Eight games and almost three months into his American adventure, it is clear Sam Nicholson has no regrets about his decision to swap his hometown of Penicuik for Uptown, Minneapolis.
He may have initially had genuine trouble handling the heat, and pined for Nando’s chicken at times along the way, but the 22-year-old former Hearts winger is otherwise content and upbeat as he reflects on a revitalising start to his time with Minnesota United, the recently-formed MLS franchise he boldly opted to join in the summer following a demoralising final season at Tynecastle.
“I’ve loved it so far,” Nicholson said. “The lifestyle change has obviously been massive. The weather’s been decent – I can’t complain. And I’ve really enjoyed the football. I’ve had the chance to play against players like Bastian Schweinsteiger (the World Cup-winning German, currently with Chicago Fire) and Clint Dempsey (the former USA captain, currently at Seattle Sounders), so it’s been a really good experience. I’ve got my love for football back. I wouldn’t say I’ve got my spark back because I’m still not at my best yet, but I’m getting there.”
Nicholson, who signed a two-and-a-half-year contract with Minnesota in June, has started seven of his new team’s eight matches since becoming available for selection midway through the MLS season two months ago. As he continues acclimatising to his new environment, he is already relishing the chance to hit the ground running when his first full campaign Stateside kicks off next March. “I can’t wait until next season so I can start a full fresh season here because it’s hard going in midway through the season,” he said. “I’d had a month and a bit off at the end of Hearts’ season so when I first came over here, I went straight into training with the team and I had to do extra work with the sports scientist to get myself fit. It was hard because I was doing a lot of double sessions, but I liked the way the club looked after me and worked with me.
“In the first few games, it took me a bit of getting used to because I wasn’t match fit. In my first game against New York Red Bulls, I was really struggling because the heat was crazy that day. The humidity went up to about 89 per cent and after the first ten minutes, I couldn’t deal with it. Even after doing two jogs across the pitch in the warm-up, I was sweating. I had to come off after about 60 minutes and they put me straight into an ice bath because they thought I had heat illness! That’s been strange to get used to but it’s not the case in every game. A lot of the games are at night so it’s not as hot.”
Nicholson has been impressed with the quality of football he has encountered Stateside. “I suppose it’s a similar standard to Scotland but it’s hard to compare the two,” he said. “Here, you obviously have exceptional players like Giovinco (the Italy internationalist at Toronto), David Villa (the Spanish superstar with New York City) and Schweinsteiger, who’s the best player I’ve played against. I don’t know how people can say it’s a poor standard. You have teams like Seattle Sounders, Chicago Fire, Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto, who I think would do well in England, certainly at Championship level. Some defences are harder to play against than Scottish defences and some aren’t. What I’ve noticed over here is that the league is full of athletes – every player is fast and strong, so I’ve had to deal with that in terms of getting a bit stronger on the ball. I wouldn’t say I’m bigger, but I’m stronger and dealing better with the ball when I’m up against someone.
“I’ve not scored yet but one of the coaches was saying the other night how unlucky I’ve been. I’ve had about eight shots on target, and I’ve had a couple of really good strikes that have been against some of the best keepers in the league. I’m going through one of those stages where I just can’t find the net, but I’m hoping that once I get one, it’ll kick off for me.”
While a long trek in Scottish football constituted a three-hour bus journey from Edinburgh to Inverness or Dingwall, travelling to away games has become a totally different ball game for Nicholson in recent months. “I’ve just been away for the full week in Canada as we were away at Vancouver and then Montreal last week,” said the Hearts academy graduate. “The travelling is a massive thing here. When we travel, the whole schedule changes. We had two days off when we got back to make sure we were recovered and then the rest of this week will be relatively light because the travelling really takes it out of you, especially when you’re going through different time zones.”
While Nicholson is finding his feet in a new environment, so, too, are his team. Minnesota only joined the MLS this season and are still a work in progress under their English manager, Adrian Heath. Ahead of this Sunday’s home match against Dallas, they lie ninth in the 11-team Western Conference, nine points outside the play-off zone with six games remaining. Victories over Chicago Fire (Schweinsteiger’s team) and Montreal Impact over the past four weeks have raised belief levels within the Minnesota camp as the regulation season nears its conclusion in a month’s time.
“We’re brand new to the MLS and the manager has only really started building the team in the last transfer window, when I came in,” said Nicholsom. “We’re just trying to establish ourselves this season. I think next season we’ll do well. The manager is looking for us to finish the season strongly, but he knows that next season will be totally different for us. If we don’t make the play-offs, we’ll stay on for another few weeks of training at the end of the season so we we’re not losing fitness compared to everyone else who is in the play-offs.”
Off the field, Nicholson has settled better than he anticipated. His girlfriend, Amy, is with him Stateside but she is unable to set down roots there just yet due to visa issues. “I was in a hotel for the first month or so, and now I’m living in a really nice apartment in Uptown, Minneapolis,” said Nicholson. “The area is beautiful. I’ve had my family over, my agent [Paul McHale] has been over and Amy’s grandmother’s over right now – everyone loves it. I’m a two-minute walk from a massive lake and right next to loads of nice restaurants. It’s incredible, really nice.
“I’ve been taken with how nice the people are. Apparently the people are well known in this part of America for being particularly friendly. Everywhere you go, people talk to you. I live really close to the supermarket, but by the time I get there, you probably have about three or four people saying ‘hi’ or asking how you’re getting on. It’s not a case of people recognising me from playing for Minnesota, it’s just people being friendly. The people are lovely.
“It’s actually been alright in terms of being away from home for the first time. I feel like I’ve dealt with it quite well. I’ve been Facetiming my family and friends, and Amy’s been doing the same. It’s helped me being away from home because I’ve been able to just totally focus on my football.”
Assuming his team don’t defy the odds and make it all the way to the MLS Cup final in December, Nicholson is likely to get the chance to return to Scotland in November before flying back to America early in the new year. “I’m excited to get back and enjoy Christmas with my family because I’ve not really had Christmas off since I started playing professionally,” he said. “I’ll still need to do some training to keep ticking over when I’m back home in the close-season and I’ve got a lot of people to see, so I’ll need to work all that out.”
He also needs to fit in several visits to his favourite eaterie. “Nando’s is the thing I’m missing most,” he said. “I need that. That’ll be the first thing I get when I get home!”