Assistant Editor, Soccer America Magazine
On the field, they played in Freddy Adu's shadows. Even today they marvel at the moves he executed, contributing to the making of a legend. Off the field, they were Freddy's older brothers, all two years older than the phenom who entered the U.S. U-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla., at the age of 13. For two years, they lived together. Then after the 2003 Under-17 World Championship, where the team finished fifth, they went their separate ways. Freddy joined D.C. United. But most went on to college -- and stayed. This is the story of five former U-17 residents who are college seniors this fall.
Corey Ashe: Missing his buddies
At 5-foot-6, Corey Ashe is one the smallest players to come through the U.S. youth national team system. With his speed, Ashe was often compared to DaMarcus Beasley, but Ashe didn't develop as quickly as Beasley did. Still, he's had a good career at North Carolina, where he's shown a knack for the goal like Beasley has. The Virginia Beach, Va., product scored 19 goals in his first three seasons.
Corey Ashe spent the full cycle -- four semesters -- at the U-17 residency program in Bradenton.
He says it's an experience he'll never forget: '''Playing with and against the best players in the world. Hanging out in the dorms with the guys. Traveling the world. That was a special team. We looked at each other like brothers, like family.'''
He admits he sometimes misses his buddies.
'''I know a lot of young players in MLS like Adu, [Eddie] Gaven and [Danny] Szetela,''' says Ashe. ''I miss playing with them. I miss playing at highest level. College soccer is up there, but the national team is highest level. I wasn't mature enough and I needed to play college to work on that.''
Ashe is in familiar company at Carolina, which counts six former U-17 residents on its roster. He feels some frustration with the college game.
''At times, you come across teams with players that don't understand the game,'' says Ashe. ''The physical play gets out of hand. There are cheap shots, and people try to get in your head.''
Carolina came into the 2006 as a marked team. It was ranked No. 1 in the Soccer America Preseason Men's Top 25 and spent the first two weeks of the season in the top spot.
''We need to just play and not worry about who's ranked where,'' Ashe says. ''We need to come together as a team. At the end of [last] season, we started to peak. Unfortunately, we were knocked out in the ACC finals and were eliminated in the Elite 8. This year, almost everyone is returning. We just need to stay focused and play each game as hard as we can.''
Steven Curfman: Beating Freddy at video games
Steven Curfman entered U.S. Soccer's residency in the second semester of the '03 U-17s' cycle and became a valuable addition to the team in the back and midfield. The Wake Forest senior is one of the most dangerous players in college soccer with his left foot on set pieces.
Steven Curfman, who roomed with Adu in Bradenton, says his best memories of the U.S. soccer protege are not on the soccer field but behind video controls in their dorm room.
Curfman is most proud that he beat Adu in the Tiger Woods video game.
''Just knowing that I was better than at him than something was a good memory!'' says Curfman. ''We spent a lot of time playing video games.''
Curfman was no slack in the classroom, however. He scored 800 on his Math SAT when he took the test as a 15-year-old.
''It's something I picked up early,'' says the computer science major. ''It's a subject I enjoy. My sister was smart so there was that sibling rivalry. She was one year ahead, but I was in her math class. So competing with her had a lot to do with it.'' At Wake Forest, he says his teammates sometimes tease him.
''Whenever we do something,'' he says, ''the guys say, 'You answer, Curfman. You're the genius.'''
He adds that they've learned when to quit the kidding.
''The guys don't joke so much,'' he says ''when they need help in a math class.''
But Curfman says college is hard work.
''The hardest thing is juggling academics with your life,'' he says. ''Soccer at this level is like a full-time job. Sometimes, it can be tough to handle.''
In order, Curfman ranks his soccer ambitions: playing in MLS, playing overseas, coaching.
''If all else fails, at least I'll have a degree in computer science,'' he says. ''I really haven't thought about that, though. I'm focused on soccer.''
John DiRaimondo: Putting on school jersey with pride
After one year at St. Louis University High School, John DiRaimondo departed for Bradenton, Fla., where he spent two years with the U-17s. He scored the first goal in the 3-0 victory over Guatemala that clinched a spot in the 2003 Under-17 World Championship. After the finals, he returned home to attend Saint Louis University.
For many kids, college is a chance to get away from home.
For John DiRaimondo, playing soccer at Saint Louis University meant the opposite.
''I like the location,'' he says. ''It's close to home. I was gone a lot with the 17s. There's a great soccer tradition here. We have a good fan base.''
DiRaimondo says there are pluses and minuses about playing college soccer.
''The best thing is the competition, in generall,'' he says. ''We play a lot of games in the fall. There are a lot of fans at the games. I like the whole atmosphere of college soccer.''
The worst thing? ''You only play four months out of the year. The season is kind of short.''
With its 10 national titles -- but none since 1973 -- SLU is one of the few schools at which it can be said that there's pressure from alumni on the soccer program to win. The pressure has increased since the Billikens failed to make the NCAA Tournament the last two seasons.
DiRaimondo downplays the situation, however.
''There's always pressure,'' he says. ''I'd rather have it that way than be at a school where no on cares about your team. It's good to have the alumni and the community supporting you no matter how the team is doing. They are so knowledgeable. It makes you proud to put on the jersey.''
If being close to home has been important for DiRaimondo in college, he says he'll play soccer anywhere at the next level.
''I'd love to play pro,'' he says. ''I'm looking to do that after school. It's always been a dream of mine. I don't have any preferences about where I'd like to play. My options are open.''
Phil Marfuggi: Weighing his pro options
Phil Marfuggi left New Jersey's PDA youth program in 2002 to enter the U.S. U-17 residency program, where he quickly emerged as the USA's top young goalie prospect. He enjoyed a breakout season last year as a junior at Clemson, helping the Tigers to the final four and earning Soccer America MVP honors.
Phil Marfuggi's first two seasons at Clemson were filled with frustrations -- the Tigers finished sixth, then tied for seventh in the ACC -- but that all changed in 2005 when he shut out four straight opponents to help the Tigers to the Men's College Cup.
''It was an exciting time,'' he says. ''Not giving up any goals and getting shutouts was great.''
Marfuggi grew in New Jersey but loves playing at a school like Clemson, where college sports is huge.
''There's so much passion here,'' he says. ''There is orange everywhere. You can see it at all the sporting events here.''
College soccer, even at a big institution like Clemson, isn't exactly glamorous. Marfuggi says the worst thing is the travel.
''We played yesterday at 8 p.m.,'' he says of the Tigers' opening weekend trip to Memphis, Tenn. ''Then we had a 9-hour bus ride and didn't get in until 6 in morning.'' The pressure is on Marfuggi this season.
''We're a different team than last year,'' he says. ''We got a lot more offense. Also, we've lost Nathan Sturgis and Justin Moore to MLS. We just need to keep it tight at back and take our chances. The ACC is a battle in every game. There is high quality competition in every game.''
Like all the seniors, Marfuggi is looking at the future. As a goalie, he has particularly hard time since MLS teams rarely take goalies high in the SuperDraft. (Only three keepers have gone in the first round in the last decade: Matt Jordan in 1998, Adin Brown in 2000 and Brad Guzan in 2005.)
But Marfuggi is proud how much he's matured as a keeper and is ready for the pros.
''After this season, I'll weigh my options,'' he says. ''MLS is one of the great leagues. I'll have options in Europe, as well.''
Brandon Owens: Thinking of medical school
Brandon Owens, who grew up in Murrieta, Calif., was rated the No. 3 recruit in the country by Soccer America when he entered UCLA. He was the only freshman on the 2003 All-Pac-10 first team. At the start of the 2006 season, his status was questionable because of a knee injury.
Brandon Owens captained the U-17s in 2003, so he developed friendships with many players.
''The friendships are the best memories,'' he says of the U-17 experience. ''I met different people from different backgrounds. I got to travel the world at young age. By 18, I'd seen more places than most people see in a lifetime.''
Like his former teammates, the defender remembers Adu for the first of three goals against South Korea, on a run that took him through the entire Korean defense and around the keeper. Owens had particular reason to be pleased with the goal.
''I had an own goal and that leveled it,'' he says. ''I got the gamewinner in the end.''
Younger Bruins Benny Feilhaber, Marvel Wynne and Patrick Ianni turned pro, but Owens remained in Westwood.
''I can't say I have too many regrets,'' Owens says. ''Maybe there's a bit of doubt when you think about the 'what ifs.''' I'm happy with my decision. Everything happens for a reason.''
Owens says the college experience has helped him to grow.
''When I chose to come here, I was 17,'' he says. ''College has given me time to mature and grow up a bit.''
Owens wants to play pro soccer but also is considering medical school.
''I want to try to be a pro first,'' he says. ''I want to be a doctor in orthopedics.''
He has had to juggle soccer and an ambitious academic program.
''It's a bit challenging,''says the biology major. ''Most math and science classes are in the morning. I also have practice in morning. It's tough to schedule classes. Plus, kids in the major spend a lot of hours studying. So, the time management can be hard.''
(This article originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of Soccer America magazine.)