Big interview: Winter Hearts stint helps Sam Nicholson take MLS by storm

Sam Nicholson trained with Hearts over the winter months
Sam Nicholson trained with Hearts over the winter months
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After half a season of bedding in to life in America last year, Sam Nicholson has hit the ground running at the start of his first full campaign with Minnesota United.

The 23-year-old winger enjoyed his early months Stateside as he set about adapting to a new environment following his bold decision to move from boyhood club Hearts to the MLS last summer. Having joined Minnesota on the back of a difficult final season at Tynecastle, however, the second half of last year for Nicholson was always primarily going to be about restoring form, fitness and confidence levels with a view to getting back to his swashbuckling best this term. So far, so good, in that regard.

After working hard in the off-season and then undergoing a full and intensive pre-season with his new team, the Midlothian native feels invigorated and full of belief.

He has started all four of his team’s league games this season and he was named as a substitute in the MLS team of the week last week after heading in the winning goal against Chicago Fire a week past Saturday.

“I feel like I’ve been back to my old self in the first few games,” Nicholson told the Evening News. “I had a couple of decent games last season but I never really got the ball rolling. This season I’ve been playing better and I feel like I’m closer to my best form when I was at Hearts.

I was happy to come out when I did last year and get a feel for the place and the culture, and now I’ve got a good understanding of what it’s all about and I’ve got a good pre-season under my belt so I’m feeling a lot fresher and much happier.

“I feel like I’ve got a fresh start this season and a proper chance to show people what I can do. I felt like last year I only showed glimpses of what I was capable of but now I’ve had a couple of good games and people can see I can perform. I was on the bench for the team of the week, which was nice.”

Nicholson’s quest for peak fitness was aided by his old club when Hearts allowed him to train with them when he was back home in Scotland over the winter.

“It was nice to see some familiar faces when I was back at Hearts in the off-season,” he said. “Craig Levein was really good with me in terms of letting me train with them. I only went in to see a few of the guys but Craig said that if I wanted somewhere to train I was welcome to go in so I trained between the 20s and the first team. I feel like that wee bit extra work helped me when I arrived back in America in January for pre-season.”

Nicholson is also benefiting from having his girlfriend Amy living in Minnesota with him. “It gets hard occasionally being away from home but Amy’s over with me now and we’ve got ourselves a little French bulldog as well,” he said. “It definitely helps.”

Minnesota finished 19th in the 22-team MLS and ninth within the 11-team Western Conference last season, but Nicholson is expecting significantly better this time round now that the squad have had a chance to gel under head coach Adrian Heath.

“We’ve started the season the way we finished last season, on a decent run of form,” said Nicholson. “The team is a lot stronger than when I first came in and I feel like we’ve got a good chance of making the play-offs (by finishing in the top six of the Western Conference). We’ve got a few new players in that have added depth to the squad but the main thing is that we’ve had a good pre-season together to work on shape and organisation.”

The arrival of former Hearts team-mates Perry Kitchen and Danny Wilson at LA Galaxy and Colorado Rapids this season has added extra spice to the fixture list for Nicholson, as has Galaxy’s recent acquisition of Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The winger is adamant that MLS is significantly stronger than he first envisaged, even beyond the smattering of stellar names the league now routinely attracts.

“I still text Perry occasionally – he’s been putting up pictures on Instagram of him on the beach in LA – it looks a good bit warmer than Minnesota so he’s getting me jealous,” said Nicholson. “He looks like he’s loving it there and he’ll be loving it even more now that he’s got Zlatan as a team-mate. We don’t play them until August but it’s a game to look forward to. Last season I played against Bastian Schweinsteiger which was massive for me, but Zlatan’s one of the biggest names in football so it’s certainly got everyone in MLS excited.

“It shows how good the league is that it can attract players straight from Man United. I was saying to people when I was back home that it’s incredible how much people in Scotland don’t know about this league. It’s not just about the big-name players. Some of the players here, who I had never heard of before, are unbelievable. There are some really technically-gifted players from places like Peru, Mexico and Costa Rica.

“It opens up your eyes with regard to football.

“Before I came here, all I really knew was football in Britain, Spain, Italy and Germany. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard said the same when they were in America. Danny Wilson and Jonny Russell (Sporting Kansas City) are out here now, so they’re obviously realising this league is good as well. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to catch up with Danny when we play Colorado because he was a really good friend of mine at Hearts. I didn’t play NYC last year so I missed the chance to play against (Andrea) Pirlo but David Villa’s still there so I’ll hopefully get to play against him.”

While most Scottish players tend to remain in Britain, Nicholson has no regrets about branching out. “I’m loving it,” he said. “I miss some of the boys at Hearts but I definitely feel like I made the right decision. It’s been eye-opening, I’ve learned a lot and I’m enjoying it.”