One on One with NPSL Golden Boot Winner Amani Walker of Albion PROS

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One on One with NPSL Golden Boot Winner Amani Walker of Albion PROS

A soft-spoken footballer with a haunting past that most would not manage to endure has just wrapped up a magical season under of his native San Diego

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A soft-spoken footballer with a haunting past that most would not manage to endure has just wrapped up a magical season under of his native San Diego skies with Albion SC PROS.

Amani Walker was born in San Diego December 16, 1989 and played for Surf in his youth club career, and t Francis Parker High School before departing for UC Irvine to play at the collegiate level.

Following a successful college career, Walker went on to play for some well-known teams that have either gone into MLS or are making way towards that direction.

“I played at Minnesota Stars FC when they were in NASL before they moved to MLS, Tampa Bay Rowdies and Orange County Blues,” Walker said.

In Minnesota, the team didn’t have an owner who could propel the club into MLS, yet Walker would get his first taste of silverware winning the 2011 NASL Championship in his first year followed by another trip to the final in his second season.

Despite the success achieved with the Stars, a change would soon be in the air. Having started playing football at young age as a center back, Walker eventually made his way up-field, finally settling in the striker position.

Standing at 6’2”, he possesses many attributes a coach would want in their squad. Walker is a strong, lean player that is not easily beaten in the air, who can hold the ball up top while also having a good first touch and reading of the game, being able to bounce off the opposition’s center backs to look for penetration through the flanks. Walker was ultimately able to net 8 goals in 40 outings for Minnesota before departing to Tampa Bay.

During a training session in August of 2013 with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Walker injured his knee in a run-of-the-mill play. Walker initially feared that injury might have caused a minor tear to his ACL, but it wasn’t until a week later his theory would be confirmed.

During a match in San Antonio, the Rowdies were in the midst of an epic comeback. Being down 0-3 after only 18 minutes, Walker’s side was able to come back and eventually win the match 7-4, but it came at a steep price, Walker’s first torn ACL.

“I made a cut in the second half of the game and went down, but got up and kept playing”, said Walker. “My knee was swollen on the plane ride home but nothing major. But our trainer, team doctor and I had no idea that the subsequent MRI would say I tore it. I took exactly one year before I played in another professional game.”

A year of recovery was ahead for Amani with the player harboring every intention of returning to the pitch the entire way through. The waiting period would be taken in stride as Walker took all the proper steps to perform a full recovery.

Having a solid opening season with the Rowdies, including 17 appearances and four goals, there was a sign of larger potential within the young Walker, yet the next phase would bring him closer to home. A trial with the Orange County Blues came next when Amani was fully fit and ready to pick up where he left off.

On the heels of getting back into proper match fitness, Walker was in the midst of getting back into his normal stride. Appearing in 12 matches, Amani was able to find his touch with the goal once before another devastating blow to his footballing career would reappear. A second ACL tear.

“I tore my ACL in the last team I played for Orange County Blues, in USL, and had surgery in 2015 so the whole 2016 I didn’t do anything”, said Walker. “I had a feeling I tore it again but it wasn’t confirmed with an MRI until after the season nearly four months later.”

Speaking of the surgery Walker said, “The allograft didn’t hold well (of his first surgery) and couldn’t take the constant wearing. I used my own patella the second time and now I feel as strong as ever.”

Another year of recovery would be the timeline given to Walker to potentially be able to get back into training. It was a difficult time, as for any footballer falling back to a preexisting injury, let alone such a difficult one like an ACL, it is tempting to consider abandoning the job, but Amani had found several ways of coping with the injury while recovering.

Amani would go on to “do a lot of odd jobs” to keep himself going and focused on things other than his daily routine of training and playing.

Keeping himself close to pitch was of importance as well, Walker picked up a job as the color commentator for most of the Orange County Blues home matches which was able to satisfy his taste for professional football a couple of times a month.

“That’s where my patience and my family helped out greatly. I always had my fiancé there supporting me and telling me I can do it, instilling confidence that I needed to get through those times.”

Amani was fully aware the end of his career was not on the cards and made sure by becoming a part of Rehab United where he did all of the work that focused solely on getting back into top form.

“It was a weird feeling in 2016 that I wasn’t going to play soccer, competitively, for the better part of the year. If I didn’t have the patience, if I didn’t have the calmness and the tranquility that I try to keep every single day I would have gone mad. I try to stay positive,” said Walker. “Why am I still doing this? Is it all going to be worth it? I still don’t have answers to every question but I feel now more than ever I’m on the right track.”

Having suffered two major injuries in a short span of time with two different clubs is no easy segue into the next chapter of your life, but just as Amani has done in the past, he turned these negative portions of life and formed something beneficial out of them.

“I take experience from everything,” continued Walker. “I learned everything from every coach from every experience that I had, you can’t help an injury.”

After a year attempting to recover and training to get back into the right physical and football shape, Walker found an old friend who gave him a lifeline.

“At the time, I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay in San Diego or try to go trial in other places. I didn’t have any great leads anywhere, you take a whole year off people start looking at you differently.”

While deciding where the next step would take him Amani rang former college and current teammate Tre Hayes.

“As I was looking for a team I called Tre, we played together UC Irvine, he gave me Ziggy’s (Korytoski, Albion PROS’ head coach) number”.

After meeting with the gaffer and going on a trial, nothing was guaranteed as both sides were well aware of the past injuries and how that could affect future outings. It was during these trials Walker had to put in strong performances in the training sessions to win over the confidence of not only the gaffer but the whole squad. Ziggy was ultimately happy with what he saw and offered Walker another opportunity to continue playing and developing.

A few factors came into light as Walker was deciding to join Albion PROS.

“I saw the atmosphere here and how professional they take it and the goals they set not only for us individually as a team, but for the entire club, the youth club and the system all the way through,” said Walker of his decision to play for Albion PROS. “I thought this would be a place to spend my time and try to get back to fitness, to form and work my way back into whatever level I think I can still could play.”

Besides the amateur status, Amani does not see a difference in the levels of play he encountered with Minnesota and Tampa Bay.

“Training sessions are just as professional and efficient, the only difference in level is age and experience,” explained Walker. “Moving up leagues, you find men who have been playing this game for a long time and understand nuances of being a professional athlete but the culture that’s been created here at Albion isn’t far off.”

Aside from the energy and passion the club has for every aspect of development to Albion PROS squad, a major positive and motivation to make the jump to Albion was the location, it was a lovely sensation to come back home for Walker.

“Being from San Diego, born and raised, it’s an easy transition just to come back home, here 5 miles away from house.”

Amani Walker has been through a rough past when it comes to someone playing a sport at the highest level at an age where the progression is key. Walker has proven able to continually succeed through these injuries and coming back stronger at every team he has joined all while maintaining a level-headed spirit which gives off a sense of serenity to all those around him.

As Walker says himself, “You adapt to survive.”

“I’ve been playing seven years now, with one year off, plus four years of college. If you don’t adapt, you don’t learn from everything you’ve taken, you’re not going to go anywhere, you’re going to stay stagnant, you’re never going to progress to any higher level,” said Walker.

And it is true. And although it is easier said than done, Walker has continually grown to a higher level of play with each match.

Amani Walker rounded out the 2017 NPSL season with 18 goals, which was good for joint-highest in the race for the Golden Boot. Walker was also selected as the ninth Mitre National Player of the Week for the 2017 NPSL season.

“On a personal level, it felt great to be recognized for an individual achievement, but we won that game and were up 6-0 at the half so that was a total concerted effort by the whole team. The main thing it did was motivate me to push forward and continue working hard, as my success should always be coupled with the teams,” recalled Walker.

As Amani and Albion PROS flew forward into playoff contention as the defending NPSL Champions, the focus and desire remained high. A team in conjunction, that feeds off of everyone’s individual attitudes. According to Walker, some of his teammates are vivid, talkative, lively and wild, while others calm, cool and collected. All of these different aspects blends into one personality on the pitch and Ziggy has the task of putting the pieces together strategically while other veterans, like Amani, do their best to commence the process of the youth coming up the ranks.

“Being a senior player, I can provide experience and guidance to younger players, which is a role I’m enjoying very much.”

For Amani, the next step is solely focused on Albion PROS, who made a respectable run into the playoffs, and beyond. The team is certainly solid and has found its footing after a shaky start, largely due to dropped points away from home. Thanks in part to the 18 goals contributed by Walker, and his plethora of assists, the team as a whole rekindled its unity, a difficult task for any squad that will receive the unfortunate draw that reads Albion SC PROS.

“When we put the pressure on, there not many teams in the league let alone the country that can stop us.”

After succumbing to injuries, surgeries and change of squads from coast to coast, followed by multiple recoveries and a constantly growing into successful career in San Diego all while remaining fairly zen-like in his tranquil state, it could not be left without asking, what could possibly bother Amani Walker?

“Somebody asked me the other day ‘When was the last time you were stressed?’ And I couldn’t tell them.”

With much a do about MLS to San Diego, or the NASL coming, many forget what is already here and what is working. Amani Walker along with every other PRO are quietly putting a stamp on the history of football not only in Pacific Beach, but also in all of San Diego.

Local players, growing through local youth clubs making names for themselves in college and gaining opportunities in development leagues and into the professional ranks. These are the players to watch and they take pride in their hometowns and represent them to the fullest.

“It is an extra incentive playing here in San Diego because it’s something I haven’t had the opportunity to do since high school”, said Walker “Playing in front of family, friends and knowing that there’s a future here in San Diego for soccer makes me want to perform at an even higher level knowing there’s that much support so close.”

After facing many years of uncertainty about his immediate future, there is only one more major plan Amani is sure of, the planning of his wedding. With a large smile and a look of pure bliss Walker concluded, “I’m getting married this year, I love my fiancé, Morgan.”