One of the numerous new arrivals at Loudoun United FC, playmaker Panos Armenakas was once one of the top prospects in world soccer, and is still aiming high at his new club. | Photo courtesy Don Fuller / Loudoun United FC
If nothing else, you’ve got to like the confidence of Loudoun United FC’s Panos Armenakas.
“To be honest – and this may sound a bit weird for someone who’s come from overseas – but I believe I’m the best player in the [USL Championship],” said Armenakas recently. “And it will take a lot for me to not believe that. I think I’ve seen quite a few games in the league, and I’ve come up against quite a few opponents already and I don’t think there’s someone better in the league that does what I do.”
As he acknowledges, it’s a big statement, but there’s reason behind the belief.
After all, there aren’t many players in the USL Championship’s history who were at one point considered among the best player prospects in their age-group around the world, as Armanakas was.
In 2015, the Australian was named among the 50 players selected to The Guardian’s Next Generation. You might have heard of some of his contemporaries in that group, like current United States captain Christian Pulisic, Arsenal’s Martin Odegaard, Real Madrid’s Federico Valverde, and Bayern Munich’s Dayot Upamecano.
Coming through the youth academies at England’s Watford FC and Italy’s Udinese, and part of the Australian squad at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2015, he turned professional on his 19th birthday at the Serie A club, becoming the youngest Australian to sign professionally in one of Europe’s consensus top five leagues.
With all that build-up, you might have expected the hype around the teenager to be something that grabbed attention. According to Armenakas, while that might have been the case in Australia, at Udinese he was just another young player trying to break through in a squad of top international players.
“Being in Europe at that time, I didn’t really feel like I could hear the outside noise,” said Armanakas. “Being in Italy when I was at Udinese at the time and having those world-class players in the First Team, like, no-one really cared about a young 16-, 17-year-old kid. In the First Team there was like, [Antonio] Di Natale and Bruno Fernandes, guys like that. They never put pressure on me, they probably didn’t know, and didn’t really care.”
Panos Armenakas played for Udinese in the Academy ranks and signed with the Serie A club as a 19-year-old to start his professional journey.
Such are the pressures when it comes to top-flight soccer in Europe, and in the seasons that followed Armenakas looked to find the next breakthrough in his pathway. After his time at Udinese ended, he headed to legendary Greek club Panathinaikos, where he made three appearances, before stints at clubs in the top flights of Belgium and Denmark.
Having joined Loudoun this offseason as the club underwent a major overhaul following the acquisition of primary ownership of the club by Attain Sports and Entertainment, the difference between the pressures in Europe and the United States are noticeable for the 24-year-old.
“You have a culture shock, having to learn a new language and different styles of football,” said Armenakas about his time in Europe. “A lot more defensive than what I was used to, a little more tactical or a lot more running. Their mentality was a lot different to mine, they wanted more experience and wanted older players to play. They thought that the older you are, the more experience you have, that’s how you get results.
“I see a lot of people here, the mentality may be different in the U.S. because there’s no promotion or relegation. Being in Europe, you can kind of see how much it means to the players. I feel like it means a lot and they feel the pressure, you know, so every game or every training session is a little bit different. They know that’s where they get the next contract from, where they can put food on the table for their families or what it means for their careers if they get relegated, if they stay up, or if they get promoted. It was eye-opening more than anything. You have your ups and downs, some better moments than others.”
For all those pressures, Armenakas is a believer in promotion and relegation, and believes its implementation in the United States’ landscape would accelerate the number of top-level young players the country is producing. He also believes it would grow the sport within cities and communities, with the knowledge that every game will make a difference in how a season will end.
“I think it’s really important, because if you’re fighting for your lives, or you’re fighting to get promotion, there’s a lot more interest, there’s a lot more people engaged,” said Armenakas. “I think naturally you feel a lot more pressure and the atmosphere of the games and the pressure you put on yourself is even more. I think that’s a good thing, because I think the more pressure there is in games – whether it’s internal or external – that’s where you see the best football.”
Since arriving at Loudoun United FC this offseason, Panos Armenakas has established himself as a key player in the attacking third, sitting tied for the team-high in Chances Created so far this season. | Photo courtesy Don Fuller / Loudoun United FC
With Loudoun, Armenakas’ hope is to build a platform that can take him back to the heights his promise offered eight years ago. His aim is to both succeed individually and help United to success this season in the USL Championship and catch the eye of a club in Major League Soccer or back in Europe.
His next opportunity to do that will come on Wednesday night as Loudoun plays host to Columbus Crew SC in the Round of 32 in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. It will mark the first time Loudoun will host an MLS club in its history – prior to this season, the club’s ownership by D.C. United precluded it competing in the historic tournament – and the club’s players are eager for the opportunity a game like this presents.
As much as he’s experienced already in his career, the chance to knock off a top-flight opponent is very appealing to Armanakas as well.
“I’ve played against some really good teams in my career before and I’ve been around some really good players,” said Armenakas. “To me it’s more excitement than anything to get an MLS team and play a game where you know, in theory, they’re a better-quality opposition and a good side. We know that there’s going to be a lot of interest and a lot of people watching and we want to put on a good performance. We have the belief – I definitely do – that we can perform and get a result and get us through to the next round.”
And while his confidence in his own ability hasn’t diminished, Armenakas’ experiences already as a professional have provided perspective on where he’s been, and where he’s heading now.
“I think you go into things maybe not expecting the best outcome always, but you try to keep yourself focused on the present,” he said. “I think as a person in the last couple of years, I’ve grown a lot. I think I handle situations, maybe not perfectly now, but better than what I did before. And I think it’s just about staying level and controlling what you can control – as difficult as that is sometimes.
“That's frustrating because you always believe – well, I do anyway – that I deserved more, but you just have to focus on what you can control and separate the football side. Then when I come home, try to be more present in that side, and try to be better that way. I think that’s helped a lot.”