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MLS draftees are reaping the benefits of a proactive approach
by Ridge Mahoney, January 18th, 2013 1:34AM

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By Ridge Mahoney in Indianapolis

Attitude, attitude, attitude.

The prevailing theme of SuperDraft 2013, the second year of its two-round existence, came through again and again from coaches, players, and general managers: soccer players are maturing at an earlier age, and thus are better prepared for the pro game when they leave their schools.

And they’d better be better prepared, because the competition for spots increases as teams sign more and more young foreign players and domestic products who have taken different routes. Honing talent by repetition and hard work is only part of it; the psychological aspect must be sharpened as well.

Several factors are driving this development. More colleges instill high expectations and accountability into their programs, which eases the transition to a pro environment. Rather than choosing an academy program at the exclusion of college play or vice versa, many players are doing both to get a feel of the professional persona while also using the college years to mature physically and emotionally.

The reverse process is also in force. College players turning pro are no longer students, but more and more they are students of the game. They watch games not just as fans, but as prospective employees, and in seeking any job it pays to know what that company is all about.

Santa Clara forward Erik Hurtado, taken by Vancouver with the No. 5 overall pick, gave reporters a brief scouting rundown of the team he was about to join. “I like the coaching staff, the way they try to play, their formation, and their mentality going forward in the game,” he said. “I think I do fit well, I’ve seen games before, and I think I’m going to have a good time there.”

He almost sounded like a coach describing himself when asked the coaches expect him to do: “To be able to play up top, to get to the end line, create goalscoring opportunities, my relentless work ethic. That’s about it.”

Hurtado also seized an opportunity to see as many live games as possible. Through a business partnership with the San Jose Earthquakes, who just happen to play in Santa Clara’s soccer facility, his roommate’s mom had season tickets. “We got to go to every Earthquakes’ game,” he says.

“Live games are totally different than on-air games. You see off-the-ball things, you see what the forwards and the wide midfielders do when they’re not on the ball and not on TV. It’s really helpful and I think I picked up a lot going to the games and watching them live.”

The aggressively proactive approach takes different forms. Midfielder Erik Bekker, an Ontario native taken by Toronto FC with the No. 3 overall pick, joined the Sigma academy before enrolling at Boston College. If you’ve never heard of it, that might be because it’s in the Netherlands. His stint at the Sigma Elite Training Center earned an invitation to the Ajax youth academy; at BC he was all-ACC first team in 2011 and 2012.

“Being at Sigma Academy, they have taught me absolutely everything I know,” says Bekker, who prefers an attacking role but is more than willing to work box-to-box. “They’ve really developed me and taught me a lot about myself and the game and what it takes to really become a pro, whether it’s taking care of your body, or training like a pro. It’s everything you see outside of the 90 minutes you play each week. That’s what they taught me and I’m going to try and take it to the next level.”

The subject of going pro too early, be it in MLS or overseas, arose once again when the status of one-time wunderkind Freddy Adu came up in conversations with Philadelphia coach John Hackworth. Hackworth confirmed that Adu, the classic young prodigy whose career has stagnated at age 23, would not be present when the Union begins preseason workouts next week and he won’t address the issue until then.

In sharp contrast were his observations about another 23-year-old Ghanaian, second-round pick Stephen Okai, a former youth international for his country who attended the University of Mobile and played PDL soccer for the Des Moines Menace and affiliated club Reading AC. He seems to get it.

“Stephen is probably one of the most ready players in this draft that can step onto an MLS team and play right away,” said Hackworth. “He’s experienced beyond his years and having a lot of personal knowledge of him … it was hard to deny that he was going to be a guy that we weren’t looking at.”

Of the Reading affiliation, Hackworth says, “We feel it’s part of our development program. We get a lot of college players in in the summer, we get them with our staff. We have the opportunity to see them train and possibly bring them in with the first team.”

Seeing games and being seen by pro teams takes commitment and effort by players. Take the case of the first goalkeeper selected, Brad Stuver of Cleveland State, picked No. 32 overall by Montreal. No one can tell if he will make it, but there’s little question he’s taken the pains to give it his best shot.

“I bought the MLS Live pack, so I watched as many games as I could,” says Stuver, who played in the nets as well as midfield for Twinsburg (Ohio) High School. “I was up in Montreal during the summer, so I trained there for 10 days, got a little feel for the team, the players, and atmosphere of being in Quebec, all of it.

“Learning from them, watching them play, seeing the passion they play the game with is just a great experience. They’ve been all over the place, they’ve been where I want to be.”

And maybe these players have found the best way to get there.

And they’d better be better prepared, because the competition for spots increases as teams sign more and more young foreign players and domestic products who have taken different routes. Honing talent by repetition and hard work is only part of it; the psychological aspect must be sharpened as well.



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