From the first time he saw him on the field, club soccer coach Gerald “Magic” Celestin sensed Tyler Arnold could become a special player.
Their first encounter came when Arnold joined Santos FC at age 11. Celestin saw Arnold juggling a ball with his feet and challenged him to increase the number of juggles. Arnold accepted the challenge and greatly sharpened the skill over the next few months.
It’s the kind of determination that Celestin believes could lead Arnold to a career as a professional soccer player.
“I first saw him in April and by the time I saw him in June he was doing 1,000 juggles,” Celestin said. “I could tell then he was a special kind of guy.”
Arnold, who is a junior at Westerville Central High School, expects to graduate this summer and spend what would have been his senior year at the Escuela de futbol SD, a soccer academy in Huesca, Spain.
Celestin and the other coaches at Santos, which is based in Upper Arlington, helped Arnold land the invitation to train in Europe.
Celestin contacted former professional soccer teammate Mark Lugris, who is the president of Cantera Futbol Inc. in East Setauket, New York, a suburb of New York City. Lugris’ company has a contract with the Huesca academy to find potential talent in the United States.
Lugris set up a visit for Arnold in February, and he immediately caught the attention of the Huesca coaches.
“I trust ‘Magic’ because he has a very high standard and he told me about Tyler and sent me a video and other information on him,” Lugris said. “When I saw the video, it was obvious that he was a special player. I sent the video to Huesca in Spain and they invited him. Tyler went there and was lights out. He was terrific.”
Arnold was offered a contract near the end of the two-week visit and made a verbal commitment after consulting with his parents, Matt and Stephanie. Arnold has been playing soccer since age 4 and his father, who introduced him to the sport, helped Westerville South win the Division I state title in 1989.
“(The trip to Spain) was the first time being on a plane and in an airport,” Arnold said. “I had to go by myself.
They wanted me to come alone because they have to see how I react without my family. Of course I missed my family, but I had to do something, I was on a mission on a tryout. … They loved me from the get-go.”
Arnold, 17, will need to make an 11-month commitment to the academy, where he will train and work toward a college degree.
Huesca’s season begins Oct. 19, and Arnold expects to sign a contract soon.
Arnold said the annual cost is about $16,800. He could attend for four years or make an annual commitment.
The tuition includes room and board along with tutors to help Arnold learn Spanish. He said he has been offered a scholarship worth 40 percent of his tuition and hopes to raise more money through fundraisers.
Those fundraisers include soccer coaches from the Huesca academy visiting the Westerville area this summer to offer camps for local players.
The academy will give Arnold exposure to professional teams from Europe as he looks to fulfill a dream that took root at a young age in Westerville.
“Around age 8 I told my parents I wanted to be a professional soccer player, but it wasn’t until high school, sophomore or junior year, where I really stepped into big shoes and started to really try hard for it,” Arnold said.
Lugris and Celestin said coaches in Spain indicated Arnold could be offered a professional contract after one year with the academy.
“They project he will be a pro within a year,” Celestin said. “There’s no guarantee because that’s a hard thing, but to project that this kid could be a pro within a year, that is unreal. I agree with that. The parts he has are really special. He’s a sponge. … He’s a go-getter.”
Arnold also could opt to attend the academy for one year and then return home to pursue a collegiate career.
Arnold has enjoyed a standout career at Central, highlighted by being named OCC-Buckeye Division Player of the Year last fall, along with first-team all-state and all-district honors in Division I.
Arnold set program records for points in a season (50), goals in a season (20) and career assists (25) as he helped the Warhawks win the OCC-Buckeye title at 4-1.
“Some of the best times of my life have been at Central, especially with the soccer team,” Arnold said. “This past year was probably the best one I’ve ever had. The team even outside of soccer was like a brotherhood. … I enjoyed it, but I’ve been trying to make this a career. I love the guys, I love the family (atmosphere), but I would like to go further than just high school or college.
“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime. How many kids get offered to play in Spain other than college? I can’t pass it up no matter how much money it (costs).”
Although Central coach Dave Pence realizes his program will be losing a major contributor, he’s pleased Arnold is getting a chance to pursue his dream.
“There are not many kids that get the opportunity to play overseas,” Pence said. “I’m excited for him. There isn’t a coach that wouldn’t love to have a player of his caliber for another year, but I’m also excited for him to get this opportunity.”