When Ryan Coulter, Forward Madison’s new goalkeeper, made the decision to leave his native Ireland for the University of San Diego in 2009, he didn’t know quite what to expect.
“Back then it was a relatively new concept, there wasn’t a load of players going across,” Coulter said. “It was a dive into the deep end, really. I didn’t know much about the American system.”
What Coulter found, though, would start an American adventure that has changed his life.
Although he started off on uneven footing in California, Coulter eventually transferred to East Tennessee State University. While there, he captained the team and led the Buccaneers to the NCAA tournament.
“It was the best possible decision I could have made,” he said. “The people were very welcoming, warm and hospitable, and I ended up meeting my wife there, so that says a lot about the people. It was a really, really special time of my life.”
An Irish lad
Coulter didn’t always know that his path was going to lead him to America. He did, however, know that wherever he went, he would go with a soccer ball in tow. Coulter says he was probably three or four years old when he started playing.
“I was always walking around the house with a ball,” he said. “It was the one thing I wanted to do. I was very focused on that from a very early age.”
Coulter played for Dundalk FC for a short time before he left for university in the United States, then came back home after graduation. In 2014, he signed for Athlone Town, which was struggling to avoid relegation from the League of Ireland, the Irish first division. For the first time, Coulter had a chance to play regularly as a professional.
“To be honest, that was probably the happiest time I’ve had as a professional footballer,” he said. “Basically I’m just a fan that was lucky enough to get a chance at playing. To grow up watching that league and then go and start earning a living from it was a really special thing to me.”
While with Athlone Town, Coulter established himself as a regular starter. In late September, there was a moment when it all clicked. Athlone Town, near the bottom of the table, needed a result away against Derry City, and Coulter was starting in goal.
With the relegation fight on the center of his mind, Coulter had other reasons to feel the pressure as well. His father, Phil, a well-known musician who was once the president of Derry City, was in the crowd. So too was his then-girlfriend, who had made the trip from the U.S. to visit.
That night, though, everything went right. Coulter put on an immaculate display, making save after save in a 1-1 draw.
“We really, really needed the points to try to survive in the league,” Coulter said. “To have a Man of the Match performance in a place where my dad is well known, I have a lot of memories watching games up in the Brandywell Stadium, so that’s probably the most special night of my career, to be honest.”
Over the next several years, Coulter continued to live his childhood dream as a professional goalkeeper in Ireland. He bounced from team to team: from Sligo Rovers back to Athlone Town, then short stints at Longford and Drogheda United, finally settling into a backup role at Bray Wanderers.
Underneath the surface, though, something was still nagging at Coulter. He was enjoying his time in Ireland, but there was something missing. Part of it might have been the memories that wouldn’t go away of all those friendly people he had met in college. He was also longing to live closer to his girlfriend, who was still in the United States. Either way, for Coulter, it was time to continue his American adventure.
Ryan Coulter played for Longford Town in 2016, one of six Irish teams he's represented
Back to the U.S.A.
“Once I left Sligo Rovers (after the 2015 season), I made a decision,” Coulter said. “I didn’t really enjoy that year and I wanted a fresh start, so I tried to get away to play over in the States. But being a foreign player and all, that sort of stuff was quite difficult, so I played another couple of years in the league.
“My girlfriend at the time (now Coulter’s wife), we did long-distance for, like, two years. We saw each other literally for eight weeks out of a two-year period. At the end of the 2017 season I was like, ‘Okay, I need to make a life decision here,’ so I moved across, got my application in for my Green Card and just sat through that period of time.”
It was a huge risk for Coulter, and one that could have ended his professional career. He had nowhere to play, nothing to do except wait and hope that his Green Card application would be processed.
Fortunately, Coulter’s old manager at East Tennessee State, Scott Calabrese, had heard about his former goalkeeper’s situation. Calabrese, who by that time was the head coach at Central Florida, gave Coulter a phone call and offered him a position as a goalkeeper coach. It was enough. Along with a part-time gig as a goalkeeper for Emerald Force SC (an NPSL team in Knoxville, TN), Coulter waited and hoped.
“It was frustrating that I was out of the pro game for a year, but I just had to stay positive with it and believe that once the Green Card came in, that the options were going to open up again,” Coulter said. “You’re playing a waiting game. It’s not like waiting for a package from UPS that you can track where it’s at. Your life, effectively, is in someone else’s hands.
“There’s no measures you can take to speed the process up, you’ve just got to sit and wait and hope that someone in the immigration department wants to pick up my file that day and go and get it through. It was a tedious process and a long one. There were a lot of low, dark times during that period where you start to question, ‘Is it ever going to come through? Am I ever going to be able to play again?’ All these things.”
In November, Coulter finally got the call he had been waiting for - he had an interview set for his Green Card. With the college season coming to an end, he had flown back to Ireland to work on his UEFA Goalkeeping B License. On short notice, he went back to Orlando, then travelled from there to Nashville for the interview.
“I got my Green Card approved pretty much on the spot,” Coulter said. “The relief of that, I can’t even put it into words to be honest, because it was 15 months of waiting. It was really, really special.”
Ryan Coulter played for Emerald Force SC, an NPSL team in Knoxville, TN, while waiting for his Green Card application to be processed last year
Forward to Madison
With his career back on track, Coulter started looking around for options. On one hand, he wanted to continue on as a goalkeeper, but as he had already begun his coaching career, Coulter had a difficult decision to make. When Forward Madison Head Coach Daryl Shore called, he reconciled Coulter’s problem by offering him a dual role: he could be both a player and a goalkeeping coach in FMFC’s inaugural season.
“After a year and a half of what I’ve been through, being out of the game, I couldn’t have hoped for a better situation,” Coulter said. “When Daryl spoke to me about what the opportunity was, to to compete to play as well as come in and be the goalkeeper coach, I couldn’t turn it down. Adding into the mix then that it’s a brand-new franchise, it’s really exciting times. I couldn’t get the pen to paper quick enough, really.”
Now, it’s time for Ryan Coulter’s American adventure to continue. With Forward Madison, there’s no telling where it could lead.
“It’s certainly exciting. There seems to be a huge buzz around the place,” he said. “We want to bring a championship to Madison and there’s no reason why we can’t do it.”
Ryan’s signing will be confirmed pending league and federation approval. Follow Ryan on Instagram at @coultergk1.
Forward Madison FC’s inaugural season is nearly here! The team will kick off its first-ever game on April 6, and open at home on April 27 vs Greenville Triumph SC. Get tickets to see Ryan and the rest of the team in Forward Madison’s inaugural season at: https://www.forwardmadisonfc.com/tickets