OBETZ, Ohio — Even though Crew defender Andy Iro will be staunchly rooting for his fellow Englishmen when they face the United States in a World Cup match June 12, he now considers America his primary residence.
“Funny enough, it’s turned into my first home,” he said. “I’ve been gone [from England] for six years now and only get home once a year. Most of the contacts I kept in England have slowly faded away.”
He used soccer as a means to escape the rough streets of Liverpool, first at the University of California, Santa Barbara -- where he earned a sociology degree -- and now in his third season in Columbus.
“The way my life was going, I knew I had to leave Liverpool,” he said. “I was getting into a lot of trouble and things weren’t going right. I knew that America was the only place to offer me the opportunity to carry on me education as well as carry on playing. It was a big decision at 19 -- just upping and leaving, stick and bundle in hand, venturing across the world.”
He quickly regretted leaving behind his parents, seven brothers and a sister as he tried to adjust to a new culture and lifestyle. Eventually, however, he grew thankful he had stayed.
“I was scared at first," Iro said. The first year was terrible. I thought about going back on numerous occasions, but after a year I never felt more free. Even nowadays I like the feeling of independence. I’m making it my own way with my own money. I wouldn’t have picked it any different.”
Iro started 86 games in four seasons at UCSB, helping the Gauchos win the 2006 NCAA title while earning the nod as the Big West Defensive of the Year each of his final three years on campus. Then it was abruptly off to Columbus, after he was taken sixth overall by the Crew in the 2008 MLS SuperDraft.
“Coming from England to America is different, but I found within America there are differences,” he said. “California and Santa Barbara are so different from Columbus. It’s a different group of people, different humor and a different way of life.”
He’s still partial to the Golden State, even though he’s constantly on the move. Iro spends most of his offseason in Southern California, but often goes to San Francisco.
“Then I go back to England for two weeks,” he said. “I also try to get two weeks of travel in. Two years ago, I went to Morocco and Spain. This past year, it was France and Belgium.”
The nomadic lifestyle is a metaphor for his time with the Crew because Iro has never been able to settle into a starting center-back spot. He made 11 starts among 18 regular-season appearances as a rookie and came off the bench in three playoff games as the Crew won the MLS Cup in 2008.
He was befallen by a left quadriceps strain last season that cost him two months and limited him to 11 games (eight starts).
In his absence, first-year defender Eric Brunner or veteran Danny O’Rourke usually started in the middle alongside MLS Defender of the Year Chad Marshall. The four are in the mix again this season.
“It’s a competition,” coach Robert Warzycha said. “He’s battling with Brunner, O’Rourke and Chad Marshall, so it’s also based on their performances.”
Marshall has been sidelined for nearly a month with a hamstring injury, but may return Saturday at FC Dallas. Iro has done well replacing him in a CONCACAF Champions League match against Toluca and in the MLS opener vs. Toronto FC on March 27.
“The last game couple of games Iro was pretty good,” Warzycha said. “He was good against Toluca and against Toronto, but there’s room for improvement. He needs to be consistent. He needs to be cleaner with the ball. He has to play the ball quicker.”
Iro knows the time is now to grab a first XI spot and hold onto it. And more importantly, he needs to showcase himself so he can eventually return to England to finish his career.
“I’ve got to go back,” Iro said. “My mom is yet to see me in a soccer game, even college. She’s ill so she can’t make it out. She can’t fly. Even through high school she’s never seen me play. I also think I can be a good role model, especially in the neighborhood that I grew up in, to go back and they’d say, ‘Look, he did it.’ That would be really cool.”
As for that World Cup match against the U.S. on “enemy” soil in Columbus, Iro sees himself watching England top the Americans 3-1.
“I’ll be sitting with my Gerrard jersey at the most patriotic bar, wherever that is,” he said. “I’ll be thoroughly, thoroughly supporting England. I’ll be loud and proud.”