“I was very upset because I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to just study because that doesn’t interest me at all. I only wanted to play football.”
The end of 2017 was a difficult time for Alex Bruce. The striker from Gateshead was used to upheaval, having spent time growing up in his native north-east as well as Angola and America but this was different. Having committed to study at the University of Memphis, a technicality meant he would not be able to play college soccer, his main reason for heading to university.
“When the time came around to go [to Memphis], I got there and the NCAA, who looks over college sports, told me I couldn’t play because they were missing things,” he says. “It was crazy and honestly a lot of rubbish but Memphis didn’t do enough.
“I don’t want to talk much about the school, I’ve just lost my respect for them.”
It put the young forward in a difficult position. He could remain at Memphis and study for four years for a degree but would have to put his football dream on hold for that time. For that reason, he instead decided to leave and after a trial opportunity presented itself at USL side San Antonio, Bruce managed to secure his first professional contract. What had started in disaster ended in delight as the north-east native finished 2017 with at least a year of professional football to look forward to.
Success from the start
Growing up, Bruce played for his local teams Gateshead Cleveland Hall and Beamish Raiders, winning everything in their path, which led to interest in the forward from professional clubs at a young age. That included his beloved Newcastle United.
“It’s always been a dream to play at a professional level. I used to go to St. James Park every week to watch Newcastle and that’s how I fell in love with the game. I was very young and always had my mind set on football.”
However, his pro dream would have to wait as his father’s job in the oil industry saw him forced to make the move to Africa.
After a few years he was back in the UK but it wouldn’t be for long as the Bruce family was on the move again, this time to Houston, a city renowned for its oil industry. “It was either going to be USA or Australia, I didn’t want to go to either,” recalls the striker.
Upon his arrival in the States, it didn’t take long for him to make an impact on the football scene. Starting at high school, he got to work impressing the local football coaches and soon secured a spot in a local football academy known as Texans SC Houston.
“I had an unbelievable manager during the days of school, who I still talk to on a daily basis,” he says. “He wanted the best for me and saw the potential and he also had a friend who was an academy manager. He came out and watched me and after 15 minutes I scored so they instantly wanted me.”
Rules in American sport prevent students from playing high school football and academy football so Bruce decided that the academy was his best shot at progression and started playing for Texans SC Houston.
His time at the academy was a great success and again buoyed by the support of an experienced coach, the striker scored 17 goals in 31 games during the 2016/17 season as the Texans won the US Soccer Development Academy league at under-17/18 level.
“Eric Quill [a forward who made over 140 MLS appearances] was the manager and my word, what a manager! You could see why he was successful in life. He pushed everyone so hard everyday and took us all the way to the final and we won it! We were the only non-MLS academy team in the finals and we went all the way. It was an unbelievable experience out in Los Angeles.
“We had an unreal team with players like Chris Richards [Bayern Munich] and Christian Cappis [Hobro IK] who both play professional now.”
College crisis and pro deal
After winning the championship, Bruce had the chance to trial at San Antonio but had already committed to studying at Memphis, until the NCAA intervened. Fortunately for the forward, the offer from SA was still on the table.
“We got the trial set up I was informed that I could come for a week. I ended up staying for three and then in December, I signed a contract.
“I was absolutely buzzing!”
Under the management of English boss Darren Powell, Bruce was in dreamland in his first year of professional football but that was not to say he was out of his depth. He scored three times in 13 appearances, impressing enough to secure a contract extension for the 2019 season. At the age of 20, San Antonio can see his potential.
“My first season in the USL was amazing,” he says. “I loved every minute of it from training and travelling to sharing the locker room with not just good players but great friends and mentors too.
“It was definitely a different level to what I’ve played before – a bit faster and a lot more physical in which I quickly learned. I achieved my goals very early in the season and had to step up my game which I tried every time I trained.”
Last year, San Antonio narrowly missed out on the playoffs by just three points so it is clear what the target is this season, even if Bruce prefers to keep his own targets closer to his chest.
“For 2019, I have personal goals which I don’t share with anyone but the team goal for me is to of course make the playoffs. Last year we were unlucky not too but I believe this year we can do it!
“We’ve made some class signings during the break and I’m excited to be able to learn more stuff and improve by playing with the more experienced players. “
Included in those signings are three English players and Bruce admits that he is looking forward to the increased amount of English banter in the changing rooms. The three are Jack Barmby, son of former England international Nicky, who signed from Portland Timbers and Johnny Fenwick and Leeroy Maguraushe who were up for grabs in the MLS Superdraft after impressive college careers before being snapped up by Darren Powell’s side.
With these signings, the Gateshead goalscorer knows he has a fight on his hands to nail down a spot in the San Antonio starting lineup but he is relishing his time as a professional footballer.