Ex-Blue Demons Hopkins, Vroom Living the Dream
April 4, 2012
The pro soccer overseas odyssey for the former DePaul standouts has expanded their horizons in every direction and added a totally new dimension to their lives.
Imagine how much fun a twenty-something athlete in the prime of his career could have playing pro soccer in Brisbane, Australia?
It gets even better as striker Vroom led the Brisbane Premier League in scoring last season while his buddy "Hoppy" was third in scoring as a central defender. Together, they led the Wolves to the league title.
Their success led to both ex-Blue Demons signing with Ljungskile SK in Sweden where they will compete at a higher level of pro soccer. Ljungskile opens its season on April 8.
"Ljungskile expects me to be a contributor in the back line right away," said Hopkins, who finished his career at DePaul in 2009. "The coach, Tor-Arne Freidham, felt that I could be an asset defensively and be a dangerous option on free kicks and corners as well.
"It will be tougher playing in Sweden, because the level is definitely higher here than in Australia. The good thing is that I have the experience of playing in a foreign country to fall back on and I know that I'm good enough to contribute at this level."
It's a level that is a lot more serious than the fun times at Wish Field.
"The major distinction separating college and pro soccer is that the professional game is a business," Hopkins said. "I had been on trial at a lot of places before landing at Ljungksile, and at every place the guys who were already under contract don't want you to make the team.
"They want you to fail because you are probably taking one of their friends' roster spots, and these guys are playing the game to support their families. In college everybody is hoping that you succeed.
"It was the complete opposite, however, at Ljungskile. Everyone here went out of their way to make me feel welcome. I like my life in Sweden so far. I'm living in Uddevalla, a town of about 50,000 people, and it feels very cozy. I've made some friends with the employees at a few local coffee shops that I frequent."
Vroom is settling in and already has set a goal of leading the league in scoring this season.
"Sweden is a very nice country, especially now that the snow is melting," said Vroom, who was All-BIG EAST First Team as a senior. "People live very modestly, love Americans, and mostly everyone speaks English. So although it is very different than home, it isn't too far off to make you feel homesick.
"Being a forward, my goal is to score. I would like to be top scorer on the team and also in the league. When setting goals for myself, I always try and shoot higher than I think I can achieve. In that sense, it forces me to push myself harder than I think I can go. In the past, it has worked great for me."
Why did Vroom begin his pro career in Australia?
"Australia sold itself for me," Vroom said. "I had a chance to play here in the states at a similar level after college. I had a conversation with my fiancé, and we both decided that Australia had more options for us both in and outside of soccer. It proved a chance to live abroad, a good life experience, and a better chance to move forward in soccer.
"The season we had in Brisbane was really special. We had a great team that was hungry and scored for fun, averaging close to four goals a game. We had four Americans on our team and it was nice because we were all from Chicago and knew each other.
"Hopkins developed as a player so much and I think he wanted to play striker more than center back. Halfway through the season he was only one goal behind me. I had a good season after setting difficult objectives for myself and accomplishing them."
Vroom also made sure to enjoy all that Australia has to offer.
"Life in Australia is kind of like those Outback restaurant commercials," Vroom said. "Although we were there during the winter, the sun shined day after day and temperatures were rarely below 60. The country is just beautiful, and the greatest thing is that they have more beaches than they do people. So combining the luxury of privacy and some of the best scenery make Australia like nowhere else in the world.
"My favorite part of the trip was when I visited Hamilton Island on the Great Barrier Reef with my fiancé and her parents. It was the most beautiful place I have ever seen. Like something out of a travel book, it was hard to believe it was real.
"We had just arrived on Hamilton Island and checked into the hotel around sunset. We went into the center of the village on the island and it had been overcast so we didn't expect much of a sunset. But as the sun started to lower in the sky, boy were we wrong.
"The clouds changed from yellow, to orange, to red, to pink for as far as the eye could see. It looked like the entire sky was on fire at one point, and it was a sunset seen once in a lifetime. The fact that I saw it looking out over the ocean in the Whitsunday Islands made it all the more special."
It's also pretty special that Hopkins and Vroom are serving as role models for current Blue Demon soccer players who may one day want to pursue the same dream.
"It's pretty cool," Hopkins said about life as a pro soccer player. "I hope that if they have the desire to play professionally they can learn from my journey. I think if they want to take that next step they have to start putting in the extra time now.
"There are a lot of players more talented than I that have failed to make it professionally because they weren't willing to make the necessary sacrifices.
"Whether the guys want to play pro soccer or choose another career path, the best advice I can give them is to completely commit to everything they do. Give 100% effort in everything you do, and you'll be surprised by how much you learn about yourself in your journey.
"You'll be a better person for it."
Vroom wanted to let DePaul's soccer players know about the degree of difficulty.
"As a kid I always wanted to play professionally, and it was only when I got to college that I realized how hard it was going to be," Vroom said. "There are so many players with the same dream, and in order to beat them out for a spot you need to be extremely tough mentally.
"And if you miss an opportunity, get back up and try again. If you can have resilience as a player, that is half the battle. So many people give up after one coach tells them they weren't good enough. If I did that, I wouldn't have even made it to DePaul. Trust yourself and practice real hard. If you do those two things, good things will happen."
Hopkins and Vroom keep up with their alma mater, and were delighted to hear about former teammate Mark Plotkin being named assistant coach. That trio took DePaul soccer on its greatest run that included back-to-back appearances in the BIG EAST semifinals in 2007 and 2008 and an NCAA tournament berth in 2007.
"I'm over the moon for Mark," Hopkins said. "It's a great opportunity for him to give back to the DePaul program that did so much for us. I think he'll be a huge asset to DePaul.
"He knows a lot about the game, and he'll be able to relate to a lot of the guys on the team on a personal level with his experiences at DePaul. He'll be able to help us improve the program even further."
Vroom added: "Plotty as a coach makes me feel old, but I think he will be a great coach. I'm looking forward to seeing him in action at some point."
Hopkins had one last parting word of advice for the current Blue Demon soccer players.
"The biggest strides I have made as a player have nothing to do with my soccer skills," he said. "The biggest improvements in my game have been my mental approach. Within the game, it's as simple as being more experienced and recognizing patterns and being able to exploit them.
"But more importantly, I've realized that I only had myself to blame if I wasn't good enough. I began to focus every day on spending the extra hours when other people weren't, soaking up every piece of advice I was given by coaches and applying it to my game. I developed the ability to block out whatever else might be going on in my life and focus on doing my job every day."