As a child, Brad Knighton saw his association host the FIFA World Cup. For the first time ever, football was the talk of America.
Eleven years later, Knighton decided to travel and learn the beautiful game from the country that invented it.
And so he made the six thousand kilometre trek from North Carolina to Middlesbrough. Aidan Heaney, the long-time manager of UNC Wilmington Seahawks, knew the president of Middlesbrough FC, and arranged a three week trial for the young goalkeeper. Knighton remembers it fondly, claiming that "it was one of the best experiences of my life."
Noting the wide differences in footballing cultures, especially coming from a college background, he considered it an important stepping stone in his development into the man he is today. He trained alongside goalkeepers Mark Schwarzer and Brad Jones, while facing the three pronged attack of Mark Viduka, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, and Ray Parlour.
"It was nice to be in the mix and in an environment that those guys were accustomed to."
From there it was on to Burjassot CF of Spain’s fourth-tier Tercera División, before returning home to continue his academic education.
Although he had made stops in New England and Philadelphia along the way, he has now come under the tutelage of Marius Røvde. The 40-year old Norwegian is an able taskmaster. "He’s been fantastic," pushing the goalkeeping union every single day. "He knows when to push the buttons, and when to back off. And I think he’s helped me tremendously since I got here."
But it hasn’t been a complete overhaul, more of a refinement on what Knighton already had within himself. In the past, "I haven’t really had the type of training that I’ve gotten with him."
Since he started working with Røvde, he’s "been able to focus more on handling, being able to hold onto more shots, stronger hands, and footwork. We do a lot of footwork here. Your feet have to get you to the ball, so if your footwork is good, then the rest will take care of itself."
Of all the positions on the team, that of goalkeeper is often the most precarious, a situation of which Knighton is only too keenly aware.
"We’re in an environment where they’re always trying to bring someone in to take your spot, so if that’s not enough motivation, I don’t know what is. I come in every day and train like it’s my last."
Having played parts of 14 matches over a four-year span, he knows this better than most.
"I’ve gotten better over the last couple of years with that aspect, not taking it for granted, especially after having a chance to go down and play in the NASL."
Although he could have remained a backup in MLS, he chose to sign with Carolina instead. It proved to be the right choice, as he played all 2,730 minutes of the RailHawks’ NASL table topping campaign.
Carolina is a market keen to attract MLS. They are in the process of adding 3,000 seats to WakeMed Soccer Park, bringing it up to a 10,000 seat stadium, but as for making the step up, Knighton thinks that "it’ll be tough."
"Overall, the facilities are fantastic. I think the practice facility is probably the best in the country in regards to field maintenance, training fields, and everything. I think it is top notch. If they find an owner able to build onto the stadium and attract more fans, that’ll increase the likelihood of an MLS team being there."
Knighton will take to the WakeMed pitch one more time on Sunday, when the Whitecaps take on the RailHawks in a pre-season friendly. Hopefully this year he doesn't take any penalties.
Obviously, Carolina holds a special place in his heart, having been born in Hickory, and playing for UNC Wilmington Seahawks and the RailHawks. He was raised in Richmond, Virginia, and spent four years with New England and Philadelphia, which explains the accent. But his growing affection for Vancouver should not be overlooked.
"It’s nice; I’ve always said it’s nice when it’s not raining. Obviously, it rains probably 75% of the time here, but on the days when it’s sunny and warm, everybody wants to be outside. You see people walking around the city. Once, I saw this guy painting a mural on a sidewalk. It’s incredible, just the artistic perspective that some people in this city have."
"Being a sports town too really helps me, with the Canucks and the Lions, just being in a city that totally embraces every athlete in every walk of life. I think it’s something spectacular. You can’t compete with the views of the mountains in the background with snow on them, Kitsilano, the beach, it’s got everything that anyone could probably want in a city, it’s just super pricey, and always raining."
His goals for the upcoming season are numerous, but they can be summed up in one word: winning.
"Obviously getting further than we did last year in the MLS playoffs, winning the Canadian Championship, to win a Cascadia game, not only a game, but a Cup, those are some of the team goals. And for me, to start on a regular basis, and build from what I started last year."
But despite these lofty goals, he remains grounded, knowing that at a moment’s notice, it could slip right through his fingers.
"I realise how fortunate I am to be in MLS, and to be one of the select few that gets to play this position. It’s just one of those things that I’ve taken on my shoulders, and not letting the person beside me, take my spot."
And it's worked. That starting spot now seems to belong to him. Enough to put a smile on the face of the Dark Knighton, no matter what the weather might be outside.