James Baxendale realised a career dream during 2017. He spent the latter part of that year playing in California for Orange County SC, who play in the second tier, known as the USL. Despite it being just a seven month spell in the States, it helped the midfielder finally achieve his goal of playing abroad.
“It has always been an ambition of mine to play football abroad,” says Baxendale. “I love football and how the game is played in other countries fascinates me. I always said to myself that unless I was playing top level football by the age of 25 then I would pursue playing outside of England.
“When I was in the youth team at Leeds United and as a first year pro at Doncaster Rovers I made as many enquiries as I could to go and play in Scandinavia but unfortunately nothing materialised out there.”
Born in south Doncaster, Baxendale grew up in the Leeds academy before later establishing himself in League One with Walsall where he went on to make over 120 appearances for the Midlands club. It was a year after leaving the Saddlers and after a season with Mansfield Town when he was again pursuing the option of moving abroad but this time using a very modern method.
“The move to Orange County came around via Twitter,” he says. “After release from Mansfield, I posted a highlight reel on there so people knew of my availability. An agent messaged me on there and said that OC would be interested if I was, and it all moved on very quickly from that point.
“After enquiring about the level with the staff at OC I was told that it was equivalent to a League 2 level and also everyone was quick to mention the athleticism of the league.
“I went over open minded and always knowing that you can never really gauge the standard until I was playing in the game myself.”
Joining part way through the campaign, Baxendale was signing for a club who had qualified for the postseason playoffs the previous two campaigns but were struggling to meet that target the season he arrived. He wouldn’t be the only Englishman at the club either. Former Burnley and Preston midfielder Richard Chaplow was in his second year at the club.
The first thing which hit the Doncaster-native on his arrival in the States was the heat. With the USL being played in a calendar year, it meant playing straight through the summer and that had its knock on effects.
“Training was different in nearly every way. Firstly, the heat was incredible, I don’t think I even managed to get used to it, even by my last training session. The sessions in content were decent but nowhere near as physically intense or competitive.
“The coach [former US international Logan Pause] was very good and the players were technically excellent but it wasn’t at the high tempo that I’d become used to in England.”
Making his debut at the start of August, there were just 16 matches left of the regular season for Baxendale to help push his new side to a spot in the playoffs but he made an early impression and it was not long until he was captaining the side. An instant impact was something which he had made a priority on his arrival.
“I always put pressure on myself in every game and training session. I also wanted to spend more than the back end of the 2017 season playing in America – I planned to at least play the 2018 campaign also so I did want to really hit the ground running as I only had limited time to stamp my authority,” he recalls.
However, despite making a good impact, it would be a while until the midfielder could adapt to the variety of the western conference of the USL. The geography of the division can make it very difficult for any newcomer to acclimatise.
“Like the training, the games were played at a much slower pace and every game was different. A home game would be played in the evening with temperatures around 25 degrees, which accounts for the slower pace.
“The away games were also very different to what I had been used to, every game was a three-day trip and at least a two-hour flight. Some weeks we were playing in red hot San Antonio and where the temperature was 40 degrees at kick off and the next week we could be in the snow in Colorado or at altitude in Salt Lake.
“I would say it took me a few games to get used to all of these factors and the fact that I knew I’d played at a decent level back home, meant I was frustrated when I wasn’t at my best but I knew that I had to acclimatise and by the second half of my spell out there, I was happy with my game.”
Although the weather played havoc with playing conditions, compared to the relative similarity of conditions across the board in the UK, it did have its benefits off the pitch and the midfielder could not help himself but to get involved in the state’s famous attractions.
“I loved California,” he says. “The majority of the best places in the world were all within an hours drive for me, I was right between Los Angeles and San Diego. I really enjoyed the sports out there and went to as many as I could, baseball being the one that I enjoyed the most.
“My girlfriend came over for a month with me and we did all the tourist stuff, hiking behind the Hollywood sign, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Laguna beach. The guaranteed sun was the best for me, I didn’t see a cloud for the best part of 6 months!”
Back on the pitch, he went on to make 14 appearances for his new side but was unable to propel Orange County into the playoffs as they missed out by three points. Failure to reach the postseason also meant the end of the road for Baxendale in the States as he returned to the UK to join National League North side Alfreton Town, something which he feels came too soon.
“I did feel that my time out there was too short and would have loved a full season to really push on after the initial acclimatisation period. I love football and still look for opportunities abroad to challenge myself in a new culture and style of play.”
For now though, the midfielder says he is focused on helping his current side, Kidderminster Harriers, to promotion from National League North but he still recalls his spell abroad fondly and despite it not lasting as long as he would have hoped, he suggests for others to take the same path.
“I would recommend playing abroad to any English player. There are plenty of opportunities to make a name for yourself in the game alongside expanding your horizons and experience.
“Coming from an English footballing background, we can offer so much in the way that we approach the game and it’s a good chance for people to make an impact on others as well as taking in new styles and ways of playing the game.”
It seems like Baxendale may have unfinished business playing abroad.