Jeff Gatt had the plan worked out perfectly. At least, that's what he thought.
A typical American dad who loved sports like football, baseball and hockey, Jeff wanted badly for his two sons to play the same sports he played growing up. He had played football and baseball in college and knew his sons were good enough athletes to excel at those same sports.
There was only one problem. While his older son Stefan took to more mainstream American sports, Jeff's youngest son Josh loved soccer. He loved it more than any other sport, and even in a house filled with Detroit Lions and Detroit Red Wings memorabilia, Josh managed to mark his own territory with soccer mementos, like a Pele poster and an MLS poster.
Jeff thought that would change when Josh gave football a try, and when Josh took the field in middle school in a game coached by Jeff, it looked like dad's plan just might work. Josh had the kind of dream game boys still talk about when they're old men. He caught a touchdown, had a long interception return, ran a kickoff back for a touchdown and nearly took a punt all the way back, too.
Jeff beamed with pride knowing Josh's dream performance would be enough to make him forget about soccer, but when he asked his son about his unbelievable game, he got a response he wasn't expecting.
"Yeah, it was a lot of fun," Josh told his father. "But it still wasn't as fun as soccer."
Seven years later, as the father and son spend a sunny California morning recalling the day Jeff stopped fighting against soccer, they marvel at how so much has changed. Jeff has gone from someone who hated soccer and didn't consider it a real sport to loving the game and becoming the soccer expert within his circle of friends.
And Josh? All he did was head to Europe at the age of 18, embarking on a professional soccer career that has blossomed into one of the most promising of any young American plying their trade overseas.
Just one season after turning pro, Gatt impressed enough at Austrian club SC Rheindorf Altach to catch the eye of Manchester United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who had recently been named manager at Norwegian club Molde. Gatt made the move and flourished, helping Molde win the first Norwegian Premier League title in the club's 100-year career.
Now Gatt heads into 2012 poised for a breakout year. He is a candidate for the US Olympic Team and could soon get looks from the senior national team. His combination of blazing speed and versatility on the right wing make him one of the most exciting prospects in the US system, even though bypassing college and MLS make him a relative unknown commodity to American soccer fans.
It's a sharp rise for a prospect whose pro career almost ended before it really got going. A difficult transition to life in Europe and life as a professional soccer player took its toll. He was an athletically gifted, but raw and inexperienced player who struggled to adapt.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," Gatt said. "I don't regret it for a minute, but I tell you what, for the first four months I lived there I was not a happy person.
"I was miserable. I was emotional. I got beat up on the field. I got beat up off the field (figuratively). I didn't speak the language, so it was hard for me to go out and meet people."
Gatt endured rough treatment from teammates who had no patience for a rookie.
"I wouldn't say it was hazing," Gatt said. "It was just that most of the players in Austria were frustrated with me because I was so far behind.
"For them, they expected me to be able to perform at their level as a professional, and when I wasn't able to do that right away they were very harsh with me. They'd yell and scream at me when I lost the ball."
"When I went over there I had way too much to learn. It was overwhelming."
Gatt eventually reached breaking point after a difficult training session, breaking down to his agent and telling him he was ready to go home. He was eventually convinced to stay and stepped up his efforts in training. Gatt eventually began making progress and broke into the starting lineup.
"Adversity is going to happen," Gatt's father says. "It's how you handle that adversity, and it's either going to break you or it's going to make you.
"One of the things his mom and I have always done is challenge him to understand that life isn't always perfect, and it's really what happens when there are bad times that defines who you are."
"For him to do that and endure it, to take the challenge on and to see him succeeding, is really impressive. If there's anything that I'm most proud of it's how well he's adapted to being a young man overseas on his own.
"I don't know if I could have done that at 18, be on my own. I really don't, and that's a credit to how strong he is."
Gatt credited his parents, his agent, and his brother Stefan, now a muscle-bound professional actor/fitness model, with helping him through the toughest of times.
After overcoming those brutal first months, Gatt eventually became a regular starter and made enough of an impression to draw the attention of Solskjaer. Molde bought Gatt despite him having just one year of professional experience.
The chance to step up to a better league excited Gatt, though he didn't know as much about his new manager as you might expect.
"To be 100 percent honest I had no idea who he was," Gatt said of Solskjaer, who scored the winning goal in the 93rd minute of the 1999 UEFA Champions League final . "I looked him up and saw the YouTube videos and realized what a special player he was."
The move to Molde not only brought a better brand of soccer but also a more comfortable environment. Solskjaer's training sessions were in English, and Gatt's Molde teammates all spoke English, including fellow American Sean Cunningham, whom Gatt had known for years.
The more comfortable surroundings and the year's experience in Austria propelled Gatt to a stellar Molde debut, scoring three goals while providing a versatile option on the right. When his team won the Norwegian League title (setting off wild celebrations at Aker Stadion in Molde), Gatt's parents were there on the field to enjoy every minute.
That celebration came eight years after Gatt first told his parents he would one day be a professional soccer player and play in a World Cup, and seven years after that fateful football game that convinced his father soccer was going to stay a part of their lives forever.
For Gatt, as much as Molde's championship-winning season felt like the perfect ending to a difficult journey, it really is just the beginning. At 20, with two European seasons under his belt, Gatt is already becoming the subject of transfer speculation, and while his recent involvement in the US Under-23 national team's training camp was cut short by an ankle injury, Gatt's national team future remains bright.
As Gatt continues to build on his early club success, his parents watch proudly via internet feeds and satellite streams. These days, if you visit the Gatt family home in Michigan, you are just as likely to see Gatt's parents watching a Champions League or English Premier League match as they are an American football or baseball game.
As for Jeff, he has gone from an anti-soccer cynic to an expert among his peers, even if many of them still hold his old beliefs about the game.
"A lot of my friends are [ex-American] football players and baseball players and coaches," Jeff said. "They have very limited understanding of soccer. I don't try to explain it, but what I'm finding is there is a lot more acceptance of the sport.
"There's still a lot of guys who say it's not a sport, and I don't argue with them," Jeff said. "I just shake my head and smile because I used to be that guy.
"I still love my football, and still love watching baseball, but now I have a third love, and it's soccer."