Having spent this past season plying his trade in the Baltic country of Latvia at First Division club FS Leevon, Yanks Abroad recently caught up with player and fitness entrepreneur Eric Friedlander.
“I’ve had quite the journey,” the New Yorker told YA. “I started playing football at about four years old and played most of my football in New York and Long Island.
“I played with some club teams, some ODP and then I played in the national league, US Soccer National League for Lake Grove United,” he continued. “That’s when I started to get serious about football, when I was about 16-17 in high school.”
“I then started to look at colleges and I ended up doing my senior year at Shattuck Saint Mary’s [in Faribault, Minnesota]. When I was there, I was getting recruited by a couple of schools and I ended up signing with the University of Buffalo.”
But after committing to playing college ball, other opportunities came along so the Long Islander had to weigh up his opportunities before even setting foot on the field for his college team.
“I played one year there [at Buffalo],” Friedlander explained of his short college career. “When I was there I heard about this opportunity to go out to Germany. This was in the pre-season before I was a freshman, so I took the opportunity to go over there, play with a couple teams and get some training. I think I was 19 years old then.”
While trying out and having opportunities with some clubs in the lower divisions in Germany, he instead opted to continue with his college path, and returned for his freshman season.
“I think I did quite well and there were a couple of teams interested in me in the 5th and 6th leagues. I was interested and it sounded like a good opportunity but I had already committed to Buffalo.”
Returning to the US, he was able to translate what he learned in Germany into playing time in his first year, explaining “In college, I did alright, starting about 50% of the games and playing as a defensive midfielder.”
But his European experience was still in his mind, and across the Atlantic was where he wanted to be continuing exploring training and professional opportunities as a player.
“I went back to Germany,” he said, emphasizing, “I really liked the environment there. We were training twice a day, a morning session, and then I was going out to these teams in the evening, in the fifth and sixth leagues.”
“At that level, the standards are quite good,” he assessed. “The game intelligence from these players is top notch. That’s the main difference that I noticed between German and American players; the decision making, the quality of the decisions and where to be on the pitch.”
A moment of truth again came for the young New Yorker, as he was faced with a decision of whether to once again return to the US to continue his college career.
“I was going to go back to Buffalo for my sophomore season but I remember the deciding moment, which was three days before I was supposed to fly back to the United States.”
“But there was a team in the sixth league that also had a Regionlliga team. From the sixth-league team they would push me to the Regionalliga in the fourth league. So I thought that was a good opportunity. I thought it over.”
“The saying, you only live once is a cliché but it’s also true,” he admitted of his decision-making process. “My stepdad told me you can be a doctor or a lawyer at any age and go back to school, but you can’t always be a footballer.”
“That resonated with me and I said to myself that I’m just going to take this opportunity. I ended up emailing my coach that night and told him that I got this opportunity and wasn’t coming back. So I signed on with that team, I signed up for language courses and got an apartment and ended up playing a good amount of games in the sixth league.”
However, his plans to use the team as a springboard up to their main team two divisions higher didn’t work out as planned. “I didn’t get pushed up to the Regionalliga team because they were fighting relegation and they didn’t want to take any risks.”
The season ended and so did his contract. However, hhaving learned German during his time there, Friedlander became his own agent, and was successful in also finding himself a new team in the German state of Bavaria – FC Eintracht Bamberg.
“I played a good amount of games in the fifth league but I still wanted to make that push to the Regionalliga, which is fully professional, so I ended up doing a combine when I went home, which was with PSC in Florida.”
He continued, “These combines are tough, these open trials but the coaches recognized my qualities and saw that I had a pretty good head on my shoulders for the game. I had one agent there who wanted to bring me to Sweden.”
In researching his a possible future in the northern countries of Europe, Friedlander even found some useful information from a familiar source. “Actually through your website [Yanks Abroad], I saw that a lot of guys did good in Scandinavia. These countries were giving Americans a chance so I ended up buying a one way ticket.”
The procedure to find a club in Sweden was the same as in Germany; training and then going on trials with teams, in his case in the third tier. Like his initial foray to Germany, the hard work paid off and a team signed him.
However, as is often the case with professional players, a minor injury changed his plans. “After a month or two my groin really started to bother me, so I was kind of rehabbing and going in and out of the team.”
The season ended and the injury seemed to have sorted itself out, so it was time for the adventurer to head off on another adventure in another country.
“I then moved to Israel after that,” he continued about his growing global journey. “[It’s a] great country and good people there, but one of the worst football scenes I’ve ever seen. It was literally a jungle out there. I was playing for Hapoel Robi Shapira Haifa , a farm team for Hapoel Haifa.
However, things didn’t work out in the end, although Friedlander put in some good performances and felt, as did many of his teammates, that he deserved a contract. Politics, for lack of a better word, came into play, as the team’s new president made a deal with an agent who would only bring in his own players, which did not include Friedlander.
“Basically the agents run the business over there,” he pointed out. “But I ended up playing in the third tier. They were the best technical players I ever saw and I played in both Germany and Sweden.”
As he was beginning to find his groove in Israeli, a now-familiar story once again derailed his progress; due to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Israeli leagues went into quarantine. Eventually they did come back to begin training ahead of a resumption of play, however so did Friedlander’s prior injury from Sweden.
“During training it really flared up and I knew something was wrong,” he. recalled. “What ended up happening was that I had a sports hernia.
However, his recovery coincided with finding a new opportunity in yet another country and soccer environment. “I got the surgery in January 2021, and then got hooked up with this guy in Latvia who used to be a Latvian national team player and played in some big leagues in Europe,” he explained. “He told me that there was this project [FS Leevon] and they want to go up to the first tier.”
“I thought it was a good move for me because I didn’t want to go back to the US, not being there for seven years and straight after a surgery.”
So I thought I would come here and get some games and that’s basically what I’ve been doing; getting good quality games here, good quality footage.”
He was once again pleasantly surprised by level of play in a country that is not a well trodden destination for Americans, evaluating “and the quality in Latvia is quite surprising. Playing here has been quite enjoyable. The coach was also a national team player, so I’ve been learning a lot off him and it’s been a good experience.”
The Latvian season was to end late November but due to restrictions, the last four games were cancelled, with Leevon finishing in seventh place, short of their goal of promotion.
As he now takes a bit of time off weighing up his options for the future, I asked Eric about his online persona, RIcfit, who has quite a following on YouTube and other social media. Ricfit has become something of a fitness guru in his own right.
“When I was 22 in Sweden, I was never really big into social media but I saw all these online trainers with online nutrition and personal training being offered. But I saw that a lot of that information was bullshit,” he chuckled.
“There were lots of gimmicks and lots of false promises. For me that’s my number one thing and that’s what people appreciate about me ; I’m straight up, honest and I tell the truth.”
“I really got into the fitness scene was I was 15 and when I first came over to Germany that was my advantage,” he continues explaining. “It had nothing to do with genetics. The only reason I’m here today is hard work. And now what I want to preach to the younger generation is hard work and smart work.”
“So basically what I did, when I was 22, I bought myself a camera and started recording my workouts, which were twice a day. Now I have about 3,500 videos from training to ball work to technique stuff, (as well as) one on one mentoring videos.”
“My whole goal is to help the younger generation as a mentor,” he explains about the broader vision of his media work. “I want to try to help them stay away from mistakes that I made as a footballer when I first came over here. I put out a ton of free content on different social media to inspire the younger generation and help them use this content.”
He elaborated on his viewpoint on how players should treat their careers, as they are searching for opportunities, particularly abroad. “When you’re over here and you want to play professional football, you have to look at yourself as your own asset. Like a business, you want to develop the best product possible so you can sell it, make the most revenue and help the most people.”
“So I try to refer to that in terms of football. You are your own asset. The stronger you build yourself physically, mentally, technically, tactically and nutritionally, you become a better asset. When you become a better asset, you can help a team and sell yourself. Or you can have an agent sell you. I think it all goes hand in hand.”
Ricfit goes one step further than just media; he offers personalized programs for players looking to break through, which he feels is over a longer and more realistic timeframe than many other promises made by social media merchants.
“From there I require a six-month commitment because, as I said, some of these plans and programs promise to transform you in one month, two months and you can do that with extreme things but as an athlete I see things for the long term.”
“If you try to take short cuts you look for hacks, you look for supplements, pills, all this is bullshit. That’s in the industry that’s easily sellable and people just make a quick buck off.”
“I tell people what actually works is a proper plan, executed consistently with patience and according to your work load, depending if you’re off season or in season. Basically what I do is design these guys and girls a new gym phase every month, personalized based on injury history, exercise history , their goals, nutrition plan and recovery stuff. My method is under promise, over deliver.”
He continues, “I try to teach these guys and girls in six months what I’ve learned obsessively studying the body for 10 – 11 years. I want to change one individual at a time and I know when I change one individual at a time, whether it be their mind set, their physique, whatever it is, they’ll pass it on to others and that’s how we change the football community.”
I personally discovered Ricfit through another one of his media projects, which is also accomplishing something that Yanks Abroad prides itself on; finding young players who crossed the ocean in order to live their dream of playing professional soccer. Ricfit’s profiling of players abroad goes one step further and interviews these guys to find out their story in much more depth.
“I think it’s encompassed in Ricfit. You’re on the field or you’re in the gym for 3-4 hours a day, so I say, what are you doing the rest of the day, the 20-21 hours?”
Friedlander is clear that his goal is to show prospective players looking to make the difficult jump overseas a realistic view of what they will face. “My main reason for doing the podcasts was because people see these big players, Benzema, Ronaldo flashing the Lambos, the Rolexes, but coming over here to Europe it’s not sunshine and rainbows.”
“There are a lot of lows, a lot of highs but if you’re willing to persist like the guys and girls I have on my podcasts, you can do what you love for a living. So I want to inspire young players with these real life conversations where I get into the nitty and the gritty. I want to help these players as much as possible.”
With his time in Latvia having come to an end Friedlander is ready for his next step as a player, however has indicated that he envisions the next chapter will involve a return to the US. He has recently signed with the CHYN agency and is exploring opportunities stateside for the next season.