Last year, Dante Polvara, 22, ended a turbulent career at Georgetown University filled with achievement after achievement. In his freshman year, he won the national championship with the Hoyas. In his sophomore year, he was the Big East Midfielder of the Year. Then, in his junior year, he won the 2021 MAC Hermann Trophy as the top player in NCAA Division I men’s soccer.
After that, it was time for him to turn pro. With interest from teams in MLS and Germany, Polvara signed with Scottish Premiership club Aberdeen FC last January. After three years of college success, the first six months of his pro career was a quick lesson in the challenging side of pro sports.
Shortly after arriving in Scotland, Polvara required surgery to repair a double hernia. While he was recovering, the coach who signed him Stephen Glaswas fired as Aberdeen had an unusually poor season.
When Polvara returned to the field, it was a very different situation than when he arrived. But part of what prompted him to come to Scotland is the fans’ passion for the sport (Polvara points out: “It’s all about football here”).
“I haven’t seen the best yet,” Polvara told Soccer America. “I’ve seen a manager get fired, a lot has changed at the club, I’ve had a relatively long injury and tough, tough losses. So unfortunately it’s not the very nice side. … But when you’re just a part of those experiences, you see how passionate the fans are and how much they care, and that’s what makes you want to play.”
The 2021/22 season ended on a whimper for Aberdeen as the final round of games came when there was no threat of relegation nor any hope of qualifying for Europe. During this time, Polvara was able to make his professional debut and finish with five performances.
The current pre-season looks promising for Polvara. He has already played two games in the Scottish League Cup against lower-tier opponents and on Sunday Aberdeen host Raith Rovers for his final game before reigning champions Celtic visit next week’s season opener.
The path that brought Polvara to this point mixed ancient and modern paths of American football development. He came through an MLS academy, as many top American players currently do, but he also played for his high school and then through college — ways that were more common for previous generations. Polvara was born in Westchester County north of New York City to two immigrants from South Africa. As a child, Polvara spoke with an accent that he has since lost. However, what has not been lost is his family’s love for the sport.
His father, who also holds Italian citizenship which was passed on to Polvara, is a die-hard Liverpool supporter. Together, Polvara and his father watched the Premier League and Champions League on a weekly basis. On the field, Polvara made rapid progress. He was part of the New York City FC academy with other standouts such as Gio Reyna, James Sands and Will Sands – The former two are both on the US national team and play in Europe. Will Sands, meanwhile, is part of the Columbus Crew and was also a teammate of Polvara in Georgetown.
When NYCFC first entered MLS, a lot changed for these players who moved to the well-funded academy backed by City Football Group. But Polvara continued to play for his high school, the Brunswick School in Connecticut.
“I was very lucky that NYCFC became a thing back then,” said Polvara. “I always wanted an MLS team. I was always a little jealous of those guys who would say they were part of the MLS academies.”
“I managed to attend both pre-seasons with two different managers, both of whom had so much experience playing against or managing some of the best players of all time,” Polvara said. “We never really had the attitude that we have to do everything to win. It was more about playing the right style of football. … it was exciting to be there.
“I’ve followed MLS my whole life. So many of my best friends play in MLS. I love to see it and I love to see where it leads. It’s definitely a place I want to play at one day.”
Unlike Reyna, who was considered an international player early on, or James Sands, who was also a member of the US U-17 world champion team, Polvara was more of a late bloomer. This proved to be a huge win for Georgetown University and its head coach Brian Meadow.
“The only mystery was why NYCFC didn’t pick him up — even as a developmental player or a regular,” Wiese said said. “It didn’t make sense to me why they didn’t do it, even though their philosophy is a bit different. They made a decision for him when he was 16 and when he was at that level they defied it. But they didn’t realize that players get better between 16 and 21.”
For Polvara, his explanation is that he just wasn’t ready for the pro game. In recent years, the professional successes of players such Daryl Dyke, Miles Robinson, Tagon Buchanan and Jordan Morris shows that a stint in the college game can still lead to a pro career.
“Not everyone is ready to turn pro at 16,” said Polvara. “Even if I had been offered a pro contract when I was 18, just before I went to college, I don’t think it would have made sense. I knew I wanted to play pro but some guys mature later. I just wasn’t ready. College gave me the freedom to learn a lot about myself.”
Polvara just took off at Georgetown and during his junior year, Weise said he “got a lot of calls from MLS teams,” but Polvara wanted to pursue a career in Europe for a variety of reasons, both on and off the field. Growing up in an international household with regular trips to South Africa, he wanted to live abroad.
But the offer had to be right. He didn’t want to go down the ‘loan army’ route, where he signs for a big club and then roams around for years. He wanted to find a club to play for – and Aberdeen was the best fit.
“It’s difficult to get opportunities in Europe after college,” said Polvara. “Some things have to come your way… Also, as a young person I always wanted to travel the world and I never thought I’d live in Scotland at some point in my life… but I didn’t want it to be just a situation where I sign somewhere must be borrowed. I wanted to go somewhere that I felt they needed me for something or that they had some kind of plan. And basically that’s what Aberdeen brought with them.”
One of Polvara’s best friends on Aberdeen is American Christian Ramirezthe Aberdeen centre-forward is in the starting XI and was the team’s top scorer with 16 goals in all competitions last year.
Ramirez, 31, is nine years older than Polvara and has also served as a mentor to his younger compatriot. Ramirez is optimistic about Polvara’s chances of a breakout season next year.
“Dante did really well,” Ramirez said. “He has a lot of potential and quickly established himself as a professional. He has the skills to establish himself as a top box-to-box midfielder as he gets more games under his belt.”
But for Polvara, that opportunity to finally prove what he can do professionally should come in the coming weeks as the season begins.
“The expectations of me personally are higher,” said Polvara. “I wasn’t really satisfied with any situation. Now starting those three games at the end of the season makes you even hungrier to be in the lineup week in and week out.”