I grew up in Indiana, PA.
I’ve learned over time that adding the “PA” from the start saves at least fifteen seconds’ worth of questions about Hoosiers and Peyton Manning.
And no, not Indiana Township either, although that would have meant far fewer trips to the gas station for me and my parents throughout my five years with Arsenal FC.
Indiana, PA, on the other hand, is the better part of an hour and a half away from The Neighborhood Academy, Shady Side Academy, Squaw Run, Pine Richland, and all the other Arsenal practice grounds, give or take a few minutes depending on how many coal trucks you get stuck behind on Route 422.
Known primarily for Jimmy Stewart and IUP football, it’s an unlikely place for the beginning of a soccer career.
My dad was the only soccer coach I had for the first several years of my career.
He played during his high school days in New Jersey, and was as good at developing my young soccer talent as you could ask for in a parent coach.
While other teams played World Cup and did shooting drills, we focused primarily on technical skills, such as juggling and first touch, and defense, taking special care to do every drill twice – once with the right foot and once with the left.
It didn’t take long for my parents to realize that I could have a future in soccer, one that might help pay the college bills down the road, but that I would need to travel out of town and play against better players in order to achieve my full potential.
We focused primarily on technical skills, taking special care to do every drill twice: once with the right foot and once with the left.
After an underwhelming U13 year of once-a-week practices with an olympic development team, we decided that joining a club team would be necessary to develop with more frequent practice time and exposure at league games and tournaments throughout the year.
I was only able to attend one of the three tryouts for the Arsenal U14 team the following summer.
And I underperformed at that tryout.
I did only enough to earn an invitation to join the U15/16 development team, the first “Gunners” team that was being put together for the purpose of keeping a pool of high school players with the club, ready to fill in on the “A team” when called upon.
My parents, who also played the pivotal roles of chauffeur and piggy bank in this story, concluded that the time and financial commitment to join the Gunners team would outweigh the benefits.
We were ready to decline the Arsenal offer and stick with ODP for another season.
But Coach Ed Ellsworth must have seen a wealth of untapped potential in me.
He stepped in at the last minute and offered me a single-day trial with the U14 "A team" during a preseason doubleheader in Ohio that would allow me another chance to earn a place on the team.
We took the chance.
And I played well enough in the two games to earn the last spot on the U14 roster for the upcoming season.
I spent the entirety of that U14 season as the 18th man on the roster, including seeing the field for all of ten minutes in our last game of the season, a 1-0 loss in the State Cup final.
That offseason saw a great deal of turnover.
Just over half of our team returned for the U15 season.
All of a sudden, I found myself in a starting role in central midfield and was one of the longer-tenured members of the team.
I was voted by my teammates to be one of two captains that fall, and began to play with more confidence.
My U15 season as a whole was turbulent, with multiple coaching changes, poor performances in league and tournament games, and an early exit in the State Cup semis.
We were the runt of an otherwise stacked litter of Arsenal teams in the U14-18 range that year, without the plethora of college-level talent that the teams above and below us had to boast.
I spent the entirety of that U14 season as the 18th man on the roster, including seeing the field for all of ten minutes in our last game of the season.
We were in need of coaching and personnel stability, and got it in a big way the next year.
The U16 season was without a doubt the most important for my development, both as a soccer player and as a young adult.
Coach Dan Brower became the head coach of the team and immediately set out to improve upon the previous season’s results. He laid out his ten core principles that defined a winning team, structuring every practice and coaching decision around adhering to those principles.
The first principle was simple and straightforward and gave us an identity that we took pride in for that season and beyond:
Winning teams start with a sound defense.
- Coach Brower
We strung together a run of 1-0 and 2-0 victories in the league, giving the extra 10% at the end of wins to keep clean sheets and maintain our identity as the hardest working, most defensively sound team on the field.
Coach Brower played me as the “pillar of strength” in the #6 role, encouraging me to move the ball along in two touches instead of four and one touch instead of two, and to always play with purpose.
Over time, I learned that Coach Brower put extra attention and pressure on me not because he was angry or disappointed with the way I played, but because he knew I was capable of so much more and hoped to see me achieve my full potential.
Coach Mark Taylor was head coach for our U17 year, my last full season at Arsenal.
With the same core group that had lasted since the turnover following our U14 year, we marched through a successful league and tournament season, and were well poised heading into State Cup.
We were taken to penalties in the semifinal, but prevailed 3-2.
The final was held the next day, and we were tied 1-1 at the end of regulation.
We won this round 4-2, capping off a four-year turnaround for the ages with our first State Cup trophy.
We conceded in the first extra time period, but bounced back immediately, making the score 2-2 and setting us up for another round of penalties for the trophy.
We won this round 4-2, capping off a four-year turnaround for the ages with our first State Cup trophy.
As State Cup champions, we represented PA West at the Region 1 tournament. Although we scored first in all three group stage matches, we were only able to win one, finishing in second place in the group and failing to advance.
I had aspirations of coming back as a U18 and defending our State Cup title.
Unfortunately I suffered an injury to my left knee during the last game of my high school career that required two surgeries and kept me away from soccer from October to May.
The summer before, I had piqued the interest of Coach Craig Appleby from Johns Hopkins University at a camp. It was enough to stay on his radar, but not enough to be one of his priority recruits.
I was told that if I was able to secure admission via my academic record and return to pre-injury form, there would be a roster spot waiting for me.
After completing the first half of the requirement by getting accepted to Hopkins in April, I found myself in the same situation I had been in at Arsenal – a one-event trial.
Play well at the Potomac Memorial Tournament in front of Coach Appleby and I would earn the last roster spot on the team.
Coach Taylor knew the opportunity that I had, and played a pivotal role in encouraging me to focus on the things that a college coach would value – making attacking runs, creating with forward passes and dribbles, winning the ball back defensively – and not worrying about making mistakes.
As with Arsenal, it turned out to be enough.
I was offered a spot on the Johns Hopkins University team for the following season.
At Hopkins, I continued on an upward trajectory as I had done at Arsenal.
I showed well as a freshman by passing the dreaded fitness test with flying colors and earned the starting #10 position during the preseason. I started every game at #10 as a freshman for a team that lacked a true identity and fell in the semifinals of the conference tournament.
I moved to left center back as a sophomore because of my ability to maintain possession, create offensively, and win the ball back on defense, the same job duties Coach Brower had demanded from his “pillar of strength” years prior.
Coach Taylor played a pivotal role in encouraging me to focus on the things that a college coach would value – making attacking runs, creating with forward passes and dribbles, winning the ball back defensively – and not worrying about making mistakes.
I stayed at center back for the rest of my Hopkins career. We took pride in our “sound defense,” keeping clean sheets in more than half of the games over the next three seasons including a pair of postseason runs in the NCAA tournament.
With the same mindset that had proven successful at Arsenal, I helped turn Hopkins into a perennially ranked and nationally relevant team.
On a personal level, I went from several months on crutches as a high school senior following the surgeries on my left leg to playing left-center back and striking the ball with as much confidence with my left leg as with my preferred right in college.
I started all seventy-eight games of my college career, and added a few goals and assists along the way.
I earned Academic All-American honors as a junior and senior, was named to the All-American team as a senior, and was named the Male Scholar Athlete of the Year as a senior by Chi Alpha Sigma as the top student-athlete across all collegiate divisions and sports.
I still remember the last time I put on the Arsenal jersey.
My teammates and I had returned home as U19s following our freshman years in college and had been the only club to register a team from PA West, so we advanced to the Region 1 tournament by default.
For me, that summer summed up my Arsenal experience as well as any of the other results or trophies that we picked up along the years.
A group of guys who had already moved on and experienced college life were willing to set aside other summer plans for the ability to take the field with one another and represent Arsenal, the club where we had grown up together, one last time.
All told, I only played at Arsenal for five years, a tenure far shorter than those who start out in the youth academy today.
My lone State Cup trophy is only one of many that has come through the club over years, and it’s been a few years since I walked through the front doors at TNA for a training session.
Despite that, I still feel as much a part of the Arsenal family as a I did when I was playing, and know that next time I come back, I’ll be welcomed back by the same coaches who helped shape my soccer career and life years ago.
By prioritizing the little things, the Arsenal coaching staff prepared me to not only impress college coaches and make a college roster, but to have immediate and sustained success in college in ways that other clubs and coaches do not.
Ed Ellsworth gave me a second chance to prove myself that changed the entire course of my soccer career and life as a whole.
Dan Brower helped shape me into a successful soccer player and leader by putting me in positions to succeed in high-pressure situations.
Mark Taylor stuck his neck out for me and convinced Coach Appleby to give a chance to someone in the middle of a long injury rehab.
I consider these coaches and many others at Arsenal to be great role models for young men and women. I try to apply pieces of each of their leadership and coaching styles in my own life.
Any club can get lucky and have success for a few years on the backs of a few young talented players, but it’s the coaches, staff, and organization at Arsenal that creates consistent success at every level year after year.
I still feel as much a part of the Arsenal family as I did when I was playing, and know that next time I return, I’ll be welcomed back by the same coaches who helped shape my soccer career and life years ago.
Arsenal Football Club of Pittsburgh 2010-2016 (and Forever)
Johns Hopkins University Class of 2019
Currently resides in Seattle, WA