While most kids his age were hanging out at the mall and logging hours on their PlayStations, Ben Spencer was working towards the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
A rising star in his native state of New Mexico, Spencer turned his fair share of heads on the pitch, and it wasn’t long before he found himself on the path to success.
At just 15 years old, Spencer joined the academy program at Real Salt Lake, leaving home to pursue his professional career. It was there that he first began to work with a some familiar faces that would continue to play a big role throughout his career.
“[Greg Vanney] started that academy, so that’s where I met him,” Spencer says. “I’ve always admired him as a coach; he has a very high soccer IQ. He’s very passionate about what he does, especially the development of young players. His attention to detail is very impressive.”
Following his stint in Salt Lake, Spencer followed Vanney to Los Angeles to join Chivas USA. The move represented a big step up in his professional career, but it was challenge that helped to shape the 22-year-old forward.
“I was 16 years old training with a first team in MLS. Physically it was a massive step up because you’re a teenager playing against grown men. The game is really fast, but all of that boosted my development. Just being around the culture of a professional team, experiencing the daily grind at such a young age, it was an invaluable experience.”
It’s all about the positive outlook and mindset that you have. No matter what’s in my way, I have this end-goal in mind and even it takes longer than I had hoped, I’m going to take positive steps every day to get back on the pitch and get back to doing what I love.
Making a name for himself in California, Spencer had the chance to further his career when he received a scholarship offer to the University of California-Santa Barbara. But his dreams took him elsewhere, putting college on the backburner for the time being.
“It had always been a dream of mine to play in Europe; from a young age, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” he explains. “I always had college as my backup plan, but I knew I wanted to go pro. So when the opportunity came to go to Norway and play under [Molde head coach] Ole Gunnar Solskjær, I just couldn’t pass it up.”
The move represented the next step towards making his dreams a reality, his biggest leap yet. Forced to acclimate to a new way of life at such a young age, Spencer had to adapt quickly in order to make his mark.
“I was definitely nervous to make the move,” he admits. “Being 17 years old, my whole world changed. Now I’m living abroad, on my own, doing everything myself, it was a definite adjustment. Luckily, I had a great support system to get me through it.
“The whole experience just made me grow up faster than most. When you don’t have as many people to rely on, you learn to figure things out for yourself. I think I developed as a person and as a player; I wouldn’t change a thing. It was a great life experience, let alone a great footballing experience.”
Even after a coaching change saw him on the outside looking in at Molde, Spencer was still considered amongst the brightest young stars in the United States youth national team pool. After securing a loan back to the United States with NASL side Indy Eleven, Spencer looked like he was ready to prove his worth once more. Then came some of the most trying times of his life.
“I picked up an injury with Indy, and that was tough,” Spencer says. “It was the first time I’d ever had a major injury or surgery before.”
But unfortunately for Ben, it wouldn’t be his last.
What was originally diagnosed as a routine meniscal tear ended up being much more severe, as Spencer spent several lengthy spells away from the pitch on the mend.
“That was just supposed to be a routine surgery to clean up my meniscus. I was back on the field six weeks later, but it didn’t last long.”
From there, Spencer struggled to stay on the field, dealing with recurring inflammation in one knee, then spraining an MCL in the other. It all came to a head during his loan stint with Toronto FC II, when yet another injury shelved Spencer for his longest spell yet, an absence that saw him miss out on the U-20 World Cup.
“I had dreamed about representing my country at the World Cup for a long time,” he laments. “My knee just wasn’t cooperating when I was here in Toronto on loan. We tried to sort it out, but it wasn’t meant to be which was very disappointing.
“You feel like you can’t catch a break and nothing’s going right. You just have no momentum. Then to get the news that I’d need another surgery and I’d be out for 12 months, that was devastating.”
Spending countless hours in the gym and on the trainer’s table, Spencer worked towards a return to the pitch. And though the road seemed endless, his efforts were finally rewarded with a first team contract in 2017, and his first MLS start shortly thereafter.
“My debut game against Columbus was really special,” he recalls. “It meant a lot to not only me, but the organization and my family and friends who have seen my struggle for the past two years or so. To finally get on the field in that moment, there’s not words for it. It was an emotional night for sure.
“It’s been a tough couple of years, but I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel and transitioning to a new stage in my career. Now it’s time to really show what I can do.”