Growing up almost 9000 miles away in Minnesota, Alex Galbraith could never have imagined he would one day play football in Wollongong.
It's unlikely that Galbraith had even heard of the Illawarra - let alone imagined moving to Australia - but it's something that became a reality four years ago.
A product of the Shattuck-St Mary's School's development academy - which has seen some graduates go on to the play in the US-based National Soccer League - Galbraith was looking for a fresh opportunity in the sport in 2019. And he didn't have to look too far for a solution.
While they were now based almost half a world away, Galbraith's dad had previously played football with a man named Alfredo Esteves, who was a coach at the the NPL NSW club, the Wollongong Wolves.
That long-standing connection opened the door for Galbraith to leave the US and move Down Under.
"Alfredo and my dad went way back, they played together when Alfredo was in the US,'' Galbraith told the Mercury.
''I believe that was back in 2004 or 2005. They stayed in touch and Alfredo remembered me when I was just a little guy, so he invited me to come over and train with the Wolves in the 20s, because I was still 18 or 19 at the time.
"To be honest, I never even thought that I'd end up coming to Australia. As an American, it's one of those places you think is far away, you think about Finding Nemo and things like that."
As an American, it's one of those places you think is far away, you think about Finding Nemo and things like that.- - Alex Galbraith
The Wolves were unable to offer Galbraith a visa spot in 2019, but he was put in touch with then-20s assistant coach Michael Panozzo at the South Coast Flame.
Galbraith enjoyed a short stint with the Flame before returning to the US to continue his university studies.
He had planned to return to Australia the following year, but any ideas were put on ice due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, Galbraith always had plans to return to Wollongong and that dream became a reality in 2022.
"I wanted to come back over and finish my uni over here and play. I finished my uni under grad last year and I'm doing my Masters right now," Galbraith said.
"But I eventually came back and re-signed with the Flame last year. I played under then-head coach Darren Jones and Stan (Pappas), but I always had eyes on a move to the IPL (Illawarra Premier League) the following year.
''Having watched a lot of games, and seeing the competition and level, I saw it as a league that I wanted to go into."
Now 23-years-old, Galbraith was open about his desire to play in the Premier League, which led to him being approached by South Coast United head coach Greg Valic ahead of the 2023 season.
SCU had spent the past couple of campaigns at the foot of the table, but were active in the player market this off-season in a bid to make their mark on this year's competition.
"From the start, they were very professional about it, and they showed me what they wanted to achieve this year," Galbraith said.
"They had a vision to make a move up the table, and I wanted to help them with that. They sold me on what they see the future of their club looking like.
''It's not an easy thing to turn around, and I applaud them on what they want to do, and I thought 'that's something that I want to be part of'.
"With any side, there's always an adjustment period. But from the start, when I started training with them in November, everyone was very welcoming. So it didn't necessarily feel like I was a visa player. And I didn't have the language barrier that many visa players had. The only barrier that I had was understanding some Croatian, but I'm slowly learning that.
"It takes a while to get used to things but, at the end of the day, football is football. If you're good enough, you learn the system. Plus we have a lot of new guys this year anyway, so it's been about everyone getting used to each other - not just me. I think we have nine or 10 new guys in the squad, so there's an exciting energy within the group."
While it's been an enjoyable move, it is yet to translate into great success for Galbraith and his teammates.
SCU has notched up just one win from the opening two months. However, the midfielder has enjoyed the opportunity to work with Valic, and believes good things are around the corner.
"I've enjoyed having Greg as a coach. He sees a side of the game from a player perspective, which is like a leader/mentor type thing," Galbraith said.
"My experiences so far have been pretty good, though obviously we'd like to have a few more wins this far into the season. But it's one of those things you keep working towards and, as a team, we're working towards changing our fortunes around. And we've been closer in the games more recently.
"I'd like to think we can rise up the ladder by season's end.
''I'm an optimistic guy, and I don't think the results do us justice. There were games earlier in the season that weren't so close - and we got dominated a bit - but if people have been watching our games, you can see that we're starting to have more possession and creating more chances, really starting to do the right things.
"That's credit to Greg and a credit to the guys. It shows that we've rallied around each other and know that we've needed to improve. We're not happy with where we are, and that's what we've come to.
''At the end of the day, it's the little goals that you need to set for yourself to then achieve bigger things."
Since arriving in Wollongong, there is one question that Galbraith has been consistently asked: How does football in Australia compare to the US?
His response: "I would say there's similarities. The pace of the game is very similar, you're running a lot and pressing, and getting after it.
"There's quality players in the IPL. There's guys in the IPL who I believe could play third division in the US, if not higher.
''The level here is really good, but the main difference is the funding available, which dictates how much development there is.
''You see across how many teams there are in the US, and they've got all of these players, all of these systems and all of these facilities.
"At the end of the day, the players here are just as good. It's physical, and I think maybe football is slightly more technical in some clubs here.
''But overall I think it's just as good - if not better - if you compare whatever level the IPL is compared to a similar level in America."
SCU will aim to cause an upset and secure their second victory of the season when they take on Wollongong United at Ian McLennan Park on Saturday night.
In Saturday's other IPL matches, Bulli will host the Rosellas at Balls Paddock, Corrimal takes on Cringila at Memorial Park, the Blueys meet Wollongong Olympic at Tarrawanna Oval and the White Eagles tackle Helensburgh at Terry Reserve.
Coniston - fresh from parting ways with coach Rob Jonovski on Thursday night - will take on Port Kembla at Wetherall Park on Sunday, while Bellambi will also meet Albion Park at Elizabeth Reserve in a catch-up match.
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