Contributed by Bart Sears
As the Champions League quarter-finals get underway this week and football fans, young and old, watch the world's best on television, they might believe it is the closest they come to experiencing one of the best sporting tournaments in the world. However, one of StFX's very own lived this very dream this past autumn. StFX alumna, Calgary native Alix Bruch, playing for Serbia's, ŽFK Spartak Subotica (Spartak), competed in the group stage of the Champions League against some of world's best teams. Alix played five seasons (2010-13, 2016) at StFX and was the midfield general and team MVP of the 2016 AUS championship team. Alix's journey to be a Champions League footballer serves not just a lesson about becoming a professional athlete, but a life lesson in determination and perseverance.
Alix developed her soccer skills in the competitive Calgary minor soccer system; she was a gifted soccer player who used her natural skill level and vision to be a dynamic offensive player. In hindsight, she admits she did not concentrate enough on what to do when she did not have the ball. Over her years at X she became a more of a defensive midfield player, which she says suits her personality. "You have to be cool, calm and collected and be reading plays before they happen." This is not to say that she limits herself to being, as certain analysts call it, a 'holding' midfield player. One of Alix's great strengths is to be able to knit defence into attack, which she does by being in the correct position and her ability to hit the perfect pass at the precise moment.
Alix credits her StFX coach, Graham Kennedy for helping her to play professionally, which required her to be a more well-rounded player. 'GK' as he is affectionately known by his players, was the first person who told Alix she could play professionally and has encouraged her in every step of her journey. What makes him such a good coach? "His strengths lie in his ability to connect with his players. They trust him, and he can adapt his coaching strategy/style to suit the players he has in front of him." To be coached by GK is to be spoiled, because he is one of a kind. The feeling is indeed mutual. "She's one of the best players I've ever coached, male or female. We had a great coach-athlete connection and we challenged each other. Working with her was one of the highlights of my collegiate coaching career." Coach Kennedy is the kind of coach who knows just what you need to hear and when you need to hear it. After four seasons at X Alix was working in Calgary as a geologist when her life would take a dramatic turn. As Graham and Alix were watching a 2015 World Cup game in Edmonton an overwhelming urge came over Alix – to be down on that field. Alix said to Graham that she wanted to be playing, not watching. He immediately responded, "You can play in Europe." Ten months later, Alix was back at StFX playing for the blue and white and taking the final step in turning her desire to play professionally into a reality.
Ability and knowledge will only take you so far, to be your best, you need to be consistently challenged by the best. There can be few better leagues in which to hone your skills and develop both as a player and a person than the AUS. "The rivalries at university are a really special thing. The AUS is unique because in any season, on any day, any team can win." This was undoubtedly true for StFX at the 2016 conference championships when, as the fourth seed, they defeated the top seed, CBU in the semi-final and then beat the third seed, Acadia in the championship game.
It is one thing to be a naturally gifted player, but those who rely only on natural skill or one particular trait will quickly be found out at AUS level. Alix says a key benefit of the AUS is that it fosters a competitive appetite. To go up against the likes of CBU's Alyssa Armstrong and Acadia's Katie Ross will not only tell you how good a soccer player you are, but how hard you are willing to work to become a better not only on the field, but off it as well.
Alix notes that when you play in competitive games every week the bonds forged with teammates at the tight-knit AUS schools make them become your best friends. You also play for the love of the game, something which Alix almost lost while during her third year at X. She recognizes every player on her 2013-14 team in helping her rediscover her love for the game. Coach Kennedy says of Alix, "She was always a very good player and she made a quantum leap when she truly took stock of her love of the game. The result of that was a new commitment to being the best she could be. That was a turning point for her in my opinion." Of the 2016 AUS championship side, she can think of no one better to shield her in the midfield than centre back Olivia Wilkie, the amazing skill of Ghanaian Mercy Miles, the unmatched effort of Brookside's Chloe Brennan, and the sheer ability of team co-captain Brittany Parks to make Alix bring out the best in herself.
Three wins in three days!
Twelve months later Alix made the transition from playing with her best friends to playing with some of best players in Europe. Lining up with her Spartak teammates was an amazing feeling, but a very different feeling. "There is a significant weight you feel when lining up as a pro in front of a bigger audience, alongside players who play for their national team." You are all there to do a job, and you will find out quickly if you can handle the pressure. The majority of the players on her team were members of the Serbian national team as well as a player each from Macedonia, Equatorial Guinea and Brazil. She got along well with her Brazilian teammate, Marcela, who (perhaps unsurprisingly) is probably the best player Alix has ever played with. They were both foreigners and of similar age, but mostly they just liked hanging out. Alix enjoyed her time with her teammates as they often went to dinner after training and would go for coffee or play cards in the evening. Meal times were a great chance at bonding. One cultural difference Alix noted was how fast the other girls ate, and that they always had to wait for her to finish eating!
The Starting XI
Nothing Good Comes from Comfort Zones
While Alix's teammates helped ease the move to a foreign country, it was by no means a seamless transition. The challenge of being a professional footballer in Serbia was not lost on Alix. "I knew it would be difficult, but you can't really understand what it's like until you are there living it." Language was a key barrier. Alix notes that Serbian is a difficult language to learn, but she did pick up a few phrases and soccer specific terms. Alix's love of hiking and going to listen to live music was not possible in the city, though living in the city gave her much time for introspection. Alix spent many hours in cafes, drinking 'ridiculous amounts of cappuccinos'. She saw the time to herself as a real gift and she enjoyed the space to free her mind. A natural writer, while at university writing had to be put to one side with school work and practice taking priority. In Subotica, she appreciated the time she had once again able to read and write at her leisure.
Subotica's old world charm
Serbia gave Alix the chance to find solace in solitude. To see Alix play, is to watch a player at peace with herself, a person who by reading and writing finds out about herself, and it is very much an assured self. To be a professional athlete, you need that inner confidence. In the pro ranks, everyone is fast, strong and good on the ball. What sets players apart at the highest level in your ability to play under pressure and your soccer IQ. You can't just play to your strengths, you need to be well-rounded.
The time she had to free her mind meant she was mentally prepared for the intensity and speed of the professional game. "The game is so much faster and you need to know your next move three passes before the ball gets to you. You have no time on the ball as you are under pressure right away." However, for anyone who has watched Alix play, it is immediately apparent her ability to read and control the game. She offers sage advice to young players as she lists players after whom she has modelled her game. Though he is now near the end of his career, German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger was a player, according to Alix, "who didn't always get a lot of attention, but if he wasn't on the field, you noticed. He wasn't flashy but he bossed the midfield and pulled the strings." On the women's side, German Dzsenifer Marozsan and Dutch player Jackie Groenen are admired for the skill and awareness. What skills set Alix apart to make her a pro level player? Coach Kennedy explains that "She can receive and turn on both sides of her body and her passing vision is exceptional. Defensively, she's a beast."
Oh man, it was wild!
Life can come down to a few moments of whether you sink or swim. Alix's first professional match was a prime example. Having just arrived in Serbia, the team was off to a pre-season tournament in the Canary Islands. Two training sessions later it was time for her first match: Madrid Club de Fútbol Femenino. Alix likened the Madrid team to playing against Messi's Barcelona, with their quick 1-2 passes in tight spaces. Early on it was a case of "Oh my goodness, am I good enough to be here? (of course she was) but within 5 minutes I settled in and absolutely loved it. I played the full 90 minutes, ran more than I ever have, and assisted on the lone goal in a 1-0 win."
There were more big games to come, the biggest of which were Champions League encounters, arguably the highest level calibre of play outside of the World Cup. Alix was one of the few North American players to get to play, an opportunity she appreciated. "It was really cool to line up against players from all over including Norway, Australia, Brazil, and Israel. Those games were the best part of my time overseas. It was the level I always dreamed of playing and the added pressure was very exciting." Spartak participated in the group stage of the Champions League in a group with Maccabi Kiryat Gat (Tel Aviv, Israel), Breznica (Pljuvlja, Montenegro) and Avaldsnes Idrettssenter (Avaldsnes, Norway). Spartak finished second in the group after losing 2-0 in an away fixture in Norway. Perhaps a home game for Spartak would have resulted in a win and moving on to face Barcelona in the first knock-out round.
Podgorica City Stadium in Montenegro
Alix initially signed a half season contract with Subotica but, unfortunately, her lingering and severe patellar tendonitis made her decline the offer to complete the season with the club. The extra rest will hopefully allow Alix to return to full fitness. She and her agent decided to wait until the summer transfer window opens to explore her options of playing again in Europe with a new club.
I'll take that.
While it is always a dream of young athletes to be a professional in their chosen sport, the dream rarely becomes a reality. Sport to Alix is about so much more. Too often, professional sport is the sole aspiration for young athletes but, to close in Alix's wise words: "I don't think I was born to be a professional athlete or that it is my sole purpose on this planet. I am thrilled I am able to live out my dream of playing in Europe, and I would like to have the opportunity to play in another country, but I also feel there is so much more waiting to be explored, far away from a soccer pitch."