It all began in Fresno — a rural city in Central California known for its fertile soil and ideal climate. Not only is it a major hub for agricultural production, but it's also the place where Max Arfsten kicked his first soccer ball.
“I started playing soccer at around five or six years old. I just fell in love with it right away because of the freedom I felt when I had the ball, and I just had a lot of fun with it,” said Arfsten.
However, things didn’t come naturally for him. Arfsten didn’t consider himself to be physically gifted with natural abilities. He had to work twice as hard to keep up with the competition around him, even if that meant sacrificing the majority of his free time.
“I definitely had to work more because I wasn’t exceptionally fast or strong,” said Arfsten. “Some of that stuff just comes naturally to people, so I had to rely on skill more. That's why I was always working behind the scenes, just trying to get a better first touch or get better at shooting or dribbling.”
At a young age, the Fresno native dreamed of playing professionally and dedicated the majority of his childhood to working on his craft. However, there were many hurdles he’d have to overcome — one of which was his proximity.
Fresno is 218 miles from Los Angeles and 181 miles from the Bay Area. Stemming from Central California meant that he was too far from the soccer academies of LAFC, Galaxy, and San Jose. Typically, players are scouted and invited to play for academies where they receive proper training and experience with the best competition within the region. From there, those players have better opportunities to play professionally.
Arfsten didn’t have the luxury to play for the youth academies; instead, he opted to play club soccer within his region.
“I played for California Odyssey growing up, which is a club in Fresno, and I basically had to make the most of it in terms of getting recruited for college,” said Arfsten when he recalled the path he had to take. “So I kind of knew early on that was a journey I was going to have. The main hurdle was just the lack of exposure because these big scouts aren't really coming to Fresno like that.”
Despite the lack of exposure, Arfsten continued to follow his dream and began to gain some traction. He attended San Joaquin Memorial High School, where he played as a striker and captured two league MVP awards, leading his team to win league and Central Section championships during his junior year. He graduated with 95 goals and 57 assists during his tenure.
Arfsten’s numbers did not go unnoticed. The University of California, Davis — a Division 1 college — wanted to take a closer look at the budding star.
“Junior year is when it all started. I got invited to go to this UC Davis ID camp, which is just where a bunch of kids go and try out. I did well there, and they offered me a scholarship the day after, and I committed verbally to them.”
Although UC Davis isn’t known for its athletics, Arfsten prioritized playing time. He needed experience at the collegiate level to get noticed by professional scouts.
“I felt like Davis was the right spot for me because I knew I'd have a chance to play my freshman year, and that was important to me, rather than going to a big school and maybe sitting on the bench for whatever reason,” said Arfsten.
In 2019, as a freshman, Arfsten appeared in 19 games for UC Davis. While it took him some time to adjust to the Division 1 level, he scored his first-ever collegiate goal late in the game of the Big West Conference semifinal against Cal State Fullerton — his goal proved to be the game-winner. Ultimately, UC Davis won the Big West Championship for the first time in program history.
“I was really happy because that was my first college goal in a big moment. But I think the highlight was probably winning the Big West Conference, even though I was a freshman and I wasn't the main guy on the team. I would say that was the best moment,” said Arfsten when he reflected on his best moment at UC Davis.
After winning the conference, Arfsten’s confidence soared, and he was ready to overtake the Big West Conference, but the 2020 season was canceled due to the worldwide pandemic — COVID-19.
In 2021, Arfsten had a breakout season. He played in 20 games, netted eight goals along with seven
assists. He went on to win Big West Offensive Player of the Year and All-First Team honors.
“Honestly, I always wanted to go pro, but I didn't really think that it was a real possibility until my last year at Davis. I knew I had the tools to make it, but it was just a matter of putting together a really good season and getting the right exposure. I think my last year at Davis, which was 2021, is when I had a pretty good season, and I was hearing things from people, so that's when I really thought like, okay, this can happen relatively soon.”
After his breakout season, Arfsten began to receive important phone calls.
“There was a San Jose Earthquakes scout that was at one of my Davis games, and I scored some goals; he contacted me after the game," said Arfsten.
A scout from the San Jose Earthquakes reached out and invited him to participate in a combine. The combine consisted of the best 70 players within the Western region. The Fresno native was one step closer to achieving his dream and had to outplay a pool of elite MLS prospects.
“So I went to the combine, and I did really well,” Arfsten recalled. “We played just two games on the field, 11v11, and I did well. And then from there, they wanted to offer me a contract, and the whole debate about if I was going to leave [college] or stay happened. I had two weeks to make the decision. Ultimately, I decided to leave.”
Two months later, Arfsten was playing professionally on the pitch for MLS NEXT Pro team, the San Jose Earthquakes II.
Arfsten appeared in 24 matches for San Jose Earthquakes II in 2022, scoring nine goals and tallying six assists. He proved that he could perform at a high level if given the opportunity.
Since the Fresno product was not an academy player for the Earthquakes, he was not eligible for a homegrown player contract. However, Arfsten was eligible for the 2023 MLS SuperDraft.
With the 14th overall pick, the Columbus Crew selected Arfsten — a pick that surprised many people around the MLS. In fact, when Arfsten was selected, his profile did not have a picture of him on the screen.
“I always wanted to get drafted. I feel like every player that plays in college dreams of that. I had no expectations when the draft happened. I hadn't really heard a lot. I wasn't sure what was gonna happen, and then I was just watching it, no one called me, everyone thinks that the Crew called me before and stuff, but I had no idea until they said my name when everyone else heard it. And yeah, it was definitely a crazy feeling, and I was happy. I was excited to go in the first round. It was a crazy moment,” said Arfsten.
Coming out of the Big West Conference and being selected in the first round was a huge accomplishment in itself; the Fresno native became the 52nd standout from The Big West to be taken in the MLS SuperDraft, and the 14th first-round selection. The UC Davis program has now produced four draft picks in the last five years, three of them being in the first round.
“Max’s hard work and attitude along with his ability to make an impact in the attack did not go unnoticed throughout preseason, and we are excited to see him earn a spot on our First Team roster,” said Crew President and General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko. “Led by Corey Wray, the draft team including Marshall Bushnell and Nate Horton put in the work behind the scenes in preparation for the SuperDraft. They identified Max as a talented player who had a strong start to his professional career in MLS NEXT Pro. We are looking forward to working with Max as he continues his development as a player in a first team environment.”
To be selected in the first round as the 14th overall pick was a dream come true; however, Arfsten wasn't satisfied. He wants to compete for a starting role on the roster and have an impact on the pitch. Training with seasoned veterans in the MLS hasn’t come easy for the young product from Fresno.
“Yeah, it's really hard. It's a battle every day. To be honest, every training session is a battle because everyone wants to play, but the way I try to think about it is I’m just trying to get better every day, whether it's for the next opportunity or if it's for the next game.”
Arfsten’s hard work during training paid off. Columbus Crew head coach Wilfried Nancy rewarded the striker with his first minutes in an MLS game on March 25, against Atlanta United in front of the Crews’ home crowd.
Arfsten was subbed late in the game, and in his first touch in the 91st minute of regulation, he scored his first goal in the league.
“Yeah, that was probably the craziest moment for me,” said Arfsten regarding his MLS debut. “It was my first-ever game, and when he [Nancy] called me to go in the game, I was super excited and nervous. And when I was playing, I felt like everything was just moving in slow motion because I was kind of processing everything like ‘damn, I'm really playing an MLS game.’ That was my mentality because I was just so excited."
“I just remember my teammate crossed the ball, and I felt like it [the ball] was just moving so slow, and I was ready to place it in the corner. And then once I hit it, I felt like everything moved so fast after that, the crowd was loud, and then I ran over to celebrate. It was in the 91st minute, and the game ended right after. So that day was really special for me.”
Despite limited playing time in the 2023 season, the kid from Fresno appeared in 13 matches and scored
three goals and tallied two assists. The Crew eventually went on to win the 2023 MLS Cup against the defending champions Los Angeles Football Club.
“It was crazy for me because last year, I was literally watching LAFC playing against Philly and all those players, Carlos Vela, who I grew up watching were right in front of me, and we were playing against him,” said Arfsten. “Being from California, LAFC is always the best team and is the standard in MLS for the past couple of years at least. So it was pretty wild, to be honest. And then beating them was definitely special.”
“But it was probably my most full-circle moment just because I remember I was in Fresno watching [Gareth] Bale score that late goal, and It was a crazy game. So the fact that we were playing them a year later was crazy for me.”
Despite Columbus, Ohio being over 2,000 miles away from Fresno, California, Arfsten doesn’t forget where he comes from and why he plays the game. It's not about money or fame; for him, it's about the joy of the game.
“I played because I love the game and I love the work. I love the process. I think it's something that is applicable to life, not just soccer. You work to become better at what you do. I think there's a lot of merit in that and just helps you grow as a person. I just enjoy the process of the beauty of becoming, the beauty of just getting better. I want to get better this year and the next year, the next year. Let's see how good I can get. Let's see how successful I could be. I think that process is fun because you're bettering yourself,” said Arfsten.