Justin Hoyte is enjoying his adventure with MLS newcomers FC Cincinnati. Adam Bate caught up with the former Arsenal defender to look back on memories of the Invincibles and ahead to an exciting new challenge.
It was a tough introduction to Major League Soccer for expansion team FC Cincinnati as they were beaten 4-1 away to Seattle Sounders on the opening weekend of the season. It doesn't get any easier either as they travel to Atlanta United to take on the champions on Sunday, but for one veteran defender this is the return to the big time that he craved.
Justin Hoyte made 68 appearances for Arsenal early in his career, even featuring in their famed 'Invincible' season. He last played in the Premier League for Gareth Southgate's Middlesbrough in 2009 and went on to represent Dagenham and Redbridge in League Two before embarking upon this American adventure. The decision has been vindicated.
"I made an amazing choice to come out here and I am really enjoying it," Hoyte tells Sky Sports. "Getting back in a top league is a major achievement and it's something I wanted to do. I am lucky enough to be part of something big here. Playing in front of 25,000 to 30,000 is like being back in the Premier League really. For me, it's perfect. It was a great decision."
Hoyte is into his third year with FC Cincinnati but it's very different this time around with the team joining MLS. "There is more interest from all around the world," he explains. "We could sense that last year and it is only growing now with the facilities and everything else. MLS just means more support and more people coming together to get behind us.
"There is a major buzz, not just inside the club but in the whole city. This is what Cincinnati has been waiting for since the club was formed and the franchise was built."
The 34-year-old Londoner, who is also a Trinidad and Tobago international, has thrown himself into life in Ohio. "You just have to be open to it," he says. "I have really got into NFL - I go to watch the Bengals whenever I can - and I watch the NBA too. I watch the Premier League in the morning and then on the nights it's NFL and NBA. It works out perfectly."
So do the days of playing alongside Thierry Henry and the rest feel like a long time ago now? "It was a long time ago but I still remember it like it was yesterday. I was an Arsenal fan and I still am. I'm a boyhood fan who achieved my dream of playing for the first team so I will always look back on it fondly. Even now people ask me about Arsenal and what it was like."
Hoyte's one appearances for the Invincibles came as a late substitute for Robert Pires in a 3-0 win away to Birmingham but there were plenty of highlights. He won the Community Shield, played in a win over Tottenham, made 10 appearances in the Champions League, and even scored a Premier League goal for the club against Charlton in January 2007.
Henry led the celebrations after that one, but there are lots of names that Hoyte can drop to his younger team-mates if he were so inclined. "Some of the younger ones don't know them all because they weren't the big, big names like Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi," he says. "But lots of them ask me what it was like at Arsenal and in the Premier League."
He adds: "It's kind of strange because I was the youngster in the team back then and now I'm the experienced player. I think I'm the third oldest on the team. You have to try to become that role model who can help the young players and pass something on."
They will need that experience this season. On the pitch, it's Hoyte's versatility that is important, playing in the full-back positions or as part of a back three. "That's my role now, really, to be used in different positions," he explains. "I just want to help the team any way I can." Off the pitch, the challenge will be to ensure that everyone enjoys the ride.
"I think we just need to focus on getting the mentality right in the group and enjoying the experience the best that we can," he says. "In America, the main goal is to get to the play-offs and, being a new team, that's what you want to do. People aren't saying we are going to get to the play-offs but I do think we are capable of shocking a few teams."
As for Hoyte, he just wants this journey to continue. "The ambition is to enjoy it, take it all in and play as many games as possible," he adds. "My ultimate goal is to stay here for as long as I can. As long as they want me in Cincinnati, I will look to stay. As long as my body tells me I can carry on I will carry on because I still love this game."