Niall Dunn has been in the ranks of Phoenix Rising FC’s youth system since its formation in 2014. Now at just 16 years old, Dunn has joined the team with a pro contract after a successful few months training under a USL Academy contract.
Dunn sat down with USL Academy to discuss his historic signing, the people who’ve made an impact on his career, and what the future has in store.
Q: You've been playing in Phoenix Rising’s system for the majority of your soccer career. How's it feel to now be a pro for this team that you've been with for so long?
Niall Dunn: It's amazing because it shows how far we can go. I started out playing club soccer and playing against the same teams every weekend and all of a sudden, it’s a big jump to playing against other professional players and teams. I have to take in that experience and try and grow from there.
Q: You signed an academy contract in April, and now you just signed a pro deal, what happened in between to help elevate your game?
ND: I say it's all hard work and constantly going into training every day, getting extra work. If I wasn't committed to try and improve myself, I don't think I would be where I'm at right now.
Q: How does it feel knowing that Phoenix has such high hopes for you by signing you at just 16?
ND: I'm honored because it's my hometown club. Being from Arizona, living here my whole life, for my hometown club to recognize me as someone that could have a great future at the club, it’s an honor. I would love to take in all of the support that they've given me and just try to help the team.
Q: Who do you model your game after?
ND: I watch a lot of soccer so it'd be any center back, really, because I always try and see what they're doing. If they're doing something wrong, I will try and not do that but when they're doing something good, and it's constantly working for them, I'll try and see if I can fit that into my game. I really admire someone like Sergio Ramos, who is a great captain. He's always been a top class player for 10 years at least. I also like centerback Harry Maguire. He's not the fastest, but he's strong. When I watch him play, I try to use his calmness on the ball and his composure and work it into my game.
Q: What player has motivated you the most on Phoenix Rising?
ND: One would be James Musa because he's a center back too and he started every single game this season. His composure in games and his work ethic allows him to be constantly starting just because of the great work he's done. And then there’s Jon Bakero. He's been there for me since day one. He's been like a mentor so he's trying to improve my game mentally off the field and physically. He’ll let me know if I'm doing something wrong or if I need to work on something. It’s very helpful to have.
Q: What was it like when you first started training with the pro team?
ND: It was very different because that big jump from Academy sessions happening three times a week to straightaway, every single day, same time. I’d get up in the morning to go train instead of being in the afternoon. At first it was difficult because I had to adapt to the speed and power that they play with. But then after a few weeks, I started to understand what I should be doing to be known out on the field.
Q: How did the academy prepare you to make that jump to the pro team?
ND: It would be our coaching staff. Danny Stone was with the academy group and now he's an assistant coach with the First Team. It brings in that same training environment and competitiveness. There are some things that we do have the same, like drills and some of the sessions. It’s honestly just everyone's competitiveness at the academy. They try to make everyone better, because if you're not doing your job, others could not benefit from that.
Q: Since you're still developing and growing as a pro, do you see yourself getting experience with the USL Academy team and the elite level it provides?
ND: Yes, I think that when we have our games, I'm assuming I would be able to get playing time if I'm selected for that game. Being able to play against Orange County, New Mexico, and then against FC Tucson, I noticed it's not much of a drop or difference in style of play because it's still competitive. You have to try and win, and then fight. Against FC Tucson, there were some professionals that had dropped down to play with them which was a great experience for our team. Hopefully it’ll be the same against Orange County and New Mexico. If there are pros, then we kind of know how we need to play in order to win.
Q: With the USL Academy contracts, you can keep your college eligibility. When you decided to go pro, was it a hard decision for you to give that up?
ND: Personally, I didn't think it was because I've always wanted to be professional. Growing up, I tried to be like my dad, who was a professional player. My mom wanted me to go to college, because she played in college. After long talks and conversations, my parents told me to do what's best for me, to make my own choice, and I think I made the right choice.
Q: Your dad James played in the USL A-League for the Seattle Sounders back in the day, how has that helped you develop?
ND: He's been really supportive because he wants me to be better than he was. He's trying to push me to reach a high level of play. Ever since I've been playing competitively, I've honestly taken everything from him telling me about my game. In training sessions I’ve done something wrong or after game, he’ll notice something and will let me know. if I understand what he's saying, and actually listen to him, it would benefit me. Especially now, with the professionalism. He was once a professional so if I take what he's done and do better, I could become a better professional than he was.
Q: What has been the best piece of advice given to you so far in your career?
ND: My dad told once me, “success is when opportunity meets preparedness.” When the opportunity is there, I just need to be prepared because if I'm not prepared, the success part won't happen.
Q: How do you focus on your current goals while keeping your eye on what you want to accomplish in your career?
ND: I try to take in every moment that I can. I view it as day by day, training to training, and then eventually gameday. I feel like once it’s the offseason, that's when I can start to focus on what's next and what I can do. In those single days of training and recovery, I'm doing what I need, what’s necessary to achieve that goal, both long- and short-term.
Q: What advice do you have for any players looking to make the jump from the academy to pro?
ND: Have the commitment and the desire to do what you want because if you have second thoughts or decide maybe this isn't the best, then it won't happen. I think if you don't have the right mentality towards your goal, you'll be secondhanded to not be where you want