The story of Panos Armenakas could very well begin with a tweet following a recent Loudoun win:

When you learn about Panos’ story, you get a better sense of his regained optimism. Born in California, his family moved to Australia when he was an infant, where he eventually learned to play tennis and soccer. “I kind of grew up always with the ball at my feet from a young age. Soccer kind of in Australia just like it is in the US, it’s not the number one sport, but I grew up with always wanting wanting to play soccer. I had some talent and I was just able to work at it.”

As Panos grew into his elementary years and his experience became one of note, he remained modest. “I was just a normal kid, just going to school and enjoying time with my friends, and training in the afternoons, even at lunchtime (if) I could have a ball up on my feet, but it was nothing really special until I got a little bit older and then started to gain some like attention from from clubs overseas and media outlets in Australia and stuff.”

Panos’ talent led one sportswriter to say that he had was the ‘most gifted talent‘ he had seen in Australian soccer shortly after Panos turned 16. This was several years after he had been training at academies with Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax. “(Barcelona) paid for me and my father to to go over there and train with them and see how I compared. I was 6 years old and I was training with the eights and under nines, so two or three years above me, and did really well. They they kind of wanted to to keep me, but at that stage, I hadn’t even started school, my parents were thinking about the future and longevity and if it was the right thing to do for the family. So then I just kept going in Australia and there was more interest from the clubs, like Milan and Ajax, (and) it was kind of the same thing, Milan was more consistent, I went over every year for couple of weeks or a month at a time because they really were showing massive interest in wanting to sign me, and it was kind of up to me when I was ready to go or not. But this was 10, 11 years old, I hadn’t even finished my first part of school, not even a teenager yet, so the interest was kind of constant from Milan where there was constant communication constant contact with with the with the club.”

“You sort of got to pinch yourself when you’re being invited by some of the biggest clubs on the planet to go and train with them, right?” Panos’ father John says. “All those times we traveled together, created a special bond, no ifs, ands or buts about it. I think he was 10, going on 11, when he played with the AC Milan under 12 team in a tournament called the Mundialito in Portugal, and he was the first and only outside player outside of AC Milan to be invited to come and play. They got knocked out in the quarterfinals or semifinals by Benfica, but they laid the foundations for us, leaving Australia and coming to the UK to give Panos the opportunity to become a pro in a European League.”

Along with his academy time, he spent time with Watford and caught the attention of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal (“It’s tough to say no to Arsenal, they hold onto my heart and I love them, but (the attention from Europe) was constant, so I kind of didn’t focus on that, (and) let my dad or agents work that scenario”). He was the youngest Australian player to sign with one of the “Big 5” leagues, signing a three-year deal with Serie A side Udinese just before his 16th birthday, and shortly after turning 17, he was named on Guardian’s Best Young Talents list of 2015, next to players like current Arsenal/Norway midfielder Martin Odegaard and current Chelsea/United States midfielder Christian Pulisic.

“Italy (was) the first country I’d gone to not knowing the language, having to adapt. The club had organized tutoring lessons to learn Italian and it was a big club. (But) it was just different, culture, lifestyle, different way of thinking, especially soccer-wise they were a lot more defensive and tactical at the time that I was there. But I gained a lot of knowledge from that time and met a lot of good people and got coached under some great people. The first year that I was there and I was training with the first team, the assistant coach was Dejan Stankovic, who won the treble with Inter Milan under Jose Mourinho. The players that I was training with day in day out, like (Antonio) Di Natale, Rodrigo De Paul and Luis Muriel. The closest friend that I have from that time that’s probably doing really good things right now is Bruno Fernandes, we still keep in close contact and get tickets to the Manchester United home games and stuff like that. So just learning from people like that, the lessons you learn and you just pick up on the things they do that you feel like could help you, but at the same time you have to be yourself and you have to be some type of individual I mean some things work for others that may not work for you so it’s just trying to pick up on the good and bad of everything.”

When Stefano Colantuno replaced Andrea Stramaccioni as coach of I Bianconeri, Panos got his first exposure to the business of soccer. “I was given the opportunity with (Stramaccioni) and I was able to show what I could do, but when (Colantuno) came in, he didn’t even want to watch me train, it was just like ‘hey, how old are you? Can you play with the reserves here?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m 17,’ he’s like, ‘OK, from tomorrow, you’re back with that.’ He didn’t know who I was. It would have been nice if he had seen me in a couple of sessions or taken me to a few games and then make your decision after that, but I don’t know. I was still 17, but the thing that was tough for me was feeling like someone could just take it away like that, training with those players and being on the bench and being close to making my debut at that age, and you never know what could happen after that. For the coaching change to happen at the time that it did and then to not be given an opportunity again without being looked at, it was it was tough.”

Panos continues. “It always like gets brought up, especially back in Australia with media, but to be honest on a day-to-day basis, I don’t really think about it anymore. In the beginning it was tough, because you feel like you’re so close you know you’re training with with these players, you’re on the bench, and at the same time I’d just come off my (2015 U-17 World Cup with Australia) as well, so I was on a high. I guess soccer is full of highs and lows and you just have to learn how to live with it but in in the moment yeah I was pissed off.”

From Udinese, Panos moved to Tubize in Belgium’s second division before going to Panathinaikos, which for a 21-year-old of Greek descent should have been a dream move, but was more often not. “(There were) mostly bad circumstances, like not getting paid for months at a time, but it was amazing lifestyle, the culture, the music, the food, the weather and everything. But it was tough, it’s a big name club with respect around the world, (and) I guess a misunderstanding between the club’s direction and what I was coming in for.”

“Panos saw that when a coach has made a decision that you’re now longer part of their plans for whatever reason, they’ll headfuck you,” John says. “Maybe you don’t get paid for five months because you’ve got two years left on your contract, and that’s how they (make) you go begging them to terminate your contract early so that you become a free agent and they offer you 10 cents on the dollar.”

After a year in Greece, Panos returned to Belgium with second division side Roeselare, spending only ten days there before the club filed for bankruptcy and dissolved. He stayed in the country, eventually signing with Zulte Waregem in the first division. “(I) played against some big clubs like Anderlecht and Brugges and that was a great time to be honest, I had a really good season there, played quite a few games scored some goals, and got offered a new three-year deal. We just missed out on the playoffs by one spot and then the coach (who) had four years left on his contract got sacked, and then my contract by the club was revoked, because they said your contract was dependent on whether this coach stayed. Mostly the coach believed in me a lot and I was going to get a lot of game time with him, but the new coach coming in didn’t anything to me.”

In 2021, Panos moved to Denmark to play with Vendyssel FF in the second division where he scored three goals in 41 games, but his first is his most entertaining. “I came on a Thursday, the game was on a Sunday. I arrive at like midnight, I go into the coaches office and he’s like, ‘Listen, you’re starting for me on Sunday.’ This was a day and half before the game, I haven’t met any of the players, don’t know what formation they’re playing. So I trained Saturday and he’s like, ‘You’re taking everything, all the set pieces, free kicks, corners, penalties,’ but I turn up on Sunday and my registration hasn’t gone through, so I’m sitting there expecting to start, now you’re going to sit in the stands. And within 20 minutes the boys have started warming up and I’m still in the locker room, and then coach comes in saying, ‘You’re starting, get dressed.’ So I warmed up for 10 minutes and after 5 minutes I end up scoring on my debut and we got a draw.”

Panos discusses the process that brought him to Loudoun, after leaving Wendyssel halfway through his three-year contract. “I had some options in Europe as well (and) could have stayed there, but I just thought maybe it was time to take another step and just explore something different and see something new. I had some other options in the US as well, but my agents came to me with the opportunity with Loudoun. (So) I got on couple of calls with Ryan (Martin) and with Stewart (Mairs) and just spoke over Zoom about what the thought process was and how they thought I could fit in. Then I took my time over the Christmas break (to) look at some other offers and and stuff, (but) it was never about the money or anything and just thought that it was time to take a leap of faith.”

Compared to his usage in Denmark, Panos enjoys the relative certainty in his current role. “Ryan spoke to me about where he saw me and I also saw the people he wanted to play, and I thought that I could feed into that pretty well. I know that I’m pretty good at adapting pretty quickly, I think I make it work. I pride myself on being able to play multiple positions and I think it’s it’s very good, but also it can be like a detriment. In the first 10-15 games in Denmark, I played in the 352 as a right wing back, I even played as a striker, like a false nine or a box to box midfielder. It was a bit frustrating because (with) every position you have to defend differently and different requirements and it’s difficult. But I enjoyed it, and I still would enjoy to play other positions here, but I’m enjoying my football now.”

In being in America, Panos gets the opportunity to watch the Philadelphia Eagles and 76ers, teams he is fans of, at a reasonable hour. “It’s pretty cool, after training now, I watch a lot of the games rather than having to wake up at 4:00 AM, but it’s pretty cool to speak about it with a lot of the guys in the locker room and being in that environment.”

“He’ll probably tell you a stat you didn’t know about the NFL, he is obsessed, even before he came to the US. He loves the NFL, absolutely loves it, NBA as well,” John says.

A funny moment fell into place over the course of our interview when asking about how soccer in America differs from elsewhere (good, bad or otherwise) Panos says, “(Here), everyone is kind of 100 miles an hour, I’ve learned in Europe (about) tempo so what I try to do for Loudoun is to control the tempo and the speed of the game when I’m on the ball. You don’t have to go to goal every opportunity you get and try to add that quality and the temperaments of the game, and control the tempo like that, I’m pretty good at that.”

On something that annoys him about soccer these days, Panos says, “I don’t know if it’s in football in general now or in the US, but I just think everything is so stats related to be honest, and I don’t really believe in that a lot of the time. Every time I see a Team of the Week or or something like that, it’s all whoever scores a goal is team of the week or whoever gets noticed at the end of the day, like people that don’t watch the game. I think if you actually sit back and watch the games, you kind of realize what certain players do and what they have to offer rather than just who gets an assist or who gets a goal, I don’t think that tells the full story of the game. Maybe coming from other sports like basketball, it’s always like ‘oh if he has 30 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists he had a great game, and plenty of others that that contribute that are important as well.”

When told that he would eventually be part of the a recent Team of the Week for the USL, to his credit Armenakas stood firm. “That’s what I’m saying! I feel like I’ve had a lot better games than what I had (in the win over Oakland).”

Panos conveys a sense of being in a better place on and off the field. “I’m enjoying my football and I’m confident, to be honest I know I’m playing well and I know I can improve a lot, but coming and watching a lot of the teams in this league and the players in this league, I know what I can do and I know what I offer to to my team, and I believe I’m (among) the best of what I do in the league and I’m just trying to continue on that form and help the team win and do what I can to keep performing well.”

“Panos (has) seen it all, he’s seen how dirty the business of football can be,” John says. “It’s not as brutal in the US, but he’s been around the block. (But) all of that is what makes, in the dressing room, on the training pitch, the players respect him a helluva lot.”

Panos decided to tell the story in an October interview with The Asian Game where he opened up about his beginnings and his run of luck as he sought to play soccer in Europe, and it seems to have acted as a catharsis for him. When asked about soccer being fun again and what that means for him? “I think it’s more like when you’re playing and you’re winning and you’re kind of feeling like you deserve a little bit and proving to people that you back up what you say with what you’re doing on the field, and I think I’m doing that right now. Obviously there’s a lot of highs and lows in football, and there will probably be a stage where I’m not playing as well, or the team’s not doing as well, but you’ve just gotta stay in between the balance, not get too high and not get too low with everything.”

ByRyan Keefer

Doing D.C./Loudoun United things on here.

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Steve Pana

Great to see him enjoying his football and playing well for Loudoun. He seems to be stuck on his Junior reputation however. Every interview I read/hear he keeps talking about his U6 and U12’s training sessions with big clubs which didn’t amount to anything. His career has largely been a disappointment. Struggling for playing time in Belgium 2nd division and Danish leagues isn’t what you’d expect from “the most gifted Australian ever”.

A player of his talent should be playing at MLS not USL.

Hope his continues to play well and further develops and cracks the 1st division.

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