Perth goalkeeper Lee aims high following MLS selection

The journey to professional football isn’t always a straightforward one, and West Australian goalkeeper Jackson Lee has embarked on a unique adventure over the past four years.

The 22-year-old swapped the A-Leagues and National Premier League (NPL) for the US collegiate system and Major League Soccer (MLS) having been selected by LAFC with the 28th overall pick in the most recent SuperDraft.

While deemed draft eligible following a successful season playing for West Virginia University (WVU) in National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) competition, Lee decided to forego that path and instead inked a deal with Rhode Island FC who will enter the second tier of football in the United States, the USL Championship, later this year.

That made the events of December 19 last very unexpected.

“Two of my mates got drafted which was cool, I was watching them,” says Lee, who has represented Australia at underage level.

“And then my name got called out, I was insanely confused. They said, ‘with the 28th pick of the draft, LAFC selects Jackson Lee’. I thought it was a mistake until I spoke to my coach who said he had just been called by the club and asked how I am as a person and how I am as a player.”

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While initially unaware of Lee’s commitment to Rhode Island for 2024 and possibly beyond, LAFC are delighted to have him on board and will monitor his progress closely as his MLS rights holder for the next two seasons.

The Californian side have enjoyed massive success since entering the league in 2018, winning MLS Cup in 2022, and boast actor Will Farrell as a part owner. French World Cup winning captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris recently joined from Tottenham Hotspur.

So, how does a young footballer from Perth become the first Australian goalkeeper selected in the MLS SuperDraft?

Lee was born in Salt Lake City while his parents were in the United States for work and played several sports during his formative years.

“Dad wasn’t a big soccer fan, had never really been into it, and mum was the same,” he said. “Her brother played Aussie Rules footy, and she was pretty confident about not letting me play that because of how it is.

“But it’s quite ironic that I ended up in probably the most similar position to Aussie Rules, as close as I can get to it.”

Most kids will end up doing a stint in goal at one point or another, and there was a particular aspect of the role that appealed to Lee.

“I liked the part where you didn’t have to run a lot, that was really an incentive for me,” he says.

“I enjoyed it a lot from a young age and there’s a cliché that goalkeepers have to be crazy, but I don’t see it that way.

“I feel like I’m quite level-headed, although liking having balls kicked at you at 100 miles per hour from six yards away is a little bit insane!”

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Spells at Inglewood United and Perth Soccer Club, as well as training through Football West’s Skills Acquisition Program (SAP), gave Lee good foundations to build on and it wasn’t long before he was playing in the WA State team for his age group. A move to Perth Glory followed and at just 14 years of age, Lee made his senior debut in the NPLWA.

“You go from training with under 18s who really are 14 and 15 to playing against a 35-year-old tradie who doesn’t care if he wipes you out and is twice your bodyweight,” said Lee.

“It’s a bit of a shock to the system but at that age, you’re training with older kids, training with the first team every now and then, you’re forced to grow up a little bit quicker.”

Lee’s progress continued at Perth Glory, and he made the bench for the senior first team during the 2018/19 season. However, chances of getting on the park were slim with veterans Liam Reddy and Tando Velaphi ahead of him in the pecking order so Lee turned down a contract offer from the club to try his luck elsewhere.

There was interest from other A-Leagues sides and east coast NPL clubs, but Lee’s US citizenship opened possibilities in that part of the world, and he relocated to George Mason University in Virginia.

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Poor results on the park, as well as navigating the COVID pandemic, proved challenging for Lee and in 2022 he took a risk by entering the transfer portal for players. Thankfully, WVU had an opening for a goalkeeper and a switch proved to be very successful – Lee was the team’s only ever-present player in 2023 and earned second-team All-Sun Belt honours, conceding just 0.96 goals per game, as the Mountaineers made the Final Four of the NCAA Division I men’s competition.

“The thing with West Virginia is that there are no professional sports teams in the state, so the school is the state sport, the fans are incredibly passionate,” he says.

“For the first four of five games we didn’t have that many fans, a lot of sports outside basketball and football don’t really matter unless you’re succeeding, but as the season went on the crowds started to grow.”

A Mountain State Derby against number 1 ranked side Marshall was a sell out three weeks in advance and attracted a crowd of 3147. West Virginia ran out 5-2 winners and momentum continued right the way through to the semi-finals of the College Cup. Unfortunately, they were beaten 1-0 by Clemson in a tight contest to bring down the curtain on his college career.

“The ending was obviously sad but not sad because we lost, more so because I knew I was leaving,” he says.

“We were playing in the national tournament for a few games and any of them could’ve been the last so when it ends, it gets real pretty quick. It was the closing of a chapter, and I didn’t realise the severity of it until after I had left, very bittersweet.”

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As well as graduating from West Virginia University with a degree in Marketing, Lee’s college football experience saw him feature in more than 100 games. The opportunity to train like a professional in top class facilities at a renowned college only increased his appetite for more and that led to him putting pen to paper with Rhode Island FC.

“My parents and I came to the decision that USL Championship was the best option for my development purely based off what I need at this point in my career,” he says.

“I’ll be playing against men, playing with guys who are professionals, who have been around the block and have experience being in a situation where I’m uncomfortable and learning every day.”

The team will move to a new soccer-specific stadium in 2025, a US$130 million project that forms part of a mixed-use complex and have a capacity of around 11,000 upon completion.

“This is the first professional soccer team in Rhode Island and from what I’ve heard, there’s a real community feel,” says Lee.

“We had the front office team come out to training, which was nice, to meet them and see how excited they are to see us. It was a big incentive to start something new where everyone is coming in with a clean slate. I’m walking into a level playing field.”

Experienced goalkeeper Koke Vegas has been signed from the now defunct San Diego Loyal, and Lee is excited to compete with a player who played in Spain’s La Liga for Levante.

“We’ve got a bunch of guys with good pedigree which is exciting for me to be around,” he says.

“It was an incentive for me to come here, to be in an environment where I’m competing with [Koke] as well as learning from him.

“Me pushing him and being pushed by him at the same time is something that isn’t super common, especially out of college, and with the season being as long as it is, games are going to be available.”

For now, Lee is focused on settling into his new surroundings and preseason training ahead of the season opener against New Mexico United on March 16.

“I love the New England area, we’re an hour from Boston,” he says. “I spent last summer up here playing summer league and it’s a really, really nice area.

“I’m very happy that I’m by the coast again. That’s really the one thing I miss about Perth, apart from my family, and being close to the beach is great.”

With away trips to Las Vegas, Miami, and Memphis, amongst others, on the calendar, Lee’s excitement is understandable.

“If people are moving their whole lives to come work here then it must be pretty legit,” he says.

“This is something that is going to be special long term. Maybe not short term but certainly in the grand scheme of things. You don’t get many opportunities to be at the start of something, especially in a professional football environment.”

In the future, Lee would love to earn full international honours and ply his trade in Europe, following in the footsteps of the many great goalkeepers produced by Australia.

“There is nothing that makes you prouder than representing your country,” he says.

“Having that small taste of it at under 19s level really lights a fire in your belly. It’s tough because there aren’t a lot of eyes on US college football but now that I’m in a professional environment, I’m hoping there will be more interest.

“Socceroos is something that I’m passionate about and seeing guys I know going into camp is what I want. It’s a carrot on the end of a stick, a long stick for sure, but a lot more realistic than it was a year ago.”

About the Author

Neil Sherwin

Head of Editorial with Far Post Perth. Background in media and journalism and contributor to many well known publications in Australia, as well as others in the UK and Ireland. Online journalist/editor for Twitter - @neilsherwin

One thought on “Perth goalkeeper Lee aims high following MLS selection

  1. How great to see the details of Jackson’s path this far put into print. What a brave move as a young man to head across to the States. Not mentioned here, but his Dad represented Australia as a swimmer and his mum was a very handy basketballer -may have represented WA at a junior level but not 💯 % sure of that. Thanks for the read

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