When Fabian Herbers came to the United States a little over five years ago, getting a college degree was at the forefront of his mind. Soccer was just something he’d thought he’d do for fun.
But after three seasons as one of the most dominant college players in the country — he had 15 goals and 17 assists in his last season in Omaha — the Ahaus, Germany native was faced with a decision to drop out of school and sign a professional contract with Major League Soccer.
“In Germany you kind of view it you just go to the U.S., go to college, have a little fun play a little soccer and that’s it but ironically it worked out well,” he said in an interview after training last week. “I was at a very good soccer school at Creighton but my focus was on my degree and that’s what I mainly wanted to do.”
Part of what convinced him to leave early and sign a Generation adidas contract was the guarantee that he could finish his degree through the league’s partnership with Southern New Hampshire University or SNHU, which originated back in 2015 and was renewed in January.
“It was important for me to guarantee that I was able to finish my college degree,” he said. “Once I started pro I started immediately to take classes.”
Herbers had 13 classes left to take for his bachelor’s degree when he first arrived in Chester after being drafted in the first round by the Philadelphia Union in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft. After switching his major from international business to sports management — all but one class transferred — he started chipping away class by class online during his free time.
“I enjoyed it in the afternoons because I felt productive,” he said. “As a soccer player you do have a lot of free time after training, although it’s physically demanding, mentally you kind of stay focused and stay engaged educationally.”
The subject matter was also relevant since Herbers was learning the ins and outs of being part of a professional sports organization as a player.
“Since I’m in the field it made sense for me to pursue sports management,” he said.
With degree now in hand, Herbers is the first Union player to graduate from SNHU and the fourth player from the league to complete an online degree at the school. There are currently 57 players enrolled in classes and several anticipate graduating by the end of the year.
Among those pursuing their degree are some of the team’s homegrown players who passed up on generous scholarship offers to turn pro as a teenagers. Players like Auston Trusty, Mark McKenzie and Anthony Fontana.
“They went pro earlier than I did and I think it’s good for them not to just go home and play PlayStation the rest of the day after training,” Herbers said. “It’s important to be productive.”
Head coach Jim Curtin said while others might prefer players to focus primarily on soccer that education from the eighth graders at YSC Academy up through current pros taking college classes is a priority for the club.
“As they start to turn pro at 15, 16, 17, 18 years old, obviously the college years are squeezed,” Curtin said. “There will be things that are set up here and opportunities for them to finish and further their education. They certainly have the time of the day and a support staff around us at the Union that promotes that and believes in that.”
Taking classes online — where Herbers was able to interact with working adults from a variety of ages, backgrounds and professions — was a welcome diversion through the painful rehab process he went through last year, Herbers said.
“It gave me a purpose,” he said.
The injury was a big blow to Herbers after a promising rookie campaign where he had four goals and eight assists in all competitions. He ended up being limited to 12 appearances last season while this year he’s split his time between the first team and Bethlehem Steel FC. While he hasn’t made it onto the first team scoring sheet, he’s second behind Santi Moar in goals for Bethlehem Steel FC with five in his 13 appearances.
“For Fabian to accomplish that is important because soccer is a game, it’s important and obviously we want nothing more than to win on the weekend but at the same time it’s important to set yourself up further down the road because you can’t play until you’re 60 years old unfortunately as much as we’d all like to,” Curtin said. “Some will get into coaching, some will do different things but obiously to work toward your degree is something to be proud of.”
Herbers isn’t the only member of the organization to finish his undergrad degree this season. Josh Yaro, who also left college as a junior and was drafted the same year as Herbers, graduated from Georgetown in May and Steel FC midfielder Santi Moar graduated from Pfeiffer University.