Mike Chabala was just 8 years old when soccer first took him abroad, sending him on a two-year European odyssey that accelerated his growth, as a player and person.
For the Fresno, Calif., native, the experience with FK Austria Vienna’s youth program launched his enduring passion for the game. Off the field, he learned to live on his own, managing money, adjusting to frequent travel and taking on a new language.
“I grew up pretty early and pretty quickly. I was kind of forced to,” Chabala said. “I don’t remember missing my family much, though they said I ran up a pretty good phone bill.”
Two decades later, the 28-year-old still is finding himself thrust into new environments.
Chabala last week was dealt for the second straight summer, sent from the Portland Timbers to D.C. United for a supplemental draft pick.
“It’s always tough to just come in a situation like that and expect to jell with the guys,” said United captain Dwayne De Rosario, who played with Chabala on the Houston Dynamo. “It’s going to take time, and we have to just help him grow with the unit.”
The swap and subsequent whirlwind of travel have left Chabala’s belongings scattered among Washington, Portland and Houston, where he played the first 51/2 seasons of his career.
In Chabala’s words, the situation is a “little hectic.”
“I have two bags to my name right now, and I’m staying in a hotel,” Chabala said. “But that doesn’t really matter — I’ve got my soccer shoes, I’ve got a good locker room full of guys that I enjoy and respect, and that makes it a pretty good environment to work in.”
Chabala also must wrap his head around an abrupt move in the standings. While United (11-8-3) are firmly in contention for a playoff bid, Portland (5-12-5) sits at the bottom of the Western Conference in the club’s second MLS season.
Amid his squad’s struggles, Chabala made only six starts for the Timbers this year, including just one after coach John Spencer was fired July 9 and replaced by general manager Gavin Wilkinson.
“Sometimes, you’re just in a situation where someone’s opinion is different than what’s happening on the field,” Chabala said. “I think in any expansion team, there are hiccups and you have to just kind of iron things out and have an identity as a club.”
Identity isn’t a concern for United, four-time MLS Cup champions who stitch the word “Tradition” and the D.C. flag into every uniform.
On Tuesday, Chabala was given a taste of the city culture the club embraces when he was given a tour by Chris Pontius, a fellow Californian.
“I remember being the new guy in the city,” recalled Pontius, now in his fourth year with United. “I wanted to make him feel welcome and get him integrated into the group as quickly as possible.”
Although Chabala is growing accustomed to his new surroundings, finding a place to live remains on the back burner.
With Woolard sidelined indefinitely and no other natural left back on the roster, Chabala figures to be busy as United kick off a stretch of five matches in 13 days Sunday against the Philadelphia Union (7-12-2).
“You’ve got to go through the rain clouds to find the sunshine, if you will,” Chabala said. “But really, the experiences that I’ve gathered along the way, from one spectrum to the other, is making me a better player, a better person, a better teammate.”