It started with a phone call.
Chris Kofman, a journalist and Communications Manager from Argentina, was watching a third-division soccer match in his home country. While watching the match, one player, striker Tomás Duben, stuck out. Kofman had seen enough and decided to call his close friend, and current Head Coach of USL League Two club Western Mass Pioneers, Federico Molinari. What followed would take Duben out of his comfort zone, drop him in a new country, and provide him an opportunity he refused to let slip out of his grasp.
“I don’t think I ever spoke with a guy who was so meant to go to the US,” Kofman said. “That told me he was so mentally strong.” Molinari recalled the phone call from Kofman, “Chris contacted me last December (2021) or January (2022) and said, ‘I have a player that plays in Argentina in the third division and he’s very good.’ I said, ‘OK, send me the tape.’” Molinari watched the tape and was impressed with what he saw. “I watched the video and I liked him,” Molinari said. “When I spoke with him, I explained everything and he agreed to come.” Duben’s future was taking off, but it was his youth that truly prepared him for what lay ahead.
Duben was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, indoctrinated into the world of soccer before he fully knew it. “My first steps were in soccer,” Duben said. “Soccer is my passion. I grew up with it all of my life. I always had a ball at my feet.”
From an early age, Duben was already competing for a spot in an academy. “My first practice at the academy was at a tryout for seven year olds,” Duben said. “There were 200 kids and obviously not a lot of time for each kid, maybe 10-15 minutes to do something.”
Kofman recalled his own efforts as a child, trying to climb the ranks of Argentinian soccer: “I tried out for the academy at a couple of different clubs when I was young and I almost got to the first division.” The soccer culture in South America provides free tryouts, but the competition is fierce. “Those scouts go all around the country – every day, every week,” Kofman said. “They go to Chile. They go to Paraguay. They go all around South America.” “A lot of [players] have this fantasy in their head of what they’re going to do when they get the chance to travel and play,” Kofman said. “And they sometimes get frustrated by denial and that’s the end of their career.” Through it all, Duben persevered.
For almost two decades, Duben competed in the lower divisions of professional Argentinian soccer and while he was thrilled to be pursuing his dream of playing soccer professionally, his environment wasn’t always as encouraging in return. “I played here in the fourth division,” Duben said. “I lived through some bad experiences, like if you lost a game, when you went to your car, you’d have a broken mirror.” “If you played four games in a month and lost two, your salary was not the same,” Duben said. “You have to learn to live without things if you lose.” Kofman confirmed everything Duben said. “Yeah, it’s like they cut your earnings in half,” Kofman said. “It’s just like something that’s established and you can’t defend yourself.” “And that is very normal here,” Duben reaffirmed. Despite the pressure, both on and off the field, Duben maintained a positive attitude, fueled by his love of the game.
“I play because I love the game,” Duben said. “I don’t play for money. I don’t play for anything. I play with the same happiness now at 25 years old as I did when I was 5 or 6 years old.” That love for the game, determination, and desire to take his talents to the next level pushed him through each match.
Then, the phone call happened.
Duben packed up his belongings and hopped aboard a flight to the United States – all while having no clue of what to expect upon his arrival in Ludlow, Massachusetts. When he showed up to his first practice with the Western Mass Pioneers, he encountered his first obstacle: earning a spot on the team. Even after impressing Head Coach Molinari in his film, Duben looked around the field and saw more international players than the club is allowed to sign for the season. This was, and is, all a part of Molinari’s way of ensuring competition amongst the players. “I can only sign 10 international players to the roster, but I like to bring 12,” Molinari said. “They know from the beginning that two of them are not going to make the roster, so they have to work hard.” Molinari didn’t hold back about that decision. “They have to fight for their spots,” he said. Duben cleared the hurdle and signed his first professional contract outside of Argentina. Even with that hurdle behind him, Duben still had more obstacles to come.
“When Tomás came, the first two or three weeks – it was hard for him,” Molinari said. “He had to adapt to the game, to the speed – everything was different.” Molinari described how soccer fields in America are commonly turf fields, whereas in Argentina, it’s all fresh salt grass. “The game is a little bit faster because the ball is going fast,” Molinari said. Even Duben opened up about his initial adjustment period with the club.
“I’m 25 years old and I’m playing against college guys who are 19-20 and run a lot,” Duben said. “I can beat them one by one, but they stand up and come again. The college guys are physical.” From Duben’s perspective, his new surroundings also affected him psychologically.
“When I arrived in the USA, I tried to speak English, but I felt shy,” Duben said. Luckily for Duben, English was a part of his high school curriculum growing up, so he had a good foundation. “I have good English because here in high school, in Argentina, the English level is good and it’s important,” Duben said. “During those summer months [with Western Mass], I improved my English.” Even though Duben was in a different country, continent even, he still encountered a familiar obstacle, one that Molinari is all too familiar with: impassioned fans.
According to Molinari, Ludlow is a Portuguese town and the fans are as fiercely loyal as they are dissenting. “Everything is soccer here. There’s no other sport,” Molinari said. “Everything that happens in Portugal, with fans going to the stadium when the team is doing good, happens over here because they have that same culture,” Molinari said. “When we are doing good, we have a lot of people in there.” Luckily for Molinari, Duben, and the rest of the club, the 2022 season was filled with success.
In 14 matches, the team finished with 11 wins and 3 losses, outscoring their opponents by 21 goals. It was not only good enough to finish in 2nd place in the Northeast Division, but the Pioneers also qualified for the League Two Playoffs, where they made it to the Conference Semifinals and lost to the Seacoast United Phantoms in Extra Time.
Duben had a great season in his own right. He led the team with six assists, finished third on the team with four goals, and only two players finished the season with more minutes. Even with all of this success occurring, Duben found a way to give back to his community: coaching youth soccer.
He already possesses a CONMEBOL coaching license, so Duben takes the lessons learned from that experience and applies it to coaching the next generation of soccer players. “It’s like a neighborhood club, but I have around 100 kids and I really enjoy helping the children play soccer,” Duben said. “I do some volunteering in the academy, especially with the girls because it’s not common here in Argentina the way it is in the USA. The level of the girls is incredible here.”
Duben is the consummate professional: he takes younger players under his wing and taps into his experience to help them grow, never passes up an opportunity to ask the technical staff a question, and continues to perform at a high level. During the interview with Molinari, he described Duben’s leadership style in the locker room. “He’s not a player that’s going to get mad,” Molinari said. “He’s more quiet. He’s always respectful. He doesn’t speak much, but he says the right thing at the right time.” That leadership style ties back to his Argentinian roots, where Duben and Molinari both explained the difference in their approach to the game.
Every time Duben takes the field, he plays with plenty of passion, yet balances it perfectly with a cerebral style of play. “Here in Argentina, it’s very tactical,” Duben said. “I think, in the USA, I see more physical and dynamic play.” Duben admitted that he isn’t the fastest player on the field, but his knowledge and vision of the game allows him to anticipate the next step. “When you are young in [an Argentinian] academy, you learn to play with all of the systems.” Even with a system in place, he’s had the foundational training to switch between systems in the middle of the match. Molinari supported Duben’s perspective, saying “The soccer in Argentina is very tactical. The teams are very organized tactically and they are very good technically.” With his upbringing in Argentinian soccer and continued guidance by Molinari, Duben is padding his resumé and biding his time carefully before taking the next step.
Having proven himself worthy of competing at the League Two level, Duben is ready to take the leap to League One and doesn’t want there to be any misunderstanding about what he brings to the club. “There is not going to be any foreigner that will play as hard as I do,” Duben said. “I live for the game. It’s not about money. It’s not about any of that stuff. I just want to play here.” He didn’t stop there. “I’m dedicated and no one is going to work as hard as me. I’m going to come ready to play and put it all out on the pitch.” Duben decided to play in League Two because of his “desire to transcend and grow in the USA”. Naturally, he feels prepared to take on the next challenge.
Molinari thinks Duben is ready for the next level, too. “I think he can play in USL League One,” Molinari said. As the 2023 season approaches, Duben plans on taking on a greater leadership role within the Pioneer clubhouse. He expressed his excitement for the upcoming season, but left the door open to the possibility of a new opportunity. Until then, he remains as optimistic and determined as ever.
It’s only a matter of time before the phone rings again.
I’d like to send a special thank you to the following people for their patience and making this article possible (in alphabetical order): Gio Cañas, Tomás Duben, Chris Kofman, Brandon Mays, Federico Molinari
Author: Rich Flemings/Twitter: @imrichbutimnot