The constant stream of eligible dual-national talents should come as little surprise in an increasingly globalized world, even if most will never wear a red, white, and blue jersey. While the United States Under-20 Men’s National Team’s run at the 2023 U-20 World Cup ended in the quarterfinal round, another American was able to claim third place with Israel. El-Yam Kancepolsky (also stylized “Elyam”) was a key player at the recently-concluded tournament and is emerging as one of the top young players in the Israeli Premier League. The 19-year-old midfielder had a breakout year with Hapoel Tel Aviv and should continue to build on his recent success.
Born in Hawaii, Kancepolsky moved at the age of four with his family – a “family of surfers” with his father the “vice-champion of Europe” – to Israel. He played in the Hapoel Herzliya academy, initially as a goalkeeper, before joining Hapoel Tel Aviv in 2014 and becoming a captain. After appearing on the first-team bench for a few fixtures, the midfielder made his senior debut on the last day of the 2020-2021 season, starting and featuring for all 90 minutes in a 3-2 victory over Bnei Sakhnin.
The following season was spent largely at the youth level, playing in 29 matches and scoring twice. He made two brief substitute appearances, featuring for five and one minutes in victories over Hapoel Haifa and Hapoel Jerusalem, respectively. When negotiations for his first professional contract hit some friction due to length and “a dispute regarding the player’s release clause,” there was reported interest from “several options in the United States and Europe,” namely in Bulgaria and the Netherlands. Following a lengthy saga of which every step was documented by the media, the decision was made to stay at Tel Aviv due to the club’s history of youth development, signing a three-year deal with an additional one-year option and a non-domestic 900,000-euro release clause.
“I didn’t like the way it went, [and] I didn’t intend for it to last like this,” Kancepolsky told One. “I had things to think about, but basically my head was active. I didn’t want it to end badly and I’m happy that I’m continuing in my home club... In the end, the thing that stood in front of my eyes was where I could play in the seniors in a meaningful way and progress... In addition, everything that was in the media was crazy and being around the fans is something I was not used to. The most important thing is that everything is behind me and I hope I will justify all the madness that was around me.”
The decision to stay in Israel paid off as this past season was a breakout for the teenager, despite missing training camp due to a back injury sustained during international duty. He played in 22 total matches while dealing with a minor quadricep issue and card suspension as Hapoel Tel Aviv finished at 10th place in the 14-team table and avoided relegation by four points. His standout performance came in a 3-2 loss to Hapoel Be’er Sheva, contributing a goal and an assist, the former a stunning long-distance shot to the near post.
Kancepolsky continues to be a constant subject in the rumor section of the newspaper. Local media speculates that his transfer could be used to help the club balance the books. Maccabi Haifa reportedly offered three players and 500,000 euros for the midfielder, only to be immediately met with a counter-offer of 1.5 million euros. MLS side Orlando City SC, among others, is also said to be interested but has yet to make an official bid. While he is reportedly “still a soldier in the army” performing mandatory military service, the Israel Defense Forces “is not expected to stand in his way” in the event of a move abroad.
At the international level, Kancepolsky made his debut for Israel at the U-17 level and has been a regular call-up to the program. He started in every match at the 2022 UEFA European Under-19 Championship, scoring the eventual match-winner, described as “a lethal header,” in the 2-1 semifinal victory against France before falling to England in the final. His influence continued at the recently-concluded U-20 World Cup as הכחולים-לבנים (The Blues and Whites) registered a third-place finish, appearing in all seven matches, starting six, and assisting on the first goal in the quarterfinal win over Brazil. The teenager, who is expected to feature at the 2024 Olympics, was “very proud” to represent the county at the competition, describing the experience as “a huge dream.” According to a report, a prior invitation to play for one of the USMNT’s youth sides “fell through due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.”
Typically lined up at defensive midfielder, Kancepolsky can be deployed higher up the field and at centre-back, listing speed and mentality as his best assets. His surfing background is credited with giving him a “broad back thanks to [the] rowing” as well as “strong and stable legs.” He is praised as “strong and technically assured” with “impressive stamina,” displaying “composure and intelligence in possession” while preferring to make the “simple pass” and “breaking up opposition attacks with timely interceptions and tackles.” There is a distinct equanimity to his game, at times operating as if the opponent is a complete non-entity while carrying out his various machinations in the heart of the formation.
“He is not afraid to get into tackles and takes risks in defensive actions,” said Tel Aviv U-19 coach Michael Zandberg. “A very responsible boy, he was my captain, a leader who influences the players around him. Once he is good, the whole team is good. [He is] quiet with the ball, almost never loses it. Surfing mainly strengthened his stability in his legs. He is not tempted to fall into dangerous glitches and cleanly retrieves balls.”
In all likelihood, Kancepolsky will never suit up for the United States program and instead be fast-tracked to the senior level for Israel. His emergence for both club and country are noticeable enough to gain promotion, although circumstances can change with time as leadership shifts or new priorities emerge. For now, he is receiving transfer interest and will soon test himself in a bigger league. American supporters should continue to monitor his progress but expect to mentally file him into the “What Could Have Been” folder occupied by other notable dual-nationals.