Walters takes next step in hopeful professional career

Josh Walter is taking the next step in his path toward a hopeful career in professional soccer, as he gets set to make the cross-ocean leap to play for Sportfreunde Siegen in Germany.

After months of pandemic-related delays, the 21-year-old midfielder from Calgary travelled to Europe on March 24 for his second spell of semi-professional soccer. His contract with the Oberliga Westfalen (fifth-division) club Sportfreunde Siegen follows a year-long stint with International Leipzig – another semi-professional team from Germany’s fifth tier of national soccer – in 2019-20, before the pandemic resulted in a move back home to Canada.

“I'm just really thankful, first of fall, for the opportunity that [my coach Thomas Niendorf] is giving me and the blessings I've been able to receive,” said Walter. “Being able to play overseas is really special and I'm thankful for it.”

Walter will land in North Rhine-Westphalia after spending two summers in the United Soccer League 2 (USL2) with the Victoria Highlanders. The 1999-born player played for the elite U23 side in 2018 and 2019, captaining the club in his second year.

Prior to plying his trade in the USL2, Walter spent three years under the tutelage of Niendorf through the Pacific Elite Soccer Institute (PESI) – now branded as the Victoria Highlanders Residency Program. The residency training program, which recruits talented players across Canada in the U16-U18 age groups, mimics the high-intensity environment common in the youth academies of Europe’s top professional soccer clubs.

Walter moved to Victoria at the age of 16, after a successful youth career in Calgary that included two provincial championships while playing for Foothills Soccer Club. He said transitioning from competitive youth soccer in Calgary to a full-time academy environment that aims to churn out professional players taught him the discipline, structure and organization he needed to advance his game.

“There are days where you don't want to do school, or you don't want to train,” said Walter, of the three years he spent with the residency program. “It's a long day with a second training session later in the afternoon. It can be tough, but it taught me that sometimes you have to just tie up your boots and get back to work. You have to grind through those days, build a schedule and follow it no matter what. That was very beneficial for me and I learned a lot from it.”

While training and developing under Niendorf, Walter also played for the Westcastle United amateur men’s team in the first division of the Vancouver Island Soccer League. In 2019, Walter captained the young Westcastle team – featuring high-school-aged members of the Highlanders Residency Program – to a historic Jackson Cup championship. As Westcastle’s captain, Walter scored the first goal of the final to put his side up 1-0.

Despite the success he would experience during his time on Vancouver Island, Walter admits he struggled throughout his first year on the west coast, as he learned to balance the rigorous demands of twice-daily training sessions and mandatory schooling through the residency program’s partnership with Belmont Secondary School.

“I struggled a lot as a person but also as a soccer player,” he said. “Just going into a different environment where everyone was good…it really made me kind of question what I wanted and who I was as a soccer player. It was an important year for me and ignited something in me. It tested me and I asked myself, 'Do I really want this?' It was really good, and I was fortunate to be a part of it.”

While it took a few years before Walter was ready for the heightened demands of European soccer, Niendorf said the left-footed midfielder’s dedication to his personal improvement in Victoria paid off in the long run.

“For him, it's just a matter of time to mature in his decision-making and his leadership abilities in the game,” said the veteran coach. “He was one of our captains in Victoria and he played first for our residency team in the VISL and then we had him playing on the USL2 team, and he was a captain there as well as the youngest player. He took a leadership role there and really progressed from one stage to the next.”

A central-midfielder who is as comfortable in defence as in attack, Walter will bring a dynamic style and creative mindset to Siegen, according to Niendorf.

“He can give a lot of unpredictability to the opposition. He's a two-way player who can attack, defend and is always busy on the field,” he said. “He works hard and is always committed to the game. He has a very good mentality to compete so you can really trust him to always be there for his teammates. He always brings his best forward.”

Niendorf added Walter is an example of how the Victoria Highlanders Residency Program’s development path prepares high-performance players for the chance to be tested in Europe, where opportunities to advance to professional levels of soccer are still more prevalent than in Canada.

"We have the network in Europe to find the appropriate entry levels for players in Germany, for them to stay in a good, transitional and progressive development pathway,” he said. “There is always time for a player to move through those development phases and reach his full potential."

For Walter, the opportunity to return to Europe has come after a year of mostly individual training and conditioning, due to the pandemic. Like other elite athletes around the world, he’s had to be patient during a year of unknowns and restrictions.

With his return to Germany, Walter said he is excited to leave his comfort zone and test himself in a new environment. While he acknowledges there is a growing number of pathways to pursue a professional soccer career in Canada and North America, Walter agrees with Niendorf that Europe still provides more opportunities to advance a young player’s development.

"With the little time I spent there, there are so many doors, so many teams and divisions,” he said. “I think for me as a player that needs a little more work and development, I'm really fortunate and thankful for the opportunity.”

Plus, it’s hard to ignore a lifelong dream.