GoPlay Sports caught up with Duke central defender Markus Fjortfoft, who told us about growing up immersed in soccer, life in the U.S. at Duke University, his famous father and his recent gaffe…
Endearingly Markus Fjortoft tells me about his recent faux pas at the Red Bulls.
“I had a bit of a scare in one of my first sessions,” says Fjortoft. “I f***** up.”
After a summer in the PDL with the New York Red Bulls U-23s, I ask the 23-year-old what is was like getting a glimmer of his dream. ‘How was his experience mixing with the pros in Major League Soccer?’
“I was playing centre-back and Bradley Wright-Phillips, who is a really nice guy, was playing and I went for an interception. I thought I was going to get the ball before him, but I didn’t and I caught his heel and he went down,” Swindon-born Fjortoft tells me.
“It was my first session and I said to myself ‘this can’t be happening, I can’t be injuring their best player three days before a game’. I was like ‘s***’ this is not good. I said sorry to him. ‘I’m really sorry I had to go for it,'” he adds, with real concern in his voice.
“After the session he (Wright-Phillips) came in and he was limping and I was thinking ‘you’ve got to be kidding’ and he was like ‘I’m only joking’.
“I went to practice the next day and I came out of the weight room and he was a bit ahead of me and he looked back and he shook my hand and said ‘are you ok, are, how are you doing?’
“He had not forgotten, he was good about it and was a proper nice guy. I respected that.”
Fjortoft tells me his taste of playing with the big boys in MLS, bar the scare, has whetted his appetite for more. His ultimate goal is to play professionally in MLS, a league he believes has improved immeasurably over recent years.
As a child, he modeled himself on David Beckham, literally. Copying the England man’s hairstyle for years after the soccer pin up arrived at the LA Galaxy. Beckham was recruited by the Galaxy in 2007, on a five-year contract to raise the profile of the sport in the US. And Fjortoft is now a believer, a convert from Europe, a by-product from the Beckham era.
“Since I have been here MLS has experienced radical growth and more and more people are interested in it,” Fjortoft enthuses.
“I got interested when Beckham went to the LA Galaxy and had his jersey and a Thierry Henry one when he went to the Red Bulls. Those players just grabbed my attention and now I like watching the league and I follow it and the quality is getting better.
“What is unique about Americans is the amount of resources and hype they invest into their sport. There is no better country to hype of a sporting event than Americans.”
I ask him about his summer spell with the Red Bulls and he confidently tells me “the level is manageable”. The towering centre-back has his sights on January’s MLS Draft and believes his time in New York helped raise his profile.
“Yes, I was there over the summer. It was great and a way for me to get my name out there with the Red Bulls. I lived with a mate, who also plays for the Red Bulls, for two months, and basically I just played football and got the taste of a professionals life,” says Fjortoft.
“I played a lot of games and got the chance to captain the U-23s and I also got a stint training with the first team a couple of times and played against the second team.
‘It was the mental aspect that was a surprise; I hadn’t given that much thought before’
“It was cool playing with players that play for the national team, Sacha Kljestan was there and Shaun Davis who was my captain at Duke. Mike Grella was there, who played for Leeds.
“The lesson I got from it was that this level is manageable, it was a higher level than I’m used to but it is attainable.
“But the big lesson was that it was as mentally exhausting as it was physically. You have to be so concentrated all the time and after those sessions I was so tired. It was the mental aspect that was a surprise and I hadn’t given that much thought before.”
Fjortoft can cope though, that’s the overriding impression I get. Duke expect him to go big too. The midfielder turned defender is highly-regarded by all at the North Carolina University.
“The main goal of the PDL was to get my name out there and I got a lot out there in terms of performance and the people that I met,” Fjortfoft says. “For now I have one season left which will hopefully finished in December when we (Duke) win the national championship. After that there is the MLS Draft in January, which I hope to make and then we will see,” adds Fjortoft.
‘I was done with it’
“I’d love to play in the MLS and live out the dream of being a professional player. But I know I have a good education behind me to fall back on if things don’t work out.”
It’s that education which was just as big a pull to America for Fjortoft as Beckham was 10 years ago. Playing in the U-19s for his local side in Norway, Fjortoft made a big decision to leave.
“I was at Baerum in the U19s, I had a few stints with the first team, but I was done with it,” says Fjortoft eloquently, in a manner which belies his age.
“Norway and especially Oslo has become a growing market for players to go to the US. There was been a radical shift in the way the American college soccer was perceived. American soccer had that stigma: ‘You’re going to play in America, why?’
“But over time, players have chosen to go there and combine what I believe is the perfect combination between academics, athletics and the social network that you create. It’s an ideal mix, especially for a growing adult, it helps lay the groundwork for what will come in later life. I prioritised that ahead of signing first-team contracts in Norway.
“I had an honest conversation with myself and my father and I said, ‘what is the best case scenario if I make it in Norway? If I make it in the top tier in Norway, how much will that give me?’
“So I said I want to try America and get myself a brilliant education and I’d love to play in MLS, I just set myself that goal. And I think it has worked out alright so far.”
His father, Jan Aage Fjortoft, 50, has supported him all the way and continually demands text reports on his son’s progress at all hours of the night.
Fjortoft senior, now back in Norway, had a sterling career in his homeland, England and Germany – a career which Fjortoft junior has immense respect for. But the respect is definitely a two-way thing; I get the feeling father and son are close.
Asked if his father was proud of his decision to move to America, he says: “Yes he is. With the time difference between the US and Norway he will be asking me to send summaries after the games, and say our games finish at 9.30pm, if I haven’t sent him a text he will be contacting me and it will be the middle of the night in Norway and asking me how I did.”
One-time striker for Swindon, Sheffield United, Middlesbrough, Eintracht Franfurt and Barnsley to name a few, Fjortoft senior bagged 20 international goals for Norway. He was a bustling archetypal English centre-forward. Now though, it’s his his social media presence which has all the hallmarks of his blood and thunder approach to playing.
I suggest his father is quite active on Twitter.
“Definitely, that’s an under statement. He’s created quite a name for himself on Twitter and it’s cool to follow,” chuckles Fjortoft.
“I’m proud of him and when we go back to England people recognize him and there are no fan groups in the world with a better memory than English fans.
“He benefited from these clubs when they were in their peak – he was at Swindon and top scorer when they were in the Premier League and he was at Middlesbrough at The Riverside reopening. He was part of a lot of clubs in exciting times in their history,” he adds.
It’s no surprise Fjortoft developed a passion for soccer and he admits he was almost “addicted from birth”.
‘Dad didn’t want me to be a striker to avoid comparisons’
He was born in Swindon and lived there for five years, during his father’s time at Swindon, when they were dining at the top table, and he admits it was glaringly obvious he would get heavily involved in the game.
“It’s kind of inevitable isn’t it? Because when you are with your dad who takes you to everything you’re kind of addicted to it from birth. Being around him on the field, being a mascot and being in the locker room it really just made football part of my blood from very early on.
“I lived in England for the first five years of my life because of my dad. I lived in Swindon, Middlesbrough, Sheffield and Barnsley, forgive me if I’ve got the order wrong. That really shaped my relationship to England,” Fjortoft tells me.
“I have always had this inherent connection to the UK and it’s somewhere I’d like to go back to a some point and live.
“I’d love to play in the US but for some reason that doesn’t work out and maybe if my circumstances change then I would love to live in England and continue in football because that’s my ultimate passion, whether it is playing or in some administrative role.”
At 6ft 5in and over 90kg, the atheltic Fjortoft is in the ideal modern-day centre-back mould, but it was his dad who ultimately shaped him from a midfielder to a “ball-playing quarter-back”.
“I didn’t hit puberty until I was 16, that may be a slight exaggeration,” he quips, “but I was the smallest on the field and I was a centre midfielder. I loved scoring goals and going up front.
“Dad didn’t want me to be a striker to avoid comparisons. I was a central midfielder until I was 16 and I loved David Beckham and he has been my hero throughout. I copied his haircuts for five years straight from 8 to 13 and I also loved Frank Lampard and all those box-to-box players,” says Fjortoft.
‘There are times maybe when coach Kerr’s heart skips a beat’
“But when my dad took over the U16s he said ‘I’m going to move you to centre-back’. And at that time I started growing and now I’m 6ft 5in and 93kg and I kind of grew into the role.
“There was a transition period but I’m now a centre-back, who is comfortable with the ball and I envisage the position as like a quarter-back who can control the game from the back.
“It was definitely the right move. There are not enough ball-playing centre-backs around; there are so many central midfielders who are all competing. With age and experience I have picked up defensive learning.”
With three goals from defense for Duke so far this season – his latest last week’s match-winning strike on the road at Syracuse put the Blue Devils in a tie for second place in the Coastal Division – Fjortoft’s cool finishing has not left him and he believes his midfield grounding has helped him develop into the centre-back he is now.
“Yes, definitely. There are times maybe when coach Kerr’s heart skips a beat, when it may not be the right time to play out from the back but I feel very comfortable in doing it, but I believe I have found the right balance between being cynical and trying to play.
“We currently play with a back three who are all comfortable with the ball and we want to leverage that.”
‘Go big or go home attitude’
Fjortoft continues to detail Duke’s three at the back – a system which only became popular again in the EPL last season – and I get the impression he can talk for hours, passionately about systems and tactics.
“It’s a tricky formation to play but if you get it right it can prove so successful. It enables you to overcrowd areas defensively and to be able to engage people in the trapping zone. But also offensively it gives you numbers further forward. It’s a dynamic system,” he adds.
It’s obvious Fjortoft’s love of the game is all-consuming, but in between classes, I ask him how he found the change in playing style from Norway to the U.S.
“It’s definitely different and people say when they move to a new country there is a transition period and for the first few games it was difficult and I had a hard time trying to adjust,” he admits.
“Their (U.S) playing style reflects their overall mindset, they have a ‘go big or go home attitude’ and they go for it. It’s a very intense game here and a lot of back and forth, there are good players, don’t get me wrong and especially in our conference. It’s intense and in my first few games I had never been so tired as a centre-back.
“It was attack, defend, attack, defend…Which was different but now I know the ins and outs of the game.
“There are a lot of good American players and in our conference there are five or six teams that are in the top 10 of the country so you are measuring yourself against the best.
“You have European players and South Americans in there and I’ve played against several English kids from Premier League Academies and the quality is there.”
Resurgence in motivation
He is a firm believer that his experience, both socially and soccer-wise, in other countries has given him a solid footing.
“I am big believer in stepping out of your comfort zone and with that comes growth. Staying in that comfort zone does not allow growth and there is no diversity of challenges to encounter,” he says.
“I was at a good school in Norway and a lot of the kids are doing good things in Norway now, but coming to America has allowed me to not reinvent my career as much, but to give my a resurgence in my motivation. It’s given me new motivation and offered new challenges.
“Chasing a professional contract and being drafted as well as experiencing everything that goes with it very much motivated me.”
After half-an-hour, I have no doubt about Fjortoft’s motivation and drive and I ask him which players have impressed him along the way and who made him hungry for success.
“In my first year I played with Shaun Davis who is now a starter for the New York Red Bulls. He scored a couple of goals against Chelsea in pre-season a couple of years ago. He was our captain and I said ‘this guy is something special’.
“It’s so motivating because you see where the benchmark is at and you compare yourself and you see your’e not that far away from it,” says Fjortoft.
After just a brief chat, the affable Fjortoft leaves an imprint of focus, supreme confidence, but also of self-deprecation – a quality not often seen in young athletes. His drive and determination are obvious and it would not be a surprise to see his name on the roster of one of the MLS franchises’ early next year.