LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – When you think of homegrown Arkansas athletes who turned professional in their respective sport, you might think of Scottie Pippen, Cliff Lee, Darren McFadden or John Daly.
There’s another star athlete who deserves some recognition, though. His name is Thomas Roberts, and he plays professional football – just not the kind of football most Arkansans are familiar with.
Roberts grew up in Little Rock, and by the time he was 4 years old, he already knew that he wanted to become a professional soccer player. Wherever he went he had a soccer ball attached to his foot. And when he wasn’t outside kicking, dribbling, and trying new tricks, he was watching videos of his idol, Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho.
“That’s who I really liked watching videos of and tried to emulate his style of play, ‘cause he made the game fun and that’s how I wanted to play,” Roberts said.
The first team he played for was the Little Rock Futbol Club when he was just 4 years old. Over the next five years, he would play for the Arkansas Soccer Club and the Bluebird Soccer Club. But it wasn’t until he turned 9 that his passion for soccer took off and others started to pay closer attention.
That’s when he joined the Arkansas Rush – an international organization based in Little Rock. One of the first coaches to see Roberts in action was Matt Mittelstaedt, and he was immediately impressed.
“You could see it was there. I mean the potential was unbelievable because he was always trying to do tricks with the ball. He was always interested in it,” Mittelstaedt recalled. “He was always doing things like, ‘Hey, if I knock it off this wall and I run around this way will it work? Or do I need to do it a different way?’ So, you could tell he was very intuitive with it, like just always trying to figure out different things.”
By the time Roberts was 12, he was already training and playing with kids who were 15, 16, and 17 years old. And his skills on the pitch were only getting better.
“And that’s kind of where you were saying, ‘Okay, let’s foster this potential. Let’s foster this passion that this little kid has and let’s see how far he can go,” Mittlestaedt said.
It didn’t take long to find out.
In 2013, when Roberts was just 12 years old and in the seventh grade, his life changed forever. A family friend who lives in Frisco, Texas, and whose son plays for FC Dallas kept telling Roberts that he should come down and try out for the youth academy team. So one day, his father picked him up from school and drove five hours to Frisco so his son could give it a shot.
Roberts remembers that moment as if it happened yesterday.
“Went down there and we trained for like 10 minutes and then there was lightning,” he said. “We drove five hours and I’m like, ‘Wow! I just drove here for nothing.’”
Whatever Roberts did during that brief tryout must have worked because after the practice was canceled due to weather the coach told him to stay.
“He waited for everyone to leave and then he showed me around the stadium, and then all of a sudden he’s like come back and we’ll let you play this year for the academy.”
Chris Hayden. the Vice President of Youth Soccer and Academy Director for FC Dallas, remembers seeing Roberts for the very first time.
“Thomas was very coordinated with the ball, a very technical player, just a very different player,” he said. “He had a really soft first touch, fantastic dribbler of the ball, could deliver a great pass and he was left-footed.”
Over the next five years, Roberts’ soccer career would explode, along with his ball skills as a fast and dangerous midfielder. He would play in 77 U.S. Soccer Development Academy games over three seasons and scored 16 goals.
In the early part of 2018, Roberts spent 10 days on loan with FC Bayern Munich through the elite player development partnership between the two teams. And when he came back – his childhood dream of becoming a professional soccer player finally came true.
On July 25, 2018, FC Dallas offered Roberts a professional contract. He was 17 years old at the time and the first Arkansan to ever become a professional soccer player.
“My aunt, my grandmother, my brother, my sister, my parents – they were all there, so it was crazy you know,” he recalled. “To just sign the paper and have that picture of the moment with my family was incredible.”
Since turning pro, he’s made six MLS appearances with FC Dallas, playing a total of 273 minutes. He started and played in 13 regular season games for North Texas Soccer Club, which is FC Dallas’ reserve team, and scored his first professional goal on May 4, 2019, against Greenville Triumph. Things were going well for the Little Rock native but earning a permanent spot on the starting roster is no easy task.
On July 23, 2021, FC Dallas loaned Roberts to SK Austria Klagenfurt in the Austrian Bundesliga. Moving overseas to play soccer in the European league is something Roberts dreamed of as a kid.
“It’s a whole different ballgame just with the intensity and, like, how much it means to the fans and the club,” he said of the international experience.
Right now, the club sits in fourth place. Roberts is starting to see more playing time. So far, he’s appeared in five matches and played a total of 92 minutes.
As for what happens next, Roberts isn’t quite sure. His loan expires this May.
“There’s really no game plan because you could have one good game, or a string of good games, and your life can change forever,” he explained
So, he could remain in Austria, return to Dallas or who knows – maybe end up playing on another team somewhere in Europe. It all depends on how well he plays when he’s on the pitch.
Whatever happens, he’s living his dream, playing the sport he loves in front of thousands of fans and making good money.
“This is always what I wanted to do from when I was 6 or 7 years old. It feels amazing.”