- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Lewis Neal achieved a major goal of his when D.C. United signed him in March.

Finally, after 12 years of playing in lower-league soccer, he had achieved top-tier soccer in America. Not only that, but he’s part of a team in a position to make the playoffs and potentially win it all.

“For me to come here in my first season and [potentially] win a championship would be one of the best experiences of my career,” Neal said.

His road to MLS is long and full of a lot of traveling. Pull out a map and follow along.

Making his debut for English club Stoke City in 2000, Neal began a career that spanned eight different clubs.

Shortly into his Stoke City career, he was sent on loan to Icelandic club IBV in 2001.

“I was only in Iceland for maybe five or six weeks,” Neal said. “That was a very strange experience. … The culture there was a lot different, and the language was very difficult.”

Returning from IBV, he stayed with Stoke City until 2005. Neal was part of a swap that saw him off to the city of Preston to play for Preston North End, where he would stay until 2009.

A loan to Notts County in 2008 sent him southeast to the city of Nottingham, where he would play just four games. Next stop for Neal was Carlisle United, where he was released at season’s end.

Neal’s final years in England were with Shrewsbury Town and became his most troubling.

“The first season [in Shrewsbury] was pretty good. I played regularly, and the manager knew me well since he had me at Preston North End,” Neal said. “Then we got a new manager, and I made two starts in six months and only a handful of substitutions.”

He knew if he wanted to continue his career as a professional, he had to get out of Europe.

“I spoke with my agent about trying to get over to the U.S.,” Neal said. “It’s difficult being an English guy who nobody has heard of.”

His transition to soccer in America began at the USL Pro League’s Orlando City S.C. Lions for their inaugural season in 2011. He helped them win the Commissioner’s Cup and USL Pro Championship.

“I owe a lot to Orlando with them helping me get to where I am today,” said Neal, who offers something most players don’t.

He has the ability to play in various positions and is seen as a utility player, which is highly sought-after. His ability to play anywhere in the midfield as well as out wide on defense makes him valuable for the team.

Coach Ben Olsen enjoys having a player such as Neal on the team because he can put him in for various situations and still thrive.

“He’s a versatile, smart kid who had been through a lot,” Olsen said. “Not many of you know Lewis Neal; he’s been around a long time. He’s been in some real games over in England, and he’s a really nice addition to the group.”

One teammate familiar with Neal is Perry Kitchen, who plays alongside him in the midfield.

“He’s a great player and definitely a guy you want on the field,” Kitchen said. “His experience and knowledge of the game have really helped us.”

After all of the travel to and from various English cities, to Iceland and to Orlando, Fla., Neal has found a home in D.C. and can play a pivotal role as United hope to bring the MLS Cup back home.

“It would be an unbelievable achievement for me if I was able to experience that here with United,” Neal said.

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