Matt Sheldon runs down the wing in a preseason game for FC Tulsa in 2020.
“No,” his dad said.
Matt was stunned. “What do you mean, no?” he responded.
“No, you can’t give up. Give it another year. You had a contract on the table. You can’t walk away now.”
Matt Sheldon had been in Germany for nearly a year now, living on people’s couches or crashing with random families he met in Frankfurt or Hamburg or Glessen. He knew he was so close to signing a contract, to finally playing for a team, but another one had just been snatched away from him.
The story of Matt Sheldon is one of one step back followed by two resolute steps forward. As one door closes, another door opens. The journey was tumultuous, a player who dropped out of college just months before he was finished, travelled to five different countries in search of a chance to play professional soccer, only for those chances to be snatched away by injury, contract fallouts, and more. It was a journey of ups and downs, but now looking back on his career, Matt Sheldon wouldn’t change a thing.
“The thing that I always come back to,” Sheldon said, “is the highs of everything that I've gone through have definitely made all the lows worthwhile. The loneliness whenever you're alone in a different country, going to a locker room and you can't speak the language, are washed away by all the highs of signing the pro contracts. All the best parts of being a pro, all that I've done has definitely outweighed all the lows.
Sheldon grew up playing every sport he could. Whatever season it was, that was his favorite sport. Up until sixth grade, Sheldon was playing baseball, basketball, football, and soccer. In sixth grade he whittled his focus down to two, playing soccer in the spring and summer and basketball in the fall and winter.
“It was around my freshman year of high school where I took a look in the mirror,” Sheldon said. “I was like, okay, I love basketball, but going up against some of these high school seniors that were 6-5 and taller and could dunk the ball, it wasn't very fun for me. I was like a 5-2 freshman coming into it. So, I was like, you know what? I think I have a better future if I focus all the way on soccer.”
Sheldon, having not focused entirely on soccer in his youth, didn’t have the foundation of a youth club or developmental league to push his talents into the eyes of college scouts. He played at a decent club level throughout school, while also playing for his school team.
“I just loved it,” he said. “I love like working out. I love training, I love doing it. I just stuck with it through high school. My goal was always like, I just want to have a good high school career. We'll see where it goes from there.”
That’s the thing about Matt Sheldon. His next goal is always the one that’s right in front of him. Coming into high school, he picked a sport, and dedicated himself to being the best he could at it. As he neared college decision time, he was contacted by UC Davis, a NCAA Division I school just outside of Sacramento. He committed to play for the Aggies, and his goal moved.
Matt Sheldon as a sophomore at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon.
“Once I committed, I said to myself, I'm going to play college soccer,” Sheldon said. “I'm going to go. It was always like, I'll try to be the best player I can and we'll see how far I can make it. And it just kept on progressing and progressing.”
At the end of his senior season, Sheldon had played 81 matches for the Aggies, scoring 15 goals and assisting seven more. He co-led the team in scoring his junior and senior seasons, earning All-Big West Second Team honors in as a senior 2014. After his final season was over, he dropped out of school and went searching for a professional contract.
In the first nine months following college, Sheldon went from trial to trial, starting in Iceland and moving to Canada with Vancouver Whitecaps FC of Major League Soccer, to an open trial at Portland Timbers, also of MLS, to Sacramento Republic FC of the USL Championship. He trained with Sacramento the entire 2015 season, never appearing in a match or even signing a contract. It was then that Sheldon began to realize that this was going to be a long journey.
“It was definitely going to be tough,” Sheldon said. “I had this connection over in Germany. One of my old coaches had a really good friend that was German. He played his whole career in Germany, and he said that he would take me under his wing. So, he invited me to go over to Germany while he was going to go back for winter break. He could get me trials in the lower leagues of Germany, ranging from seventh division teams up to hopefully a third division too. And so, he told me, ‘If you want to come with me when I go back to Frankfurt, let's go. I know for sure I can get you at least one trial.’”
And so Matt Sheldon travelled around from town to town in Germany, crashing on couches where he could or staying in rental rooms. Anything that he could to do to survive in pursuit of that first professional contract.
Matt Sheldon played in Germany's sixth division with SG Kinzenbach in 2016.
Eventually weeks turned into months as Sheldon trialed with over a dozen clubs from levels of Germany’s soccer pyramid. Finally, SC Teutonia Watzenborn-Steinberg, a fourth division team was prepared to offer him a contract.
“My whole idea,” Sheldon said, “My vision that I had over there was like, I'm going to be over in Germany, hopefully in the fourth division. I know it's fairly tough to get it up to the third division over there because it's a very developmental league, and it's tough for foreigners. I was like, you know what, I'll try to play one year, and then I'll try to get to the USL.”
The plan took a while to take hold, but it was Teutonia that was prepared to take the leap with him.
“The day before I was supposed to come in and sign the contract, the sponsor for the deal backed out and said that there's already too many guys on the team,” he said. “So, at that moment, life just came crashing down. It felt like I finally had it. I finally had the contract, the pro contract, and then it got taken away.”
So, he did what he always did when times were tough – he called his dad.
“My dad was the one who supported me the most,” he said. “My mom and obviously my fiancé as well. I have such a great support system, but I think my dad was the one that really sticks out because he always gave me that kick in the butt that I needed to keep going.”
His dad’s refusal for Sheldon to quit on his dream resonated, and Sheldon finally signed his first professional contract, a partial season deal with a sixth division club in Germany, SG Kinzenbach where he scored his first professional goal and recorded an assist.
As the season ended in Germany, he was contacted by an old teammate in Orange County, Calif. who told Sheldon they needed a right back. A plane ride halfway around the world later, Sheldon signed a deal and began his USL Championship career with Orange County Blues FC (now Orange County SC), moving to Saint Louis FC in 2018 before coming to Tulsa ahead of the 2019 season.
In addition to playing for FC Tulsa, Sheldon runs an Instagram account and YouTube channel called Become Elite. The Instagram account has surpassed 165,000 followers, and his YouTube channel has more than 338,000 subscribers. Sheldon started Become Elite in 2016, back when he was training with Sacramento Republic FC.
“During that bouncing around, nine months of trying to find a pro contract,” Sheldon explained, “you don't have a set team. As you're going on trials, you need to stay fit, you need to stay sharp and you need to train, but you don't have a team that you're training with every day. It's very difficult. Even with my own training during that time, it was very difficult for me to go to the field and think of drills and not get bored.”
“I was juggling at the field one day, just getting some touches in,” Sheldon explained. “Mimi, who is now my fiancé, was there, studying or reading, and she just took a picture of me and she didn't upload it. She showed it to me, like, here's a photo I took. I thought it was cool. And then for some reason, it kind of sparked this idea to create a new Instagram account.”
Sheldon got creative. He decided he needed a database of drills to pull from so he could constantly be doing a new workout or finding a new way to get better.
“It helped, because I could go to the field and be like, okay, I have a wall, I have a goal,” Sheldon said. “Let me just scroll through something to find some drills that I can do because it gets old hitting shots on the goal day after day, dribbling through a line of cones day after day. You just start to lose your mind, especially when you're just in that, that limbo phase of trying to stay fit. And so, I just thought like, how cool would it be to have like that, that resource?”
Matt Sheldon conducts an interview after a training session on his YouTube channel, "Become Elite".
He set himself another goal. He wanted to post a workout on Instagram every day and a video on YouTube every week. And while it may have started as a way for him to aggregate good workouts and stay fit, as he spent more time in Germany, it took off in a way he never expected.
“When I was over in Germany, that's when I felt like it really started,” Sheldon said. “People kept on asking like, who are you? Why? Where are you playing? What's going on? Questions like that, and I told them, ‘Oh, I'm over in Germany and going on trials.’ Everybody was like, ‘Oh, can we learn more about you? Can we see a day-in-the-life?’”
His views began to spike as more people learned about Matt Sheldon, the kid who moved to Germany to pursue his soccer dream. He made his first behind the scenes video of his day-to-day life and his workouts. The video was a massive hit.
Sheldon, during the offseason or between contracts, would return to California or the Pacific Northwest to train.
“After it did so well, I was like, you know what, I like making these, I don't mind people seeing into my life,” Sheldon said. “I'll just keep on doing vlogs and keep on filming the behind the scenes of my life. I love video editing. I love that whole creative side of it and combining it with soccer. I've just continued and stuck with it for four or five years now.”
Throughout his journey, Sheldon has had a support system that has pushed him every step of the way. Whether it be with YouTube or on the field, his family and his now-fiancé Mimi have been there for it all.
“She's always been there. It's been six years now. She's always said the same thing to me, ‘keep going, you're doing it.’ Even though she's never played soccer at all, she’s at every game watches everything with me, watches all my YouTube videos. We've been together through it all and now, we're going to get married in December of 2021. She’s gone with me everywhere. We kind of have an agreement where she follows me around and just sticks with me until I'm done playing. Once I'm done playing, I'll follow her around wherever she wants to go, wherever she wants to live. That seems fair.”
Become Elite’s growth has led to the name “Matt Sheldon” being tossed around by kids across the globe who watch his videos and copy his workouts to try and get better. Sheldon admits that it’s strange to be playing in a match and have an attacker get past him and trash-talk by saying, “Is that going on YouTube?” or shaking hands with an opponent after a match and hear him talk about watching his videos to get better.
“It definitely surreal,” he said. “I just like to play soccer, I train, I work out, all that stuff. It's kind of surreal to know that people have been following my story for the last four or five years. I just never really expected it. I sometimes feel like it still hasn't really hit me yet, but it’s amazing. It makes my day; every single time I go to a game and every single time I meet somebody that has said I've helped them or inspired them to continue training or to start a YouTube channel or to go pro or do something. It definitely makes my day or my week.”
Sheldon is always setting himself that next goal and working as hard as he can to achieve it. He admits he started off obsessed with little chunks of growth. He was committed to getting just another hundred followers, another hundred subscribers. He saw it as a challenge that he had to pass. When he hit 100,000 followers and 100,000 subscribers, a feeling of achievement washed over him as he had hit the mark he worked so hard for, but there was more there.
“That was always a goal for me. I always thought like, I'm going to get to a 100K on YouTube. And I got it. And as soon as I hit that, it was like wow, I did it. But there was no other rush of excitement. What always what comes back to me is what was my big goal? It's not the numbers on YouTube, it's not the numbers on Instagram or whatever. I just want a lot of people to be affected or in a positive way by my channel, by whatever I do.”