Major League Soccer

Navy's Joseph Greenspan Cleared to Play for Rapids

The Navy has authorized the six-foot-six central defender to play with the Colorado Rapids this season, making an already-formidable backline that much stronger. Brooke Tunstall has the details.
BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
May 18, 2015
10:45 AM
ONE OF THE BEST DEFENSES in Major League Soccer is about to get deeper—and a lot bigger—while a player who once thought his career wouldn’t begin for several years will get a chance to play professionally starting next week. 

Joseph Greenspan, a two-time All-American and a mammoth central defender at the United States Naval Academy, has been granted permission from the Department of the Navy to delay his deployment and play for the Colorado Rapids upon his graduation this Friday in Annapolis, Md.

Soon-to-be Ensign Greenspan will be assigned to a recruiting office in Denver while playing for the Rapids this season. 

“I’m thrilled and so excited,” Greenspan told American Soccer Now. “It’s great that I’ll be able to wear two uniforms, the Navy and the Rapids, and pursue two careers that have been a dream of mine. I’m so grateful to the Navy for giving me this chance and to the Rapids for being willing to work with me given my (military) commitment.”

The Rapids drafted Greenspan 26th overall in January and several MLS talent evaluators said he’d have gone higher if not for his military service obligation. All service academy graduates have a mandatory military service of five years of active duty, though some are allowed to spend two years serving full-time and switch to the reserves for six more years. 

“If you like a big center back, he’s the best one in the draft,” an MLS scout told ASN before the draft. “He moves very well for his size, reads the game well, and is comfortable with the ball at his feet.”

In a weird twist, Greenspan thinks his chances of playing this season were boosted by, of all people, Bill Belichick, the head coach of the NFL's New England Patriots. Last month the Patriots drafted Navy long-snapper Joe Cardona and the Navy has agreed to also allow him to delay his deployment until after the 2015 NFL season so he can play professional football. 

“I think Joe’s situation definitely helped, what with football being a little more high-profile and it being the Patriots and all," Greenspan said. "Once they decided to let (Cardona) play and get that publicity it made it easier for them to decide to let me play.

"I know Joe pretty well and I’m happy he’s gotten a chance to play and it’s pretty cool to have two guys from the same class playing professional sports this fall—one in the NFL and now in MLS. It shows the kind of people and athletes that the Naval Academy gets.” 

The Rapids did not respond to interview requests this weekend.

Greenspan had been scouted by Rapids technical director Paul Bravo then wowed Bravo and head coach Pablo Masteoeni during a pre-draft phone interview. “He just blew us away when we talked to him,” Mastroeni said after the draft. “He was so impressive during the interview and we liked what we saw of him on tape and we decided that even if we have to wait a couple of years for him that this is a player worth waiting for.” 

Greenspan came to Annapolis as a forward and scored 10 goals his first two seasons. But his career, and his pro prospects, blossomed when he switched to central defense at the start of his junior season. He scored seven goals and helped Navy post a school-record 11 shutouts. He was named both an All-American and the Patriot League defensive player of the year and led Navy to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, its best season since it was a perennial power in the 1960s. As a senior last fall he repeated as the Patriot League’s defensive player of the year and was again named All-American.

At six-feet-six Greenspan will be one of the tallest field players in Major League Soccer and he’ll join a team that already features plenty of size on its backline. The Rapids drafted Marquette’s Axel Sjoberg, a six-foot-seven central defender originally from Sweden, 14th overall this year and the rookie has started six games so far this season. The tallest field player in league history, often Sjoberg has been paired with veteran Bobby Burling, who at six-foot-five towers over most MLS players but could be legitimately called Shorty by Greenspan and Sjoberg. 

“I went out there and trained with them for five days over President’s Day weekend and they came up with a name for us because of our height: the Tree Muskateers,” said Greenspan, who hasn’t signed an MLS contract yet but expects to come to terms this week.  

Colorado also have veteran central defender Drew Moor, who has recently returned to the starting lineup after tearing his ACL last August. The Rapids are so deep at central defense that Shane O’Neill, one of the more promising young American center backs who has captained the United States U-23 national team, has only started twice this year.  

Still, it’s hard to quibble with the team’s defensive results. The Rapids (1-2-7) are currently last in the Western Conference but that’s not because of their defense. Colorado has four shutouts, allowed more than one goal only twice and their .90 goals-against average is tied for second in MLS behind only D.C. United. The Rapids have been undone by an offense that is as bad as its defense is good. The team has only scored nine goals this season—four of them in one game—and only expansion New York City FC is averaging fewer goals per game.

“It’s a really good back line and they’ve done really well so it’ll be tough to crack,” Greenspan said. “But I’m looking forward to learning from those guys so when I’m called on to play, I’ll be ready.” 

While playing time may be tough for Greenspan because of defensive depth, he’s thrilled and grateful to get a chance to fulfill his dream while still honoring his military commitment, though it will make for some long and busy days.

“Even though I want to play professionally, I really want to serve my country and give back to the Navy,” Greenspan said. “I wouldn’t have gotten this chance to play pro soccer if I hadn’t gone to the Academy.”

The current plan is for Greenspan to train with the Rapids in the morning then spend his afternoons working at a recruiting office in Denver. Upon completion of the MLS season, he will report to the San Diego-based USS Sampson, where he will begin training as a surface warfare officer. Part of his responsibilities will be to make public appearances and speak on behalf of the Navy. 

“I’m looking forward to this and I think being with the Rapids shows you can go to a service academy and still play pro sports and I think it will help the Academy with recruiting and get a higher level of player and person,” he said. 

Greenspan hopes to serve two years of active duty then apply to switch to the reserves so that he can continue to pursue his soccer career in 2018. That’s the path NBA Hall-Of-Famer David Robinson, a 1987 USNA graduate, famously took in pursuing his pro basketball career.

However, switching to the reserves is at the discretion of the Navy and not every aspiring pro athlete is granted that option. Mitch Harris, a former Naval Academy baseball player who debuted with the St. Louis Cardinals this year, had to fulfill his five-year active duty commitment before being allowed to pursue professional baseball. 

So Greenspan is planning to make the most of this summer with the Rapids because he doesn’t know when his next chance will be.

“That’s still the plan after two years. But you never know what happens. If we’re at war in two years or there’s major combat going on they’re probably going to be less likely to let you (switch to the reserves after two years) like with (Harris). So I can’t worry about that. If I serve five years, it’s five years.

"That’s why I’m so excited to get this chance to play now."

Brooke Tunstall is an American Soccer Now contributing editor and ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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