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AJ Paterson’s journey from the Florida Keys to pro soccer far from typical

The Key Largo native went to Ohio for college and after being drafted by NYCFC has started his pro career with Bethlehem Steel FC

AJ Paterson in a preseason match against Penn FC at YSC Sports
Matt Ralph

When you grow up surrounded by ocean water in the Florida Keys as AJ Paterson did, you get used to traveling long distances.

But even by Key Largo standards, going from Florida to Dayton, Ohio, to New York City to Bethlehem, Pa., is a meandering journey to professional soccer. That’s the path the Bethlehem Steel FC midfielder has been on ever since he was spotted on a side field in a tournament in Florida by Wright State University head coach Bryan Davis.

“I didn’t play for any big clubs, I didn’t play for any big academies growing up,” Paterson said. “My dad, he drove me an hour and a half for training three days a week up at Kendall. That’s who I was playing for when (Coach Davis) saw me in this little tournament.”

During his four seasons in the Dayton suburb of Dearborn, Paterson developed not only into the Horizon Player of the Year his senior year but a second-round draft pick by New York City FC, which selected him 42nd overall in the MLS SuperDraft.

Being picked in the second round from a mid-major school would seem like a big accomplishment if he wasn’t the third player from Wright State drafted in two years. Jake Stovall and Peguy Ngatcha were both taken in the 2017 draft.

“We fancy ourselves as having a very professional environment,” Davis said. “For AJ, being here helped him because it allowed him to be in an environment where he was able to grow and blossom. You don’t necessary have the pressures here that you have at some of the bigger programs. He was given in a way the freedom yet the guidance to grow the way he needed to grow.”

That suited AJ well.

“Wright State isn’t a really big school but it motivated me to work harder to stand out,” Paterson said, noting that he kept in touch with Jake Stovall all last season while he was with Puerto Rico FC. “I think it was really good to have (Jake and Peggy) in front of me so I could see what I needed to do, I saw the work they were putting in, and it helped push me harder.”

A left-footed midfielder with size (6-foot-2, 198 pounds) who can also play center back, Paterson brings versatility to his new team. Since arriving first as a trialist in early February after being released by NYCFC, he’s split time playing in the midfield and at center back. He tallied 15 goals and 7 assists during his four years with the Raiders and also played in PDL with Southwest Florida Adrenaline.

“He’s a very high level talent to say the list,” Davis said. “For me I think he’s going to be eye-opening because what you’re expecting a kid from a mid-major program I think you’re going to be surprised with what you’re going to get.”

One thing the Union organization could offer that New York City FC could not was an opportunity to play in USL.

“Being drafted by New York it was an amazing experience and everything but obviously it wasn’t a right fit,” Paterson said. “I think personally the USL is the level of play where I am right now and it’s a good fit.”

Paterson joins Union draft picks Aidan Apodaca and Mike Catalano and LA Galaxy draft pick Drew Skundrich as members of the 2018 SuperDraft class on the Steel FC roster. The team also signed the fifth overall pick by Real Salt Lake from 2015 in Omar Holness and Brandon Aubrey, the 21st overall pick by Toronto FC in 2016. They join two 2017 Union draft picks — Chris Nanco and Santi Moar — on the roster.

“AJ brings versatility and size and he showed in college the ability to fill up the box-to-box role by eating up ground,” Steel FC head coach Brendan Burke said at the time of his signing a few weeks ago. “He has a defensive presence and is good in the air plus adding a left-footed player is always useful to a squad.”

Steel FC open their season at home on Sunday at 2 p.m. against the Richmond Kickers.