One of the brightest stars in college soccer has deep ties to the Philadelphia area.
Georgetown forward and New Hope native Steve Neumann led the Hoyas to the College Cup semifinals last year as a junior, and his senior campaign is off to a bright start.
Scouts across MLS are paying attention to his performances. Even some fans who don't follow college soccer too much may have heard his name before - and for good reason.
After that big postseason run, Neumann was offered a Generation Adidas contract by Major League Soccer last winter. But he turned it down so he could finish his degree at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities.
That decision turned out to be a stroke of luck for Neumann’s hometown team. The Union didn’t have any first-round SuperDraft picks last year, but will have two in 2014: their own and Chivas USA’s. If the season ended right now (ahead of Friday’s games), they’d have the No. 3 and No. 8 overall selections.
The Council Rock North High School was back in Philadelphia on Thursday as the Hoyas visited Penn. He recorded two assists in a 3-0 win that could have been even bigger. Though he plays as a forward, Neumann showed he has plenty of skill when it comes to possession and passing too.
Plenty of MLS teams know that already. Georgetown’s College Cup run last year got the Hoyas national attention, and Neumann has spent the last few summers playing for Reading United, the Union’s PDL affiliate.
That means Neumann has been under the direct supervision of Brendan Burke, Reading’s head coach and a Union assistant. Burke and Union technical director Rob Vartughian were in attendance at Rhodes Field, as were scouts from other MLS teams.
With the 2013 College Cup and the 2014 SuperDraft taking place in the Philadelphia area, Neumann is likely to get quite a bit more local and national exposure. Indeed, it’s quite possible that Neumann won’t even be available at No. 3, or even No. 2 if Toronto FC finishes with a better record than Chivas USA.
D.C. United has the top overall selection, and Neumann plays just a short drive across the Whitehurst Freeway from RFK Stadium. You can be sure Ben Olsen has kept just as close an eye on Neumann as John Hackworth has.
I talked Thursday night with Neumann, and among the questions I asked was where he’d like to play professionally. Neither he nor Hoyas coach Brian Wiese left any doubt.
Here’s what they had to say.
It’s nothing new for you to play games in the Philadelphia area, since Georgetown and Villanova are perennial rivals. But this game was special, since your brother, Alec, is a freshman at Penn. What did playing against him in front of your family mean to you?
It’s great. A lot of my family was here, and my club coaches [at YMS Explosion in Lower Makefield] were here, Jon Greaves and Jim Powers. It’s always great coming back to the city I grew up in and playing in front of those people, and it’s even more special playing against my brother.
It was the first time I’ve played against my brother - I’ve played with him many times, but to play against him was something special.
Me and Alec have been talking about this matchup since the schedule came out. We joked about what gear my parents would wear, if it would be Penn or Georgetown. They went pretty neutral.
It was a great game, a pretty exciting game. I think Alec had a good game for a freshman, and I think we came out and did our job. So overall we’re pleased with the result. It was a special day for me.
A lot of people who follow college soccer, and even some who follow MLS closely, have gotten to know your name over the last year. Do you feel any pressure being in the spotlight like that?
No. I’ve always been a team-first guy, so I’m just concerned with the results. Any time we can come out and get wins like this on the road, it’s huge. I was never a guy with a huge amount of pressure on me growing up. I was never a youth national team-type player or anything like that.
So I’m just coming into the spotlight. I think it has helped me a lot being under the radar. I’m just a team-first guy who’s looking to get wins now, and the rest will take care of itself with the pro aspect of it.
You got a Generation Adidas offer from Major League Soccer last year, and you decided to turn it down and finish your degree. Talk about that decision and what went into it.
Obviously, it was a tempting decision to want to go pro. It’s always been something I’ve dreamed of. But I had a lot of discussions with my parents and my coaches, and education is something that my family values. It’s part of the reason why I came to Georgetown, and a lot of the reason why I’m staying is to get a degree.
I also think I still have more to develop as a player and I can use this year to develop even further and get more pro-ready.
The College Cup will be at PPL Park in December, and the MLS SuperDraft will be at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in January. As both events are in the Philadelphia region, are you at all tempted to look ahead and think about what it might be like to be there?
When [the College Cup host site] came out I definitely smiled a little bit, knowing that Philadelphia is big on the soccer stage. It would be a dream of mine to play in the College Cup here. But our goals as a team are more oriented around the Big East and winning that, and I think that will lend itself to NCAA tournament success.
I’ll obviously be excited if we get to that point in the tournament, and then the draft, but right now I’m just staying in the moment and taking it game-by-game.
With regards to the draft and MLS, is that a direction you’re looking at for your professional future, or are you tempted to try to go abroad? How much have you thought about that up to now?
I’m keeping my options open [for] when my decision comes to that. I trained with some MLS teams over the summer - I’ve been with the Union, Portland and DC, and Sporting Kansas City last summer - and I liked the atmosphere in MLS.
Obviously, I’ll weight my options if I have any others on the table at the end of the year, but I’m definitely interest in playing in MLS and staying in America.
What is it like as a player to look at going into the draft process, and the uncertainty of not knowing where you’ll end up in MLS?
There’s always a level of uncertainty - where you’re going to go in the draft, where you’re going to go in the country. Those are things you can’t really control as a player.
All you can control is your performances, and that’s why I’m just taking it game by game and staying grounded, not really thinking about scouts or MLS right now. I’m more thinking about this college season.
That said, I suppose I have to ask whether Philadelphia is a place you’d like to play professionally - not least because some of the Sons of Ben have taken notice of you.
Yeah, definitely. My dad has had season tickets to the Union for the last three years, so I’ve gone to many Union games. I’ve been training under Brendan Burke at Reading United, which has put me in close with the Union. So I’d definitely welcome the opportunity to come to Philadelphia.
I’ve always dreamed of playing professional sports in Philadelphia. I grew up as a huge Philadelphia sports fan, so that would be a dream come true. But I’ll keep my options open and I’ll be happy with whatever comes.
As Steve’s coach, how have you helped him deal with all of the attention he has been getting over the last year?
For someone like him, he’s a fun player to coach because he’s super-versatile. He’s a very dynamic type of player, and he’s almost a chameleon. You need him to be an assist guy or to score the big goals, and he’ll do that.
I think at the start of our season, he was almost trying too hard. He was trying to do too much, and he was over-complicating things. In a funny way, he was too worried about getting on the scoreboard, getting the assist. Which at the end of the day, isn’t really the stuff that matters - it’s just playing.
Of late, he’s been just doing that. He’s been very simple, he’s been doing what he’s good at. Tonight, we had a great offensive performance and he wasn’t really involved in all the goals in terms of stats, but he was involved in all the goals.
He’s around our attack and he’s a very influential player in terms of tempo and getting other people involved. This year he has been an amazing leader and captain in terms of getting the players around him to do all the little things to make us good.
Steve told me that he is focusing on taking things game-by-game and being in the moment, but everyone also knows that he got a Generation Adidas contract offer from MLS last winter and turned it down to finish his degree.
As he looks toward his professional future, what do you as his coach see as the direction in which you want him to go?
I know his dream would be to play for the Union. He’s a Philly guy. But I also think he’s got a professional mentality. He’ll go where he needs to go to have a good career, and he’s going to be a terrific pro.
I think the sky is the limit for him. I can see him playing with the national team down the road, because he continues to improve. I’ve never been around a player who continues to work on his game and try to recognize what he needs to do better [this much], and I think the sky’s the limit for this kid.
If it’s MLS, so be it, and if it’s Europe, so be it. He’ll take whatever the avenue is that will present him with the best opportunity, and he’s going to run with it wherever he goes.
There are some people who criticize college soccer for being at a limited level tactically. In part because of Steve, you guys seem to do pretty well at possessing the ball and passing it around. Is that by design?
Last year’s team had a very successful season, and a lot of that was based on having a group of players that was comfortable playing, that wanted to have the ball and move the ball. It’s a possession-based style of soccer, and you press well [on defense]. I’d like to think we’re hard to play against.
It’s a thinking game, and the guys love playing. They love how we play and have bought into how we play. College soccer is growing with the rest of the country. MLS is growing, the national team is growing and college soccer is growing with them.
We work at it. We have a short season, sure, but we probably play as much as any professional player would over the run of a season.
You look at Steve with Reading, for example. These guys will spend their summers playing. So they play games and are training, they’re doing things so that even when they aren’t playing with us, they’re finding avenues to do that. And we’re six days a week [when the team is together during the academic year].
For me the only difference between college and professional environments, other than what you set up as a coach, is the quality of player you’re with. You’ll be playing with some better players with the pros.
But I think the development of the college player - and Steve is a prime example of that - his growth from his freshman year up to this point has been tremendous.
And the benefit he is getting from staying for his senior year with us, other than his degree, is that he is a leader of a team. He is making the players around him better, he is being a mentor, he is solving problems differently.
If he had left to be a pro, that would have developed some other things for him differently, but he would be the youngest guy in a team. This whole experience of being a veteran would be lost until 10 years from now.
You brought up the amount of playing time that your players get over the course of a calendar year. One of the biggest criticisms of the college game is that the competitive season is short, and there are proposals out there to spread it over both semesters. Is that something you’d like to see?
Yeah, you’d love to see it. Logistically, it would be very difficult to do without splitting the season [into fall and spring halves]. You start playing games before classes even begin, and last year we got to the College Cup and right when we got home we started taking finals.
So it’s about as long as you can make it, and it is compressed. It’s fast and furious - we have two days before we have to line up and play Princeton on Sunday. So you’d love it to be longer, but I think people under-value what we do in the spring. By NCAA rules, you can take huge advantage of that.
Our growth in the spring is huge as individuals and as a team, and I don’t know if people really appreciate what goes on from January through April.
Finally, you’ve got a few kids in your program who are products of the Philadelphia Union’s academy. As an outsider judging the program’s talent, what have you seen from it so far?
We get a lot of kids from the Union and New York Red Bulls academies. I think the Union is at the forefront. They will end up being the model of what MLS academies should be doing. There are a lot of people I know running it - Richie Graham in the front office, Jeff Cook, Tommy Wilson and Iain Munro.
They’ve got excellent coaches and excellent teachers, but they have a bigger picture in mind in terms of how you do things right. They’re funding it properly and they’re running it properly, and they’ve got one of the most soccer-rich areas of the country to mine from.