It was a hot August evening in Milton Keynes, England. About 3,000 fans congregated as MK Dons took on the visiting Charlton Athletic in the first round of the Carabao Cup in 2018.
Starting in the back line for Charlton was a young Australian center back named Ryan Blumberg. And although the Addicks were comfortably beaten 3-0, Blumberg held his own in his first senior appearance.
But as he reflects on that moment two years later, one thought stands out.
He wasn’t ready — at least not yet.
That evening was the culmination of a flirtation with professional football on the other side of the Atlantic for the now-Maryland defender. But that night, momentous as it was, was a rare bright spot in what had been a difficult spell at the English club.
By the end of that year he was on a plane to College Park, starting his soccer career anew. And now, approaching 18 months since his professional debut, Blumberg is looking to open his new chapter in earnest, competing for a starting spot in a deep Maryland lineup. Indeed, for the Sydney native, a game in a Terps jersey has been a long time coming.
“It’s been a long journey but it’s here,” coach Sasho Cirovski said. “We’re hoping to put him in a uniform and get him out there.”
It was February 2016, and a 17-year-old Blumberg was touring Maryland. The program’s professionalism, Cirovski’s intensity and the team’s friendly attitude struck him. After a brief visit, he was sold.
“The recruitment was swift. He came and visited, and he committed on the spot,” Cirovski remembers.
But a few weeks later, things changed. Blumberg had been nominated for a preliminary trial for the prestigious Nike Football Academy in Staffordshire. A left-footed, incredibly defensive center back, Blumberg didn’t think he had a shot of making the cut.
But he impressed the scouts, especially in fitness tests. Within weeks, they flew Blumberg out to Clairefontaine in France, one of the world’s premier training facilities, for the final trials. Soon, Blumberg had an official offer.
Having committed to Maryland just a month before, he had a decision to make. Nike gave Blumberg six weeks to sign — and he was torn.
“I was in a bit of a state of flux. I was in my final year of high school, was pretty committed to finishing school in Sydney and was pretty committed to going to University of Maryland,” Blumberg said.
Nike reassured Blumberg that he could still finish school, though. And after a conversation with Cirovski, Blumberg signed on to the Academy — spurning Maryland’s interest.
While it presented a wonderful opportunity for the young Australian, it made things difficult for the Terps. Blumberg was heir apparent as Maryland’s next starting left center back, a potential cornerstone alongside the incoming Donovan Pines.
“I was surprised and a little disappointed, but I also understood. Because it’s a unique setup, a residential academy of players all over the world,” Cirovski said.
Short of options, Cirovski hurried to Germany to scout a promising defender, Johannes Bergmann. He would go on to be a crucial part of Maryland’s 2018 national championship winning side and one of the better defenders in the nation.
Meanwhile, Blumberg’s career took a different path — one almost too fast for him to play his best soccer. After just one month at St. George’s Park with Nike, Blumberg caught the eye of Charlton’s Under-23 coach. He tried out, and a verbal offer immediately followed.
“They were interested in signing me right there and then, but I didn’t have an EU passport,” Blumberg said.
It took nearly nine months for Blumberg to get a passport, who obtained European Union citizenship from his Austrian-born grandmother. And in June 2017, Blumberg penned a professional contract with the south London club.
For a promising defender with aspirations of playing in the Premier League, Charlton should have been the dream. It should have been the next step for a physical, gifted center back to refine his skills and prove himself at the top level. However, south London wasn’t kind to the 18-year-old.
“Southeast London is kind of a tough place to live, I think. It’s very different to where I’d grown up in Sydney by the beach,” Blumberg said. “It’s a working class area, and I was living by myself. I’d never really had that experience before, and that was a huge challenge for me.”
To make up for the social isolation, Blumberg threw everything into his soccer. He was determined to outperform everyone. Yet that pressure proved to be too much.
His form dipped, and he failed to jell with his new teammates. And though he trained with the senior team and earned two professional caps, he didn’t feel fulfilled.
“I really wasn’t performing at the level that I knew I could, and I was really unhappy at Charlton,” Blumberg said.
But there remained an opportunity across the Atlantic.
Blumberg was still in regular contact with Cirovski. Shortly after Maryland sealed its national championship, Blumberg inquired about the possibility of making good on his verbal pledge to the Terps.
With Bergmann one season away from graduation, Cirovski leapt at the opportunity.
“The opportunity came back up, and we snapped him up,” Cirovski said.
There were problems in getting Blumberg to the States, though. His professional experience meant he had to sit out a year — plus he had six months left on the books at Charlton. However, the club helped facilitate the move, releasing him from his contract and allowing Blumberg to start over with Cirovski’s squad.
While the Terps struggled in 2019, Blumberg had to watch from the sidelines. Still, he plugged away on the training ground and in the gym, preparing for his next matchday experience.
Blumberg’s next major match was also a 3-0 loss. An outclassed Maryland squad lost to Georgetown in an unofficial spring game. Though the scoreline didn’t flatter the Australian, he was back on the pitch, wearing Maryland’s colors for the first time.
As he continues to train, now with new teammates and in a more welcoming environment, he hopes the performances will return.
Although Cirovski won’t commit to a starting left center back yet, Blumberg certainly has the experience and requisite skill to slide into the spot.
And this time, Blumberg knows he’s ready.