What do a UPS Store, Cheesecake Factory, and South American giants Peñarol have in common?
For Bryce Duke, they’re reminders of a whirlwind, 48-hour journey that brought him to LAFC.
Duke’s story begins in his hometown of Peoria, Ariz. At age 7, he started playing soccer with a local church team. After a couple of years, Duke’s talent began attracting the attention of club teams in the area. He joined Valparaiso United FC but after just half a season, took another leap joining the Real Salt Lake Academy in Casa Grande.
Duke left RSL’s Arizona affiliate to join its academy closer to the first team in Utah. Two seasons with RSL in Utah left Duke in need of a new challenge though. He left the RSL Academy to return home to Arizona. There he joined the Barça Residency Academy.
“My youth soccer, it was good. It had its ups and downs,” Duke said after an LAFC training session. “People told me, you’re not going to make it, you’re too small, blah blah blah. So, I’ve had people who doubt me but the way I see things, I like to prove people wrong.”
It was at the Barça Residency Academy that Duke came to the attention of the Black & Gold. LAFC Director of Soccer Operations Mike Sorber observed Duke with Barça Academy in a match against a Premier League Development side in Phoenix.
Duke recalled having a goal in the match and playing well. But it wasn’t until after Duke’s performances in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy’s Florida Showcase in December 2019 that the midfielder came to realize how close he was being monitored by LAFC.
Duke and his father were introduced to Sorber at the tournament. Afterward, LAFC reached out to RSL and began the process of trying to acquire the midfielder.
“When I went to play for RSL, my goal was to play for the first team, get into training sessions, and work my way up. But it just didn’t happen over there,” Duke said. “Barça was the perfect fit and by the time I got there, I knew I had a college in Wake Forest, which is a great opportunity, but my end goal is to go to Europe. So, I tried and tried, had some opportunities, then LAFC came around. And I was like, this is it. This is for me. This is my next step.”
On a Friday, Duke got the call from LAFC. They’d reached a deal with RSL and wanted to offer him a professional contract. There was one problem. Duke was in Arizona with no way to print the paperwork, let alone sign it.
“My mom came and picked me up. We went to the UPS Store, that was the closest place I could print [the paperwork] out,” Duke said.
“I was signing them and, of course, her being a mom, she’s got her camera out videotaping and taking pictures and all that stuff.”
After the hour and a half drive to the UPS Store, Duke wasn’t finished rushing around. It was another hour drive back to his family’s home in Peoria to pack for a 7 pm flight that night to Los Angeles. LAFC had a friendly scheduled against Peñarol the next day. The hope was for Duke to meet his new teammates and join them on the field that night – a plan Duke admits he wasn’t aware of while signing his contract.
“I didn’t know I’d be leaving that soon. I thought maybe the day after,” Duke said. “I had no clue that I was going to be playing in the Peñarol game. When I got word of that, I was like, ‘Whoa, this is really happening.’”
Arriving in LA on Friday night, a car was arranged to take Duke and his mom to their hotel. There he was met by LAFC Head Athletic Trainer Sean Kupiec. MLS rules stipulate a player must go through concussion testing before taking the field. The rule requires two tests, Duke completed the first test there in his hotel room that night.
After sleeping in following the previous day’s travels, Duke remembers going to Cheesecake Factory the next morning for breakfast. He had French toast (Duke called it "amazing"), sat back, and took a moment to enjoy everything that had transpired in the last 24 hours.
From there, it was off to Banc of California Stadium for a tour of facilities and Duke’s second concussion test. On the wall of the locker room was a piece of paper with the night’s starting 11 against Peñarol and the second-half starters.
“I was like ok, maybe I’ll sub in for the last ten minutes of the second half,” Duke said. “I look at the paper and I’m starting the second half. I was like, ‘Wow! This is crazy.’ In 24 hours, I’m already playing in my first game.”
Duke hasn’t slowed down since arriving at LAFC. The midfielder’s strong performances in preseason resulted in his substitute appearance against León in Mexico in the Concacaf Champions League. And on Sunday, just two days after his 19th birthday, Duke made his MLS debut as a substitute in a 1-0 win over Inter Miami CF.
After the match, Duke gave his LAFC jersey to his mom. It was a fitting conclusion to the journey the two began with that trip to the UPS Store back in Arizona.
“She’s been there since Day 1, she’s my biggest supporter,” Duke said. “It’s the least I could do.
“For my MLS debut, there wasn’t a better person to give my jersey to.”