A sports hernia may have been the best thing that happened to former Northern Illinois soccer player Francis Otira.
The London native was 18 when he missed six months with the injury, and he began thinking about the uncertainty of a career in soccer.
“With that injury, I realized I needed a back-up plan if [soccer] doesn’t work out,” Otira said. “One of the coaches [of my team in London said] he had a chance to come out to America when he was younger, and he was telling me [not coming] was the biggest mistake he ever made in his life.”
During the years, Otira has realized it’s important to jump at chances and open up options.
That idea led the center back to accept a scholarship to NIU, where he played for four years and is pursuing a degree in economics, which he’ll finish after he completes two classes next semester.
That philosophy also led him to clear his schedule two weeks ago, when he received a call asking him if he’d like to play for the Chicago Fire Reserve in a match the next morning despite having a full day of classes.
While opportunities for international college players in Major League Soccer are scarce because of a league-wide quota on foreign players, Otira knew he had to take the chance to impress Fire coaches.
“I had to email all of my teachers and tell them, ‘I can’t come to class, I have to play in this game,’ ” Otira said. “It was surreal.”
The window for the Fire to sign players had already closed, but the 6-foot-3 defender thinks he opened some eyes with a 90-minute performance in the Fire’s 2-1 win over the FC Dallas reserves.
While he’s unsure whether he’ll get a shot with the Fire, Otira has options.
During the summer, he played for a Chicago-based showcase team that traveled to Europe and competed against top-flight teams from Holland and Denmark. Because of the tour, Otira said he may have an opportunity to sign with a Swedish second-division team this winter.
“It was good exposure for me,” he said. “With that, I’ve actually got some opportunities coming up in Europe around December or January.”
Although he has options, Otira’s future is far from certain. If he doesn’t have opportunities in soccer come this winter, he’ll be happy to fall back on his economics degree.
“I’ve given myself a time buffer. December, January is kind of a big checkpoint for me,” Otira said. “If there’s concrete opportunities for me at that time, then I’ll for sure pursue that. But if it’s another whole thing with waiting, I’ll probably be looking for a job. I really would like to stay out in the States to get a job.”