Northern Ireland star Jonny Steele flying high in MLS

Jonny Steele in action for the New York Red Bulls
Jonny Steele in action for the New York Red Bulls

Life can sometimes take people to unexpected places, as Jonny Steele knows well having swapped the docks of Larne for the bright lights of New York City.

On Saturday, he will be popping up in a new destination as the former Ballymena United player lines out in an MLS season opener in Vancouver, Canada.

Not a bad life, eh?

Well, Steele is not taking anything for granted.

He may share the pitch with world stars like Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill with the New York Red Bulls, but he hasn’t forgotten where he came from.

In fact, it was during a stint back home in Antrim seven years ago that he realised his career as a bustling midfielder was on the verge of fading away if he didn’t do something to address it.

“I was over at Wolves as a kid and it didn’t really work out there, that’s just part of being a footballer as so many don’t make it. Then I got the chance of going to America and I jumped at it,” said Steele (28).

“I went on a few trials and played for some lower league teams but got a little homesick, so I came back and played for Ballymena United for about five or six games. But I knew then that I didn’t want to be there and that I had more in me.

“I went back over to the States, played for a few teams at a decent level, my son was born over there, and things started to open up for me when I signed for Real Salt Lake in MLS.

“It’s funny because I turned down a contract from them a couple of years before, but I was more mature and ready for it this time. I suppose going back home made me realise just how big an opportunity it was to play in America.”

To suggest that Steele has done well since then would be an understatement as he clocked up 28 appearances in his debut season in MLS before earning a move to New York last year, where he became a regular starter.

It was his excellent form with the Red Bulls that alerted Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill and he earned his first senior cap in a friendly against Turkey last November.

An international, an MLS regular, and a boy from Larne, Steele is grateful for how far he has travelled in his career. Yet, it wasn’t until he swapped war stories with Henry that it really sunk in for him.

“There is a great atmosphere between all of the lads of the team and we all mix well. I get on really well with Tim Cahill and we have a good laugh, but you can speak to them like normal blokes,” said Steele.

“I remember talking with Thierry in the dressing room one time about being a professional player and we were saying how you keep learning all of the time in your career and how that helps you.

“He was saying how he dealt with not playing for Barcelona and I was telling him about how I didn’t enjoy it when back home with Ballymena. It’s just different experiences, but we learned from them.”