The Youth Soccer Insider asked the top picks in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft for memories of their early years -- such as players they admired -- for our latest edition of "When They Were Children."
By Mike Woitalla
Andre Blake, the first goalkeeper to go No. 1 in an MLS draft, became enchanted with the position when he, his five brothers and his father would go to a school field near their home in May Pen -- a southern Jamaican town of 60,000 -- for kickarounds.
“I found myself standing in the goal,” said Blake, who was picked by the Philadelphia Union out of UConn. “Catching the ball was something I liked. It came a little bit easy for me so I thought maybe it was something I was blessed with, a gift.”
He also played in the field throughout his teens. The players he idolized were Manchester United and Netherlands goalkeeper Edwin Van der Saar, and Donovan Ricketts, whom Blake is on course to succeed in goal for the Jamaican national team.
Steve Birnbaum, the No. 2 pick out of Cal, started playing soccer in Southern California AYSO. At age 9 he decided to try out for the Irvine Strikers, the club where his sister played goalkeeper.
“I remember everything about that tryout -- the field, the coaches, the stress, kind of like today,” he said with a chuckle after he got drafted by D.C. United. “I really wanted to make the gold team.”
He succeeded and after playing for years with the Strikers moved to Pateadores. Birnbaum also played basketball, football, baseball, volleyball and lacrosse, but started focusing on soccer at high school age.
“I’m a Chelsea fan so I liked John Terry,” he said. “He’s a great center back and I tried to emulate my game after him a bit. Now I like Omar Gonzalez. He’s a great MLS center back and I think I play like him.”
Christian Dean, a backline partner of Birnbaum’s at Cal, was picked No. 3, by the Vancouver Whitecaps. He starred for Northern California club De Anza Force.
“I like watching Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany. Great player. Positionally smart. I’m an Arsenal fan so I like Laurent Koscielny.
“When I was younger I was a forward and my role model was Thierry Henry. I’d love the opportunity to play against him.”
Steve Neumann, headed New England as the No. 4 pick, has been an Arsenal supporter since the “Invincibles” years when the Gunners won the 2003-04 season without a loss, but his role model is a Liverpool star.
“Steven Gerrard was always my favorite even though I was an Arsenal fan,” said Neuman. “I tried to emulate his playing style.”
He played for Pennsylvannia’s Yardley Makefield Xplosion and the pro career he dreamed of while a young child started to feel within reach while he excelled at Georgetown.
“Especially when we had the College Cup run my junior year, I started believing I had a chance,” said Neumann, who was named the top offensive player at the 2012 College Cup. “I started following MLS more closely and becoming a student of the game.”
Eric Miller, the No. 5 pick by FC Dallas, had planned to play T-ball, but never got a call back from the coach of the team he was supposed to join.
“So I signed up for soccer,” said Miller, who played for the Minnesota Thunder Academy and Bangu Tsunami.
Miller, who believed correctly that Creighton would provide a springboard to the pros, admired Manchester City midfielder Paul Scholes: “Because he kept it simple.”
Damion Lowe, picked No. 8 out of Hartford, says he always wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, Jamaican international Onandi Lowe.
“He was always there for me,” Damion said of his dad, “during the ups and downs, giving me advice. … I saw him play in the World Cup. I saw him play in England. I saw him play in MLS.”
Damion, a defender, also admired Italian World Cup winner Giorgio Chiellini of Juventus and Brazilian Lucio.
“He grew up watching me play, but I didn’t tutor him,” said Onandi. “I went to his games since he was a toddler, and maybe gave him a couple pointers, but not too much. … We juggled together.”
Damion played lots of pick up ball while growing up in Jamaica.
“It was very competitive, kids of all ages,” he remembered. “There were 3-v-3 games, the first team to score won. The winning team stayed on while other groups of three waited their turn. Sometimes there’d be 30 kids there. You’d juggle and pass around until it was your team’s turn and then you tried hard to win so you could play another game right away.
Asked if he thinks Damion can become a better player than he was, Onandi smiled and said, “Why not? Why not? He has all the qualities that his dad does to excel and express himself.”
Previous editions of the Youth Soccer Insider’s “When They Were Children” series:
Darlington Nagbe, Sean Johnson, Nick Rimando, Luis Silva, Juan Agudelo
Mario Balotelli & Philipp Lahm
Nani & David Silva
Cristiano Ronaldo & Danny Welbeck
Bastian Schweinsteiger, Andres Iniesta & Andriy Shevchenko
U.S. Women World Cup 2011 (Alex Morgan & Co.)
Logan Pause, David Ferreira, Fredy Montero, Dwayne De Rosario, CJ Sapong, Perry Kitchen, Tim Ream