Getting called to play for the national team is soccer’s highest honor. But being an American and getting the chance to play for another country’s under-16 national team is the opportunity of a lifetime.
“It was a surreal experience for me,” said the 15-year-old, who has played midfield, right back and left back for Wales. “I didn’t think I’d ever be able to play at a national level. I’m just a kid from Sandy Springs.”
Josh qualifies to play for the United States, England and Wales because his father, David, was born in England and was raised in Wales, where his Welsh parents still live, before moving to the United States. It’s unusual to be eligible to play for three nations, and Josh, who has a Welsh middle name (Emlyn), is the first American and first Jewish American to play for the Wales U16 team.
Josh, who says the Shema to himself with his eyes covered every time he takes the field for a game, said that playing abroad lifted the level of competition and sharpened his skills. His Wales teammates come from some of the most prestigious Premier League academies in Britain, including Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City.
“I never experienced that kind of pace and passion,” Josh said. “It was a different level of speed and intensity. I feel like I have more confidence coming back.”
He stands out because of his attitude and ability, said Tony Annan, the director of the Atlanta United Academy. Annan recruited Josh for the Atlanta United U16 team after watching him play as team captain for Georgia United. He said Josh had been on his radar for two or three years.
“He has a hard work ethic and never-say-die attitude. It’s hard to find those kinds of guys nowadays,” Annan said. “He has the willingness to do the hard work, and he has good technical ability.”
After playing for the Atlanta United U16 side, Josh was called up to the U17 team several times, including the Generation Adidas Cup U17 Tournament in Philadelphia and a Liga MX tournament in Mexico, where he caught the eye of the Wales talent identification manager, Gus Williams, and was invited to play.
Annan said that when players get called up, most of the time it’s because “they deserve the chance to be challenged.”
Josh played midfield for Atlanta United’s U16 team. He now has officially been moved to the U17 squad and is playing right back as well as midfield, even though he never played in the back until his time with Wales.
“I learned how to adapt to different styles of play and new positions,” he said of his time in a Wales uniform.
Josh started soccer at the Marcus JCC when was 3 years old. His father came to the United States to play soccer in college, so you could say the sport is in his blood.
His goal is to become a professional soccer player. In his first season playing with the Atlanta United U16 squad, Josh attends Riverwood International Charter School half the day, then trains with Atlanta United at 2 p.m. four or five days a week. He completes his schoolwork through online classes offered by Fulton County and has a 3.6 GPA.
Josh said the experience has been incredible, but taking on that schedule was a major decision. The Francombes talked to Josh’s principal and school counselor before making the move, said Stacie Francombe, Josh’s mother.
“We never force him to do anything. We say, ‘Do what you want as long as you’re having fun and being challenged,’” she said.
She said the family is not going to sacrifice Josh’s education so he can pursue his soccer dreams at this point, but the Francombes, including two younger brothers, are his biggest supporters. They attend every game possible and traveled to Mexico and Northern Ireland to watch him play.
“My in-laws, an uncle and his cousins watched him play in Wales,” Stacie said. “His grandparents came to watch him in Ireland.”
Josh is a budding star and hopes to get a call from the U.S. U17 national team. He said he is thankful for the opportunity to play with Atlanta United because without the expansion MLS team, his professional dreams would be much further away.
“Without Arthur Blank creating Atlanta United, it wouldn’t have been possible,” Josh said. “He made it possible for me and everyone else.”