AU soccer star signs with pros

Peter Philipakos, AU Men's Soccer's leading scorer last season, signed with Greek professional side AEK Football Club, a perennial contender in Greece's first division, on Jan. 9.

Philipakos traveled to Greece over winter break to train with the club, with intentions to return for AU's spring season. Instead, AEK (Athletic Union of Constantinopolitans) signed him for a three-and-a-half year term, running from the second half of Greece's current 2003-04 season to the end of the 2006-07 campaign. Philipakos, who scored six goals and added three assists in his junior season, forfeits his final year of eligibility by signing.

AEK is a perennial contender in the 16-team top flight, and currently sits in fourth place with 17 of 30 matches played. It has not won the Greek championship since 1993-94. AEK has also played in the Union of European Football Association's Champions League and the UEFA Cup.

AU head coach Todd West maintained contact with Philipakos and his father - who handled financial negotiations with the club - and said the Eagle attacking midfielder's contract consists of a base salary of "close to six figures," not including extra performance-based incentives.

"I knew he was over there training, but I certainly didn't think he would sign," West said. "I was all for it," he added, "because it's a good enough contract that if it doesn't work out, he can come back to finish school. Most European players are identified from 10 or 12 years old, so 21 is actually a little late to be joining a European team."

West was not the only one surprised by the deal. Philipakos' father became skeptical of rumors started in the Athens press, Philipakos said, and was still skeptical after club officials overtly showed interest in his son's playing status in the United States.

"Coaches went up to my dad during the day," Philipakos said, "and they asked; 'Where does he play in the U.S., does he have a contract?' They told him they wanted to sign me. My dad said, 'Listen, you're not going to come to Greece to struggle, we'll see what they offer you.'"

Philipakos, still surprised, added, "They actually did offer me a lot of money."

A combination of Philipakos' stellar play during training and his Greek citizenship may have catalyzed the signing. Both of his parents are Greek, constituting grounds for Philipakos' Greek citizenship, though he was born in Long Island, N.Y. Greece has strict limits on the numbers of foreign players and especially non-European Union players, that can hold roster spots. AEK was likely inclined to sign Philipakos because he would not take up a foreign roster spot.

But he still had to impress coaching staff in training, which he did early in his stay, scoring the reserves' only goal in a 3-1 loss to the first team in his first scrimmage with the club. While that piqued coaches' interests, Philipakos said he kept improving through the rest of his stay to keep that interest, in sessions that were largely fitness-based two-a-days.

"They do much more fitness in college than in the pros, so I went to Greece very fit," Philipakos said. "Every day in the matches I played in, I got better and better."

Having impressed the staff enough to sign with AEK, Philipakos returned to the United States to obtain legal documents needed to obtain a player pass, most notably a Greek passport. Should all the documents clear before Jan. 31, the end of the winter transfer window, he would be able to play in the second half of the league season and in other competitions. If not, which both West and Philipakos said is more likely, he will join the club in February. However, he can't play in league or cup matches until the 2004-05 season.

"It could be a good thing," Philipakos said about possibly missing the transfer window. "I get to train for half a year, and to get to know the guys on the team better. Then the next year I want to get as many games as I can. I'm not saying it's realistic to start. Our team has two of the best central midfielders in Greece. But they're 31 and 32 [years old]. My goal is to get used coming off the bench."

Learning to be a professional will be one of Philipakos' most important tasks over the next several months, whether or not he beats the transfer window. It is something with which the former Eagle has at least more than fleeting experience.

Philipakos' first taste of professional training came, ironically, at AEK's Athenian rivals Panathinaikos, where he spent several summers of his youth training with its youth academy. Later, he had a stint training with Manchester City in England, and later still was courted by Crystal Palace, a lower division English professional team, while playing at a summer club tournament in Italy.

"I was 18 then," Philipakos said of the Crystal Palace offer. "I wasn't ready."

Three years later, he thinks he's more aware of the necessities of professionalism.

"Every day you have to come in and impress the coach," Philipakos said. "You have to be focused for a longer period of time. If you're not doing well you get loaned out or transferred. But with three years of college done, I feel like now is the time."

West is optimistic of Philipakos' play for AEK.

"He's got the talent and the fitness [to succeed], if he can keep his composure," West said. "I wouldn't be surprised to see him succeed." While Philipakos heads to Greece, West heads south of the border to look at potential replacements, or at least a player to fill the vacated scholarship. Prospects include a promising midfielder in Paraguay and some other players in Trinidad, any one of which would add a fifth player to West's recruiting class, according to West.

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