FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.—Most people have a couple of moments in their life that come to define who they are: one door is shut, another is opened, and a future is affected.
MLS hopeful and Portland Timbers first round 2016 MLS SuperDraft selection Ben Polk has had too many of those moments to count.
The 23-year-old Syracuse striker has taken one of the most unlikely paths to the 2016 adidas MLS Player Combine, overcoming a childhood defined by its instability – he hasn’t spoken to his mother since he was 16, and only rarely with his father – to turn himself into a potential first-round selection in Thursday’s SuperDraft.
“I definitely wasn’t expecting to be here,” Polk said, reflecting on a journey that’s taken him from Arizona to Saudi Arabia, England and three different colleges in upstate New York.
“This has been a crazy whirlwind.”
Polk’s early years were turbulent. Born in Phoenix to an American father and a British mother, he moved to the Middle East at six years old when his dad, then an engineer in the Air Force, was posted in Saudi Arabia. At first, things approached normal on the American compound where the family lived. But armed gunmen stormed the area’s only entrance one night, and Polk’s mom decided to leave shortly thereafter, taking Ben with her to live in England.
It was there, in Banbury, outside Oxford, that Polk's soccer career began. He joined Oxford United’s academy when he was 10, and was offered a new deal to stay on with the club when he was 12.
Things were going well on the field, but Polk’s home life had become a mess. His mother had a drinking problem, and Polk says it wasn’t rare for him to come home from school and find her passed out drunk on the couch; getting fed was far from a sure thing.
His mother’s problems spilled into Polk’s budding soccer career. Her drinking often left her unable to drive him the 20 miles to Oxford for training sessions and games, and his association with the academy petered out.
"She had a little bit of a drinking problem and my dad was away [in Saudi Arabia]," Polk told MLSsoccer.com. "So it got to the point where she wasn't really fit to look after me."
But Polk had a lifeline. One of his best friends, Ashley Frenzel, lived just around the corner from his mother’s place. When things got too tough at home, he’d head over to the Frenzels' for a meal, an escape. Eventually, when he was 13, Polk moved in full-time with Ashley, parents Anna and Darren, and the rest of the family.
“I’m so grateful that I had my friend and his parents, Anna and Darren. They brought me in and treated me like a son,” Polk said. “I’ve been no different than any of the other kids. Every Christmas, I got just as many presents, every time they went on holiday, I was taken with them. I’m so grateful for everything they’ve done, I definitely wouldn’t be here without them.”
Polk continued playing soccer, teaming up with Ashley on their school team and for a small local club. It wasn’t until he was 17, however, that he began to play again on a somewhat serious level, joining Banbury United in the seventh tier of English soccer.
Still, things weren’t looking great for a potential pro career. Polk had planned to attend Leeds University after finishing high school. There isn’t an English equivalent to the American system of intercollegiate sports, and Polk thought he’d go out for another local team while attending school, content to slog it out in the bottom rungs of English soccer and see if he stuck.
Then, a teacher came along with a different option. He told Polk about a program that helped place English students on American college soccer teams, with an eye toward earning a scholarship at a Division I school. Polk attended an introductory meeting, and was sold.
The only problem? He entered into the placement program very late, in May 2012, and didn’t look like he’d be able to arrange to play in the States in time for the following fall season. He was determined to try, however, and, despite not having a highlight reel or a U.S. passport, he got in touch with some coaches in the U.S. and set up an appointment at the American embassy in England for early August.
Because of the timing issues and the absence of video evidence of his playing skills, Polk’s only options were a pair of junior colleges in New York. He chose Genesee Community College, and when he was given his U.S. passport on the day of his embassy appointment (he is a U.S. citizen), he booked his flight the next day.
That weekend, he landed in the States, arriving in Batavia, New York – about halfway between Buffalo and Rochester – with no friends, no phone and not much of an idea what he had just gotten himself into.
“I was pretty naïve,” he said. “I heard New York and I was like ‘Ooh, yeah man,’ thinking New York City, and you go over there and it was not quite like that at all.”
He was far from the bright lights, but Polk played well, and attracted the attention of Herkimer College, one of the top junior college programs in the country. He landed there in 2013 after one season at Genesee, leading the NJCAA with 33 goals in his second season under head coach Pepe Aragon.
Herkimer is no stranger to attention from Division I programs, and Polk got a call from Syracuse early in the 2014 season. He visited Syracuse that fall, watching the Orange take down No. 1-ranked Virginia before committing to the program for the 2015 season.
His trials weren’t quite over, however. The NCAA initially ruled that he’d have to sit out the 2015 season, but Syracuse successfully appealed the decision, allowing Polk – who sat out the first two games of the year while appealing – to play last fall. He failed to score in his first five games, but broke out with a hat trick against Pitt on September 25 and finished the 2015 season with 12 goals and four assists, helping 'Cuse advance to the NCAA College Cup.
At the Combine, the 5-foot-9, 175-pound striker struggled on Day 1, but bounced back with a solid showing the next. He’s looked good out wide, and, given his size and English background, has drawn comparisons to Sporting Kansas City’s English striker Dom Dwyer. Polk has been projected as a mid-to-late first round pick by one GM and another head coach, though – given the long journey – he’s more concerned about enjoying the ride than guessing where he might end up Thursday.
“I’ve kind of prepared myself mentally, and I’ve enjoyed the experience. It’s been great, probably one I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I’m soaking it all in, but I know I’m here to try and get a career.
“When I do look back, I know a lot of people that may have gone a different path and may have gone off the rails. But something that I pride myself on is just not using an excuse. It’s easy to do that. Stuff happens. But how you overcome it is what makes you.”