PHOENIX – Phoenix Rising FC defender Kyle Bjornethun is grateful to be living the life of a professional athlete. But, for the 25-year-old native of Snohomish, Wash., happiness is about much more than just playing soccer.
“I just feel lucky that I get to do this,” Bjornethun said in a June 5 interview, reflecting on his good fortune to be able to earn money while living the dream of playing professional soccer.
Bjornethun, who joined Phoenix Rising in 2019, made five appearances in his first season with the club and hoped to establish himself as a regular at left back in the team’s lineup this year. But that plan got derailed when the USL Championship suspended play in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the disappointment that came with a delayed season, Bjornethun recognized that he and his wife, Lily, are still very fortunate. No one in their immediate family has gotten sick or lost jobs as a result of the pandemic.
“In the grand scheme of things, we’re doing pretty good,” Bjornethun said.
Further counting his blessings, Bjornethun stated, “I’m lucky enough to get paid to play a sport. I’m just trying to ride that out as long as I can.”
With the recent changes in their daily routines, the Bjornethuns have been spending more time together, enjoying more of their favorite pastimes.
Bjornethun plays guitar and keyboard, and recently he’s been learning to play a new song, the Beatles’ classic “Blackbird.”
Competitive board games also provide a good deal of entertainment in the Bjornethun household, with Sequence being the current favorite.
The desire to compete and excel has been a part of Bjornethun’s character for as long as he can remember.
Reflecting on his early playing days, Bjornethun cited his dad, Kirk Bjornethun, and his college coach at Seattle University, Pete Fewing, as the biggest influences in his soccer career.
Bjornethun’s father, Kirk, nurtured Kyle’s talent and competitive drive from an early age, and Fewing helped Bjornethun develop those qualities at Seattle U, opening the doors for him to turn pro in 2017.
Kirk Bjornethun, who says he first recognized his son’s soccer talent when Kyle was an infant, began coaching him at age 4, motivated in part by the concern that another coach might not recognize Kyle’s natural left-footed ability.
The elder Bjornethun has a rich soccer history of his own, having won championships at both the state-high school and national-collegiate levels. Perhaps it was destiny that Kyle would follow in his father’s footsteps.
Kyle excelled at several sports throughout his youth, including soccer, basketball, tennis and baseball. According to Kirk, his son achieved a supreme level of physical fitness by rigorously training with several different teams with overlapping schedules.
“He never really pushed me to play soccer,” Kyle said of his dad.
Still, Kirk was delighted when, with college approaching, Kyle decided to focus solely on soccer.
Kyle played two years for Glacier Peak High School in Snohomish, winning the state championship as a freshman, then proceeded to play for two years at the Seattle Sounders Academy.
Seattle University head soccer coach, Pete Fewing, said he saw Bjornethun play for the first time in 2012 and quickly informed him, “I want to build a program around you.”
In Bjornethun, Fewing saw a mature, confident leader.
Fewing successfully recruited Bjornethun, who then played for Seattle U from 2013-2016, serving as team captain all four years.
In 2012, Seattle U recorded a dismal total of three wins. In 2013, the team made an incredible turnaround behind Bjornethun, compiling 11 wins.
The team has not had a losing season since, and it is the only Division I soccer program in the entire country to record at least 11 wins in each of the last seven years.
Fewing enthusiastically praised Bjornethun for his contributions as a player.
“He and I were partners in building Seattle University soccer,” said Fewing. “Where we are today, it started with Kyle.”
After college, Bjornethun was drafted by the Sounders with the final pick of the 2017 SuperDraft and then went on to play in the USL for Portland Timbers 2, Toronto FC II and FC Tucson, before landing in Phoenix.
In addition to his goal of earning more playing time this season, Bjornethun also hopes to break a personal scoring drought by scoring a goal against his old team, Timbers 2.
Of course, winning the USL Championship is the ultimate goal, and the team is especially hungry for the title after setting records for scoring and consecutive wins last year, but falling just short of winning the league.
Bjornethun expressed the entire organization’s 2020 aspirations by paraphrasing teammate Joey Calistri, “This year is going to have an asterisk next to it,” no matter what happens, “We want to make sure that we’re the ones who have our name next to the asterisk at the end of it,” he said.
Aaron Bradley Jones is a sports journalist and a student at Arizona State University - Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.