The Kids Are Alright
Rookie Life: Before, During, and After MLS Draft Day
Rookies find their way into Major League Soccer through many routes. In the first of an ongoing series, Alexander Abnos reports on the road four of them traveled to reach the professional level.
BY Alexander Abnos PostedChris Thomas had quite the college career. In 2012 he scored more goals than anybody else in division one college soccer. He set all-time scoring records at his school. His conference named him player of the year—twice. He made a plethora of year-end All-"something" teams and was semifinalist for the Hermann Trophy, the annual award given to the best college soccer player. Then he went the entire 2013 MLS SuperDraft without hearing his name called. "I wasn't mad or sad or anything like that,” Thomas said after the fact. "I know it's just coaches trying to make their teams better. But then there's also that side of me that thinks about every coach that was thinking about drafting me and didn't. I want to make them regret that decision." This scrappy, underdog mentality is well suited to a league like MLS. Even as the level of play continues to rise, successful seasons are had by teams with this sort of pure, relentless drive—that thrive on imposing their will, their style on a game, even if the opponent has superior talent. It's a primary reason why the Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake have been perennial playoff powers, while the high-powered and high-priced LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls each needed a few years to figure things out or are still searching. In the still-young league, hustle counts. Thomas’ school, Elon University, sits in the shadow of a plethora of powerful programs. UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, and Wake Forest are an hour away. And UNC-Charlotte, the 2012 national champion, is nearby as well. "People might not say that they disrespect us, but we know people do," Thomas says. "We beat Wake the last two years, shut out Duke, beat UNC too. We just like to go out there and prove it on the field." Once Elon's season ended in the fall, Thomas would have to prove his worth, too. Only this time, it would be in the bizarre, roulette-style series of games known as the MLS Combine. Thomas, who relied so much on the camaraderie of his team for his success, would be under pressure to perform with players he had barely met. Opening day brought mixed results. First, a missed chance: running onto a cross in the box, he attempted a flying finish with the outside of his boot. The volley sailed over the bar from just a few yards out. Then, his best moment: capitalizing on some clever interplay at the top of the box, Thomas ghosted away from his defender, re-pivoted his body to meet the ball, and slid a cool, comfortable finish into the back of the net. It was a play that embodies Thomas as a player: not the most athletic man on the field, but one who is instinctive and lethal in the finish. One problem: The goal was offside. "I thought the finish was one of the best I've had in my whole life," Thomas says disappointedly. He wouldn't recreate it, going the remaining two games of the combine without scoring. "One interesting thing that I thought was that the team that did the best at the combine, they had a bunch of high profile players on there, and a lot of those players got selected in the SuperDraft," Thomas says. "They have so many top players around them, they had good showings and went in the first two rounds." "I don't mean to downgrade the people on my team... but it's something to think about." Although draft day was difficult, it would turn out okay. The New England Revolution nabbed Thomas in the MLS Supplemental Draft five days later. He found out on Twitter, surrounded by elated Elon teammates, coaches, and staff. “I’m so glad I went there,” he said of New England. +++ Everyone deals with stress differently. Some hold it inside and release it at an opportune moment. Some lash out. Others shy away from stress altogether. And still others use it to make themselves better at what they do. For five days at the MLS Combine, Fernando Monge's future was at his feet. The UCLA midfielder played three games with brand new teammates under the watchful gaze of MLS coaches, who he interviewed with in his downtime. Soccer was no longer the pastime it was when Monge first learned it. In Fort Lauderdale, the sport became his job. On January 17, just as the 2013 MLS SuperDraft was kicking off in downtown Indianapolis, Fernando Monge left his parents’ house in Bellevue, Washington. The 22-year old headed to the park by his old high school where he juggled a tennis ball and stretched in preparation for his last training session as an amateur athlete. "I just wanted to go out and have fun for once," Monge said of his solo workout. "I wasn't nervous or anxious. I felt free. Free from everything, just knowing that no matter if I get drafted or where I go, I just have to keep enjoying playing. I just have to keep the same mentality." "Honestly, it was the best training session I've ever had." The MLS Combine held mixed fortunes for Monge. For a player that likes to keep things simple, the circumstances didn’t allow for as much. The teams were new, with members that had barely met, and the result was an omnipresent uncomfortable feeling. "The first game was an adjustment,” he says. “It was pretty shocking. Like ‘Whoa, everyone's just running around.’ I just tried to complete all the passes I could and keep it simple." Soon enough, Monge's chance came. His team had possession, and he could see the ball on the opposite side of the field. He tracked it as it rolled through his team's forward, and all of a sudden, there he was, in the penalty box. The forward had played a delicate lofted pass right onto his run. As the ball dropped, Monge prepared to hit it on the volley, to snatch it out of the air and turn it into a solid addition to his draft day resume. The ball hit the bottom of his foot and went wide. No goal. "That kind of ruined my day," Monge says. "After the game, I was like 'That was my one chance to make a statement in that game!'" "Everyone misses chances," his coach at the combine, Brian Tompkins of Yale University, told him on the bus back to the hotel. He was right. Monge approached the second and third days with a new, stronger mentality. By the third day, it paid off. Once again, a teammate saw his early run into the box. Once again, Monge tried to hit it on the volley. This time, the finish was exquisite. The success of the goal carried over to his solo training session back home in Bellevue. Monge ran cone drills smooth and crisp. In his shooting drills, every effort hit the back of the net. It all was going his way. Happiness radiated through Monge as he simply celebrated the sport he loves. Monge returned home to find his parents glued to the television, watching the SuperDraft live stream. In many ways they were more nervous than Fernando himself. It was the middle of the first round, and his name had yet to be called. Again, Monge left the room, electing to take a shower after his training session. When he got out, his agent was calling. Monge answered. "Dude," his agent said. "You're getting drafted." +++ If a casual observer of ESPN knew nothing else of MLS, they might assume Andrew Farrell is already a superstar. After all, his was the only pick, No. 1 overall to the New England Revolution, actually broadcast on the network. Farrell will be the first to tell you that he’s no big deal. "[In MLS], everyone has a couple No. 1 guys, and a couple Generation Adidas guys and a couple guys who played for the national team," Farrell says. "Right now... I'm just a rookie." And rookies pick up balls after practice, gather the cones, and generally fulfill all the menial tasks required of those in their first professional year. That includes helping out when travel plans go slightly awry. Farrell had barely gotten settled in Boston when he left again for training camp with his new team in the warm, expansive confines of Tucson, Arizona. Along with his fellow rookies, Farrell loaded the bus for Boston Logan International Airport along with everything the team would be bringing with it—at least 40 bags in total, between the players' personal belongings and the uniforms, training shirts, socks, and shoes they would wear on the field. Merrily they rolled along, with Farrell and the rest of the Revolution players gliding above the traffic in the elevated seats of their charter coach. Seats that, as it turned out, were a little too elevated. Upon arriving at the airport's departures terminal, the roof of the bus loudly scraped the top of the entryway. The charter stopped there. The team would walk to their departure gate, and it was on the rookies to carry the bags. "Of course," Farrell said, "We're flying US Airways, and the entry for that airline was really far from where the bus stopped." Frantically, Farrell and fellow rookies Donnie Smith, Luis Soffner, Luke Spencer, and Scott Caldwell grabbed the bags from the bus and began the journey to the gate. It took 30 minutes in below-freezing temperatures. The fun wasn't over, though. Upon arrival out west, the carts the team intended to use to carry the bags arrived late—more bad news for the rookies. "We had to manually roll these bags from the plane to the bus, which I think they purposely parked as far away from the terminal as possible," Farrell recalled, laughing. "We each had to make like four trips. It was just ridiculous, but y’know, you gotta do it. It was fun." "Ultimately, It's still just crazy that I'm here," he continued. "It's what I've dreamed of since I was a kid. I still can't grip it." +++ Ian Christianson sat down to dinner. An action that, any other time, would not be worth noting. But his tablemates on this night were international soccer stars Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, now his teammates. And Christianson, the Georgetown midfielder who the New York Red Bulls made their only selection in the SuperDraft, was going to soak up all he could. "They were talking about some of the old players in the Premier League," Christianson said of the table conversation. "Thierry was talking a little bit about Martin Keown and Sol Campbell. Keown I guess was a really hard player, you don't want to get stuck in with him. Sol Campbell was such a big guy, the kinda guy people run away from so they don't get crossed." Suffice to say, such conversations don’t happen often in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Christianson grew up and learned the game of soccer in that Midwestern town of 126,000, colloquially known as the City of Five Seasons. (The fifth season exists to enjoy the other four). The town has produced a surprising amount of professional athletes—former NFL quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Trent Green among them—but Christianson still found it necessary to move away once his pro aspirations became clear in high school. At the age of 16, Christianson moved three hours away to Rockford, Illinois, where he attended a new school and trained with a new team (The Chicago Fire Academy). "I guess at the time I didn't think much about it," Christianson said. "I was only 16, and turning pro was the main goal. I needed a new challenge." Christianson met the challenge and more. In two years with the Fire, Christianson was named one of the best players in the region and led his team to a division championship. At Georgetown, he led a previously unheralded group to the College Cup final as a senior. Now, as a newly minted pro, he hopes to continue his individual development. All he has to do is listen. "Their level of focus is extremely high," Christianson says of his veteran teammates. "They don't take any breaks. I just hope to raise my game to that level." Alexander Abnos (@AnAbnos) is ASN's special projects editor.
January 31, 2013
January 31, 2013