CINCINNATI -- Justin Hoyte said he was getting antsy waiting for his next opportunity. He knew he could benefit from a change of scenery, but most of all, he just wanted a chance to enjoy “football” again.
As much as the former English Premier League defender needed FC Cincinnati, his recent signing was just as big for the second-year United Soccer League club.
Hoyte, who grew up in Arsenal’s youth academy and made 34 appearances with the first team to start his career, is the first player with Premier League experience that FC Cincinnati has signed. He played a total of 13 seasons in the highest two levels of English football and now is ready to test the waters of American soccer.
The 32-year-old from London, England, will be among the 18 players made available for Saturday’s game at Pittsburgh, as FC Cincinnati tries to bounce back from a disappointing 2-1 loss at Charleston last weekend in its opener.
“It’s huge bringing someone with that sort of experience and adding a veteran leader to our group is something we’re obviously happy to do,” FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch said. “He brings a lot of intangibles on and off the field. He’s a great guy, and you can tell he fits in with the players already, which is awesome.”
Hoyte made 83 Premier League appearances and 11 Champions League appearances and has logged more than 230 games as a professional, including stints with Arsenal (2002-2008), Sunderland (2005-06 on loan) and Middlesborough (2008-13).
The former England Youth National Team player last played for Dagenham & Redbridge FC, of the National League, where he played 25 games in 2015-16 before he was released last May.
“I've always wanted to come over to America to play, to further my career and for a new experience in football,” Hoyte said Thursday after his first full practice with FC Cincinnati since his signing. “I felt in England I needed a new challenge, something different, a new experience, a new environment, and coming here has provided that. I’m very grateful and thankful for the opportunity.
“I just want to enjoy football again and hopefully perform as well as I can and have done before and perform well for the fans and the team and the players.”
Hoyte, who is registered with the Trinidad & Tobago national team, where he has been capped 18 times, had at least one other opportunity but felt more wanted in Cincinnati.
He had reached out to Koch during the preseason with some steering from a few mutual contacts, and Koch already knew who he was. After viewing recent film, Koch brought Hoyte in for a week-long tryout with an appearance as an unnamed trialist in the preseason match against the University of Cincinnati.
It seemed, to him, like the perfect opportunity.
FC Cincinnati signed him to a contract last week but waited until his visa came through to make the announcement Wednesday. He flew in from Paris that day and arrived at UC in time to join FC Cincinnati for part of its training session before his first full day Thursday.
“It's been a few hard months for me being out of contract, but now I'm finally back where I belong on the pitch, and one I'm going to enjoy and I really look forward to,” Hoyte said. “Since I've been here, it's been fantastic, and the facilities and what they are trying to build here is something I want to be a part of, and something I don't think many teams in England have got.”
Koch said the decision to bring in Hoyte was a combination of needing another veteran defender and being unable to pass up on a player of his caliber.
FC Cincinnati brought in just one new defender during the offseason, signing former Lakota West High School and UC player Matt Bahner, but the side hasn’t been as solid on the defensive end as Koch would like. The club went 2-2-2 this preseason, giving up 11 goals, and lost its opener on a goal in the 70th minute. FC Cincinnati struggled with closing out games at times last year as well.
Hoyte played most of his Premier League days at right fullback but also has played in the center and on the left side. He also brings the mentality of an attacking defender, which fits with FC Cincinnati’s style of play.
Koch said Hoyte will compete for playing time immediately.
“It’s nice to add a versatile defender, so he adds value to the greater group,” Koch said. “It’s not like he only plays one set position, so then we can move the other pieces to the puzzle around at the same time. Life is always about timing, and it’s a good time for him and a good time for us too.”
FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt welcomes the addition and hopes the entire team can benefit from Hoyte’s knowledge of the game.
“He’s played in the Premier League, played with clubs like Arsenal and Middlesborough, so I think the main thing he brings is a wealth of knowledge,” Hildebandt said. “I’m still learning as well, so he can definitely help the team, plus he’s a great player.”
Hoyte’s speed is an asset that also could help the defense. He comes from a family of full of athletes.
Both of his parents were sprinters -- his mom, Wendy, an Olympian and Commonwealth Games champion (1982) -- and he has a cousin who also is an elite sprinter. Hoyte’s younger brother, Gavin, followed his path with Arsenal and plays for Eastleigh, of the National League.
“It's good to have that as a sporty background and good parents as well,” Hoyte said. “My whole family is in sport really. They're all sprinters, so that helps as well, being faster on the pitch. Their motivation and what they've been through in sports has been a major help throughout my career.”
While he downplayed the difference in competition level between American and European soccer, Hoyte said the biggest adjustment for him coming to Cincinnati is being away from his family.
He left back home a wife and two young kids -- Alina turns 3 in September and Faris just turned 1 in February -- but hopes they can soon join him here.
“The quick transition is not going to faze me -- I feel welcome because I was already here for a week, so I already know a lot of the players,” Hoyte said. “It's just having family back home, being long-distance and trying to communicate with the time difference. We just finished training and they are getting ready for bed.
"It's different but one they look forward to and hopefully I can bring them over as soon as I can and they can enjoy the experience with me and push me forward and drive me just as much as they when I was on other teams.”