Play Til You Can’t – A Soccer Journey with Whitney Browne

On February 26th, it was announced that Whitney Browne would return to Joy Athletic for their 2022 National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) season. On first glance, it was a promising return for the club, whose dynamic 2021 attack was largely built around the work and skill of Browne and St. Cloud State’s Emmanuel Iwe, who days later would sign for MNUFC2 of MLS Next Pro.

Beyond the headline, however, Browne’s commitment for a second year at Joy Athletic marked a new chapter in a phenomenal career in Minnesota’s high level amateur scene, where Browne has managed to be a part of the history of multiple clubs.

Browne tells Sota Soccer that soccer was a predestined part of his life, brought about in part by his roots in his nation of birth, Libera, who at the time of Browne’s early childhood was still lead by the legendary George Weah.

Browne celebrates a US Open Cup qualifying goal against Oakland County FC for Minneapolis City. Courtesy of Minneapolis City.

“Soccer for me is a family sport. I’m originally from Liberia, West Africa, and soccer there is kind of a religion. It’s something you grow up playing,” Browne explained. “For me, I got exposed to soccer at a very early age, probably three or four years old, and it’s because my brothers played, my uncles played, my dad played. My dad would always take me and my brother, Martin, to his games and we would go see the national team play. I think for me, over time, getting to watch the Liberian national team play when I was little, that created a passion to want to pursue playing soccer.”

Browne’s time in Liberia would eventually be cut short by a move to the United States, where, along with his brother, he would have to work to both find his place on the soccer pitch and in a new home.

“I moved to the US when I was eleven years old… at twelve years old I started playing youth soccer. My brother, Martin, had come before me so he was already part of a team, this team was called Wings Soccer Club… Fortunately for me, being an immigrant and a minority, it was good for me as far as adjusting to the country.”

Browne is the younger brother of Martin Browne Jr. The Western Illinois alum played for teams like Minnesota United Reserves, Minneapolis City, and Joy Athletic. Along the way, he proved a talented coach and is now the head coach at Osseo Senior High and owner of MartiParti Soccer Academy.

Whitney Browne’s time in youth and club ball would eventually transition to a thriving high school soccer career, forged on pitch with the Osseo Orioles.

“I went to Osseo Senior High School. I did very well there, graduated high school at 16 and we won the state championship… also growing up I played what you call ODP (Olympic Development Program).”

Browne would eventually be named Minnesota’s AA Mr. Soccer, a prominent individual award given to outstanding high school players in Minnesota. High school success would translate into college acknowledgements, but the collegiate world would take some effort before Browne found his home.

“I signed to play for at Western Illinois University,” Browne continued. “That’s where my brother Martin was going, so that’s where I wanted to go because we wanted to go together, however things ended up not working out at the time and I had to go to a junior college for about a year and a half.”

Browne would become a NJCAA Collegiate All-American for his year at Garden City Community College.

“I did well there… It opened up some more doors. I had, for example, Syracuse, Creighton University, Indiana recruiting me. I ended up signing with Creighton University and then again it didn’t work out because there was a coaching change so then I ended up going to the University of Dayton in Ohio. I played at Dayton for a year and I didn’t like it, to be honest, I didn’t like the soccer. It was a great school, I just didn’t like the soccer mindset… So I ended up finishing up at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay which was good. I got to play with my friends and I did well.”

Upon leaving college, Browne’s expansive career in Minnesota’s semi-pro and amateur scenes would begin. Having played with the TwinStars previously, Browne would find a new home with the Minnesota United Reserves, who played in the local Premier League of America (PLA) after spending two years in the NPSL while the senior side played in the NASL.

Browne strolls forward for City in 2019. Courtesy of Minneapolis City.

The league would feature a young Minneapolis City along side historic Wisconsin sides like Milwaukee Bavarians, Croatian Eagles, and the Madison 56ers.

The Reserves finished fourth of six in their division of the 2016 PLA season, nine points off the playoff line. Milwaukee Bavarians would win the league that year, but Browne still managed to earn five PLA Team of the Week appearances that year from ten regular season matches.

His positive college seasons and continued effort in the lower leagues did open the doors to several trials for Browne, including time with the likes of the Colorado Springs Switchbacks and New York Red Bulls. The trial experience, however, revealed to Browne who difficult it would be to go pro as an immigrant athlete without a green card, instead on a work permit.

“It went very well, actually… I emailed them my video while I was in Colorado, I was trialing with the [Colorado Springs] Switchbacks at the time, and they invited me for a tryout. So I went there for a two day tryout,” Browne explained. “The first day I didn’t play well so I didn’t think I was going to make it and to be honest I wasn’t as professional as I needed to be… We had a game against the first team and I didn’t appear in the game and to be honest I was a little upset because I thought I’d been training well and I really wanted to show what I could do against the first team. We had a scrimmage the next day, against a division one university, I had the first two goals of the game. So I’m like, this is it, I made it… They asked us to present what we had, whether you’re a citizen, a green card holder. At this time I had a work permit. The very next day, I got cut… I kind of knew that they didn’t want to invest in me being able to take an international spot.”

At the same time that his trials were not leading to contracts, Browne found his place at Minnesota United Reserves cut short by the dissolution of the side upon United’s move to MLS.

“I was playing with the Minnesota United Reserves and then they moved to MLS and there were no more Minnesota United Reserves. So at this point, because again I was only on a work permit, I wasn’t a resident yet or a citizen yet, so I was starting to understand that it was going to be difficult for me to achieve my dream of playing professionally having a green card or being a citizen.”

Browne would then transition to Minneapolis City SC in 2017. He would help the club win the 2018 and 2019 NPSL North Conference titles. Browne would also take part in US Open Cup qualifying matches for the Crows, joining the side initially in 2017 for their qualifying run and scoring a brace against Oakland County FC to help the Crows qualify for the first round proper, which they were eventually disqualified from.

“I started to play in Minneapolis City, I did a guest game with them… after that they were like, well if you’re not going to play a higher level we want you to come play with us. I thought their set up was pretty professional as far as me trying to be in an environment that would keep me prepared… I played for Minneapolis City for three years. It was a good experience as far as having somewhere to keep playing and keep training. Was it the best environment for me? Maybe not, but as far as having somewhere to play and train and being part of an organization, that was good.”

Browne would prove an important player throughout his years at the club, from scoring big goals against rivals VSLT and Duluth FC in 2017 to netting a hat trick against the Dakota Fusion in 2018 as the Crows flew toward their first conference title. Even in his final year at the club, Browne would still prove an important part of a strong Minneapolis City roster, making 9 appearances and scoring 2 goals in 2019.

By the winter of 2020, a year which saw its NPSL season canceled, Browne had secured a spot as Minneapolis City’s second all-time goalscorer with twelve. His brother Martin Browne was just two behind him in third.

Along the way, the presence of Whitney Browne’s brother, Martin, was an important part of his soccer journey. The impact, however, was not simply defined by their brotherhood, as Browne explains, his brother was one of the best he’s ever played with.

“Yes we are brothers, and playing with your family member is an amazing experience, but I’m not saying this because he’s my brother. He’s one of the best soccer players and soccer minds that I’ve ever played with in my life… Again I’m not saying this because he’s my brother, I’m saying this without bias, he’s very intellectually sound when it comes to soccer and has a very high IQ.”

Browne’s time with the Crows would also bring a share of individual awards alongside team achievements, before the striker eventually moved on to the next challenge, joining new NPSL side Joy Athletic.

“The coach, [Arinze ‘Ace’ Ezirike], is someone that Mario and I have known for many years. Actually Mario was the first person that told me about the team and he didn’t know what my plans for the summer were so they both suggested I play for them. After that I had a few futsal sessions with the team and I fell in love with the way they play, the style of play, it’s how I like to play soccer.”

Browne faces his old club, Minneapolis City, while playing for Joy Athletic. He would score during the 3-2 win. Courtesy of Whitney Browne – Instagram.

While Joy did not finish at the top of the table or in the two playoff spots provided to the NPSL North conference, they did finish a confident fourth with four wins and two draws, along with six losses, and were well renowned as one of the conference’s most entertaining sides with their bombastic attack. Browne says that the season wasn’t what they hoped for, but that there’s a silver lining to it.

“I thought the season, from our standpoint, we were disappointed. It didn’t go how we expected it to go. I think a lot of the kids came in not understanding the level of the NPSL, they just kind of thought it would be like high school… The physicality of the game got them, because now you’re playing against men and college athletes… But to call it short, I think it was a good season in the sense of being introduced to the NPSL and having some competitive games to build for the next season… I think you learn more from losing than you do from winning, so being introduced to this level and understanding how it works, even if it didn’t exactly go how the club wanted, I think you learn a lot of lessons from this to be able to have a better season [in 2022].”

By the end of the year, Browne had made eight appearances and scored five goals, from twelve available conference matches. With 28 goals scored across the team that year, Browne made up close to a fifth of the goal production.

At the end of it all, with a celebrated amateur career at his side and a legacy mentoring the next generation in the future, Browne says it was all worth it, even if at one point he may have seen things a bit differently.

“At first, when I was younger, maybe I would answer this question a little bit different… When you’re young you make mistakes, but mistakes are a part of life and you have to learn from that to become a better person as you grow in the future… Looking back at it, I’m honestly grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. I did not reach the level I felt I was capable of reaching, however sometimes in life, God has a way of making things work in the way you wanted, and one of the biggest achievements for me, coming to the United States, was to get a status and live a productive life… I still got to play the game I enjoyed. Playing soccer, I never thought about it as a way of making money, it was something that was engrained in me growing up, part of my culture.”

Joy Athletic will begin their 2022 season with a home match against Duluth FC on May 7th, set to be hosted at Oriole Stadium. If his time at Osseo Senior High School or Joy’s 2021 season is anything to put weight in, Whitney Browne is sure to be a player to watch on the night.

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