to play for Chivas USA. Four years later, back in Utah, he's returned and is fighting for minutes at his hometown club.
The Salt Lake City-born striker played at Skyline High and Salt Lake Community College: Two names less illustrious than puzzling to most pundits and coaches, the striker was spotted with a men's amateur team, Olympique Montreux, during an amateur tournament at The Home Depot Center.
Minnows is a relative term. Justin Braun is one of a choice few professional soccer players to have come from Utah, and is certainly the one who's made the biggest impact. What he lacks in finesse he makes up in fitness: The 25-year-old, 6-foot-3 striker is strong, active and surprisingly quick for a big man.
But he's found minutes hard to come by since he left Chivas USA. First plying his trade at Montreal Impact, he started only five matches and played in 12, during which time, he didn't find the goal. It was an inauspicious start at only his second professional club, but it didn't last long. In July, Braun was traded to Real Salt Lake - he was back in his hometown.
Justin Braun tries to look past that. "It's just another team," he says after a rain-soaked bout of Saturday training. "I try to look at it like that, just coming out here as if I wasn't in my hometown. Obviously, there are a lot of people around here that know me."
"It's nice to be back home and to be on a team that a history of winning." — Justin Braun
Major League Soccer is still some way from seeing many players from their hometowns out in action. Save the rare academy graduate, American players end up where they are drafted, traded or - in some cases - allocated. The pressure of playing for your hometown club is there, but it's not quite the same as playing for the club you supported as a youngster living in London, Madrid or Milan.
That's not to say he's not enjoying his time back. But more than just being home, Braun is in a talented, competitive squad. "Obviously it's nice to be back home and to be on a team that a history of winning like this team," he says. "It's fun to be on a winning team. I think I've learned a lot, too, being with this group of guys." After his time with the largely hapless Chivas USA and in-flux expansion side Montreal Impact, it's easy to imagine he's in an entirely new environment.
Being at a competitive side has meant he's not seen minutes. Real Salt Lake's top man, Jason Kreis, is known as a stern coach who demands top effort from his players on the training ground. During Braun's early weeks at Real Salt Lake, Kreis made statements indicating he needed to see more in training from Braun.
I try to come out here every day and work hard, do the little things right, and just build from that.
If today's training was indicative of a greater trend, Braun seems to have taken the advice to heart. He's out there fighting for every ball, winning headers and scoring the odd goal. His footwork isn't quite that of some of his teammates, but he makes up for it in mobility.
"I try to come out here every day and work hard, do the little things right, and just build from that," he says, recognizing the need to perform well in training. "Day-by-day, I think I've been doing well, I'm just waiting for my chance. If I get it, I think I'll be ready to go and contribute and help this team win in any way I can."
I think I've learned a lot with this group. ... It's only going to elevate the level of my game every time I'm on the field.
Even without seeing more than a scant few minutes since coming to Real Salt Lake - 87 total, with one start and one substitute appearance - the striker is learning. "I think I've learned a lot being with this group — a lot of veteran guys," Braun says. "When you step on the field, you have a lot of guys around you that know how to play, and it's only going to elevate the level of my game every time I'm on the field."
Wednesday's MLS Reserve League match against Houston Dynamo - a 5-5 thriller - saw Braun grab three assists. It's not a traditional impact from a big man, but it's through hard work that he's succeeding. Even if it's not at the top level, these are the sorts of impressions his coach demands. "I always like to be one of those forwards that's moving around, that's not standing in front of the goal waiting for the goal," Braun says. "I like to go out and help my team in any way I can. If you take those three assists, it shows I have the work rate to go out there and contribute in different ways other than just scoring."
The frustration of coming to a club after spending three years at another MLS club in a starting role would certainly be too much for some players. In sharp contrast, Braun is almost stoic in his approach. "As a player, you always want to be on the pitch," he says. "But I've just got to control what I can control, come out here every day and practice, keep working hard and keep improving. Hopefully, the coaches will see that and that'll translate into minutes in the future."
Braun isn't giving up. He's young and talented. From a city not known for its ability to produce top talent - not yet, at least - he sees himself as a sort-of role model for young people aspiring to make it in the game. "I like to use myself as a role model for kids, kind of show them that it is possible to achieve their dream if they work hard enough, keep going and set their mind to it," he says. "I know it's kind of cliche, but that's kind of what I did. Growing up, I always wanted to do it. I kept working."