Ex-Fire PDL defender DeMerit defies odds

Soccer players have their unique paths to get to the professional ranks, but Vancouver Whitecaps FC defender Jay DeMerit's is as rare as they come.

The former University of Illinois-Chicago standout and one-time Chicago Fire Reserves player has seen it all, and paved his way when the elements did not look so favorable.

DeMerit was not a part of U.S. Soccer's youth system. He joined UIC on a partial scholarship, which took some doing to even get that. He played for the Fire's development team, but was not picked up by a Major League Soccer club. And the most defying stunt was heading to Europe with less than $2,000 in his pocket and hoping to launch a playing career.

Anyone who has remotely followed the Green Bay, Wis., native's journey knows that DeMerit eventually reached greener pastures, spending seven seasons with England's Watford FC, and highlighted by his playoff goal against Leeds to thrust Watford into the Premier League in 2006.

"My path is very rare. I never even tried out for a national team," DeMerit said of his youth playing days. "I was one of the rare ones that just always played sports. At UIC, they have a good soccer community and good soccer structure. I never tried to branch out to ODP (Olympic Development Program). I was just working hard and concentrating on other things in life. I had very limited soccer experience as a 23-year-old grad, getting offers to A-League teams, the Milwaukee Rampage, without any experience."

DeMerit doesn't have the answer as to why MLS clubs passed over him post-college, however.

"At that point of my career I was really raw," DeMerit said. "There weren't as many teams, not as many draft picks. At the time I went to UIC, it wasn't a top-25 program, but it was just starting to become that type of program. [Former UIC forward] Eric Lukin, myself, throughout that time, started to make people take notice."

The Fire Reserves experience back in 2001 did give DeMerit the confidence that the pro ranks were a possibility.

"When I started playing in the PDL, kind of the next step to being a pro, that was the first time I learned that maybe I could play," DeMerit said. "At that time, I had coaches telling me that if I keep developing, you never know what you can do. I was playing against guys in the PDL who had success from Indiana, Notre Dame, and I'm from UIC and hanging with these guys. That was the first memory of my PDL days, competing with some of the better players in the Midwest, and wondering that maybe I could make the real Fire team."

Having an industrial design degree from UIC to fall back on was one of the main reasons why DeMerit's family let him ponder such a dream. If DeMerit didn't have that piece of paper, he probably wouldn't have taken a chance in Europe.

"I never would have had the support of the family if I didn't finish school," DeMerit said. "It was for my own benefit to have the degree. The realistic attitude was that it wouldn't work, but the signs were pointing for me to just go for it."

In May of 2006, DeMerit reached a pinnacle moment in his career when he scored on a header off of Ashley Young's corner kick to give Watford an early lead against Leeds to book a place in the Premiership. Watford go on to earn a 3-0 win, but it was DeMerit's tally that was the game-winner.

"That playoff goal in the final, to get promoted to the Premiership, was the culmination of everything I had done," DeMerit said. "That put me on the map for the next stage. I was a national team player, in the Premiership -- all of the efforts came together, and it was probably my No. 1 moment."

The 31-year-old DeMerit's path has now led him to MLS, in the buzzing Pacific Northwest with the expansion Whitecaps. Though he is currently listed as doubtful with a groin injury, DeMerit will be back in the Chicago area this weekend when the Whitecaps face the Fire on Saturday at Toyota Park.

Europe appears to be in DeMerit's back window, and the Whitecaps and MLS represent the next chapter in a career that has covered the Premier League in England to the U.S. National Team's trip to the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

"I had seven great years in England, and playing there developed me as a human and an adult," DeMerit said. "It was a great education, and I've done what I could have done in Europe. It was time for me to come back, and here in Vancouver, I want to play a big role in developing this team. This club has a rich history, and it's exciting. So far it's been amazing."

DeMerit's story has been chronicled in a yet-to-be-released biographical film called "Rise and Shine," and the filmmakers are looking for public funding through kickstarter.com. Also, check out Jay DeMerit's ESPN blog, which ran from 2006-2008.