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Eight College Stars Who Could Impact the Pros

College soccer is back this weekend and Robert L Kehoe III offers up some special players to watch. How many of these eight young men will be playing on an MLS field and beyond soon?
BY Robert L Kehoe III Posted
August 27, 2014
12:00 PM
I’m never surprised by how insecure many American fans become when college soccer is the topic of conversation. But gauging reactions to my introduction to ASN’s College Soccer watch, I was pleased to discover how many ASN readers appreciate the college game, with some sound opinions about how it can improve moving forward.

For the insecure among us, I simply wish to point out that neither I, nor anybody at American Soccer Now, is claiming that college soccer is the only, or best, source of professional and international development. I argued that it’s a vital (in other words, life giving) source, which can’t be denied based on the contribution of college players to the last seven World Cups. To avoid confusion, the basic tenets I’m proposing are as follows:

MLS Academies plus Young Americans Playing in Europe plus Robust College Soccer Programs equals

  • More American players playing at a high level than any other country in the world.
  • More American players who will gain the knowledge and experience to become youth coaches and grass roots leaders in their soccer communities.
  • More American players filling bars with intelligent soccer conversation, and inviting future neighbors who’ve never seen a pro game to stop by and watch PSG play Nantes. I’m no mathematician, but that’s three’ish good things for America soccer.

    Instead of getting into wheel spinning contests, go out and watch some college teams, then watch some MLS reserve teams, and don’t be surprised if you see a lot of the same qualities, and players. Such as...

    In the back

    Joe Greenspan—The United States Naval Academy
    When the US Naval Academy plays their opening match against Air Force, preseason All American Joe Greenspan will have played center back for less than one season. A senior who’s spent the majority of his time as an imposing 6-foot-6 striker, the transition has been a revelation for Navy and MLS scouts across the country. Greenspan has the feet of a natural goal scorer, with the physical presence and subtlety to hassle opposing attackers, and he’s a dominant force defending or scoring on set pieces. Having recently spent time training with DC United reserves, the discussion of his pro and national potential is heating up. But Greenspan will answer his Naval commission before he signs a pro contract. It’s not as though soccer fans have been looking for their version of David Robinson, but Greenspan may be the player to justify comparison, which might convince the brass to say, “go play soccer for us.”

    Anthony Manning—St. Louis University
    Manning has the size of a towering 6-foot-4 center back, but according to head coach Mike McGinty, he plays like he’s 5-foot-9. A calm influence under pressure, Manning won’t be found begging for attention with the John Terry scream-your-head-off-“cos you’re a wanker”-routine. He’s smart with the ball at his feet, patient in his distribution, and while he has the size and strength to deliver punishing tackles he rarely has to because of his expert timing and anticipation. Due to a series of injuries, Manning hasn’t been able to benefit from off season experience and exposure to MLS training sessions, but defenders are a safe draft for clubs who prefer to spend their DP dollars on attacking players, and with the right organization he’ll adapt to pro speed in no time.

    Middle of the park

    Dan Metzger—Maryland
    Maryland has claimed the last two Hermann trophies (the college game’s highest individual honor), both awarded to New England’s Patrick Mullins. If you ask around they may have a third on the way. Some will argue otherwise, but Danny Metzger is probably the best center midfielder in college soccer. A Staten Island native, nurtured in the New York Red Bull Academy, he is a disruptive tackler, with exquisite technical ability, and off the chart soccer smarts, who can make game changing plays out of nothing. Experience with the youth national team has added to an impressive resume and a lock for advancement to MLS or abroad. The only (slight) knock against him is his speed, but when I spoke with one of his youth national coaches he said that Metzger is a quicker and more dynamic Kyle Beckerman. Nobody’s ever confused the Real Salt Lake veteran with Usain Bolt, but the Terp’s captain has the feet and a cerebral disposition to set himself apart from most, if not all, of his rivals in the midfield.

    Nick Besler—Notre Dame
    “He’s a good one, with a natural feel for the game,” says coach Bobby Clarke. And yes, he’s Matt’s little brother, and yes, he followed Matt to Notre Dame, and yes, people always compare the two. But Clarke says a more apt comparison would be a player he coached at Stanford, an EPL veteran, and Toronto FC manager, Ryan Nelsen. The Notre Dame manager also pointed out that big bro Matt came in as a midfielder who moved to the back, where Nick arrived as a back who moved into the middle. With a defenders knack for protecting first, young Besler can clog up the center, but has the appetite to break in transition with a penetrating run or pass forward. He’s also dangerous in the air, even at 5-foot-11. After graduating Harry Shipp, the defending national champions still open the season ranked No. 1, and their ability to contend for another College Cup will have a lot to do with the presence of Besler.

    Up front

    Jordan Morris—Stanford
    Humility, confidence, and a tireless work ethic are all characteristics used to describe Jordan Morris. Explosive change of pace and breakaway speed are what puts fear in the minds of defenders and goalkeepers up and down the west coast. But Morris isn’t just a track star wearing Mercurials. He can attack on the dribble, beat defenders in face off situations, and link with fellow attackers while creating confusion for opponents with his movement off the ball. Coach Jeremy Gunn says he’s an exceptional reader of the game, who ideally fits in a two-striker partnership, but his ability to run with the ball make him adaptable to wing positions in a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2. A Seattle based player, who’s played with the Sounders Academy and trained with Everton’s reserves, he has the skill, maturity and exposure to make it at the next level of competition. As he says here, he hopes his academy days aren’t the last time he plays for the Emerald City.
    Robert Kristo—St. Louis University
    Back to Saint Louis, US Soccer may have a bidding war on their hands when it comes to Robert Kristo. The son of Croatian immigrants who deferred to academic advisors before pro scouts, the star striker has followed a great tradition of goal scorers at SLU that includes US legend Brian McBride and Bosnia and Herzegovina international Vedad Ibisevic. But according to coach McGinty, Kristo’s style of play is more akin to an Eastern-Euro-émigré, who landed in Sweden. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a big name to live up to, but “Robert is the kind of player who wants to meg a guy, scissor the next, then chip the goalkeeper, and make sure it looks as effortless as possible.” He’s also lethal out of the air and he can slot to the corners with the best of them. Having recently trained with Sporting KC, Columbus Crew, and Chicago Fire, he knows how to work at the next level and he always wants the ball no matter who’s defending him. If Kristo is as good a pro as he’s been in college, Jurgen Klinsmann may want to skip the next plane to Berlin and get to Saint Louis before Niko Kovac beats him to it.

    Zack Steffen—Maryland
    Zack Steffen is the US U-20 No. 1, he’s the best young goalkeeper in America, and will give plenty of top prospects around the globe a run for their money. Stan Anderson (@soccer_coach), has coached, trained and recruited the top shot stoppers in the country for decades, so it takes a lot to impress him between the sticks. But after watching Steffen play for only 25 minutes at a youth academy showcase three years ago all he could say was, “WOW!” According to Anderson, the GK spot for the National Team is Brad Guzan’s to lose in the next two cycles, but Steffen will make things interesting depending on where he lands in the pro ranks. His mechanics, size, and reach are matched by quickness and exceptional distribution. He can hold what most keepers wish they could parry. But more than anything Steffen emotes a goalmouth presence that communicates to everybody on the pitch and in the stands that nobody’s scoring today unless they do something pretty special. For a nation that prides itself on quality in net, Steffen will likely carry on the tradition, and top dogs in Europe have already taken notice.
    Karson Payton—Utah Valley University
    You probably haven’t heard of Utah Valley University, and you’ve probably never heard of Karson Payton, because UVU has never played an official game, and Payton left Real Salt Lake’s Academy two years ago to go on a Mormon mission in Argentina. So when the Wolverines kick off their inaugural season on August 30th, they might have the most mature and accomplished freshman in the country patrolling their midfield. Not many follow Payton’s trajectory, and he’s the antithesis of the soccer-before-all-else approach to pro development. But life and family (Payton is 22 and married, with a little boy at home) have come before progress on the field, which means he brings a lot more to the table than eyes in the back of your head vision, and what associate head coach Matt Ellinger calls pure soccer speed. “I don’t know how he’s faster with the ball at his feet, but he is," he says. Since returning from Argentina, he’s also been training with RSL’s reserves to rave reviews. Partnering with German center midfielder Paul Hoffmeister, who turned down a pro contract with Fortuna Dusseldorf to play college soccer in America (yep, it happens), UVU could be turning heads around the country. You can see for yourself on Aug 30th, when they play UMASS on NSCAATV.com.

    Robert L Kehoe III (@robertkehoe3) played soccer and studied politics at Wheaton College (IL), and philosophy at Boston College.

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