Soccer alumni are on the attack
As soccer’s popularity surges nationwide, so does the strength of Elon’s program. The result? The Phoenix has become a source of professional players who can succeed at the country’s highest level.
By Philip Jones
Nov. 21, 2013, might not have been the turning point, but it was definitely proof there had been one. The change was likely gradual—any seismic shift takes time—and those who had been paying close attention over the past few years will tell you they saw it coming. But what happened on that chilly Thursday evening made it clear to everyone that something was different.
More than 3,300 people packed the fences around Rudd Field. That they were able to watch the Elon men’s soccer team compete in the first round of the NCAA Tournament wasn’t unexpected: the squad had earned the right by winning its conference tournament a third year in a row. But this was the first time the program had ever held an NCAA Division I Tournament event on campus.
The Phoenix hosted the Clemson Tigers, a big-time team from a big-name conference. The two sides wrestled to a 1-1 tie after a frenetic 90 minutes of regulation. A pair of overtime periods that followed failed to yield a victor, which forced a penalty kick shootout. When then-junior Jason Waterman buried the shot that made the Phoenix 4-1 winners, it became inarguably evident this team and the sport of soccer meant more to the Elon community than ever before. Hundreds of fans rushed the pitch, swarming Waterman and his teammates.
News soon followed that the crowd at Rudd Field was larger than at any of the 15 other first-round games. And when the team arrived in Los Angeles to play UCLA in the second round, it was met by dozens of supporters at a pre-game party and many more at a frigid Drake Stadium for the match. A look at the stat sheet showed the Phoenix gave the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed a good challenge. Elon led in shots taken and corner kicks, but the most successful season in program history ended with a 4-0 loss to the Bruins.
The 2013 campaign was a crescendo that had been swelling for years. The five-man senior corps of Mark Berlin, Nick Butterly, Charles Howard, Daniel Lovitz and Matt Wescoe graduated as the winningest class in school history with 47 victories over their four seasons. The 2013 team tied an Elon record for most wins in a year (15), beat two top-10 opponents, had a league-high seven players earn all-conference honors and finished the year ranked No. 22 in a postseason national poll.
Lovitz was named the Southern Conference Player of the Year, but he wasn’t the only Phoenix to earn that recognition. Nicole Dennion garnered the same distinction on the women’s side of the program for leading a team that saw great success of its own in 2013. Despite falling short in the conference tournament championship game, the women’s squad didn’t lose a match at home and found itself ranked in a regional poll for the first time since Elon made the transition to the Division I ranks. Its offense was one of the best in the nation, often ranking among the top five teams for goals per game.
The evidence is there: soccer at Elon is now a winning endeavor, and it’s happening at an important time for the sport as a whole. Last summer’s World Cup produced some of the most-watched soccer games to ever air on American television. The English Premier League, one of the globe’s top soccer competitions, recently inked a rich television contract with NBC Sports that draws hundreds of thousands of viewers for each game every weekend. And the top league in the United States—the MLS—has just negotiated a landmark deal of its own with ESPN and FOX Sports. Forbes even reports that average home attendance at MLS games now surpasses that of the NBA and the NHL.
Watch or attend an MLS game and there’s a good chance you’ll see an Elon soccer alumnus on the field. Lovitz became the latest Phoenix to play at North America’s highest level after he was drafted by Toronto FC following his successful senior season. He’s joined in the league by Clint Irwin, a 2010 graduate who plays goalkeeper for the Colorado Rapids, and Steven Kinney, a 2009 alumnus who is on the roster for the Chicago Fire.
Not to be outdone, two Elon women’s soccer standouts recently moved on to the professional ranks after their senior seasons. Back in March, 2014 graduates Olivia Mackey and Kimmie Krauss signed with the Seattle Sounders Women. The team competes in the pro-am W-League, which is widely considered the second tier of women’s soccer in North America.
As the two most-experienced Phoenix in the MLS, Kinney and Irwin have perhaps the most perspective on the growth of Elon’s soccer program and the sport in America as a whole. Both point to their own families as evidence of change. “My parents never played a game of soccer in their life,” Kinney says. “Now, both my siblings and I have played the game, and I guarantee our children will as well.”
“We’ve reached a tipping point. There’s no doubt in my mind,” Irwin says. “My brother is 16 and his [age] group is totally sold out for the sport.”
So what’s fueling the generational shift toward soccer in America? Increasing access to the sport, a relatively low cost of entry and a growing academy system have to be counted among the driving forces. But Irwin thinks there’s something else at play—the EA Sports FIFA video game series that debuted in 1993. “Kids who may not have even played soccer but grew up playing the FIFA video game series know the best players and top teams,” Irwin says. “It’s only getting bigger from here.”
Don’t scoff at Irwin’s suggestion. The Men in Blazers—Michael Davies and Roger Bennett—a pair of NBC Sports soccer analysts who are among the most-revered in the country, agree that the video game has created a generation of Americans who crave the sport and are central to its growth.
But what about Elon?
“I do think soccer is the sport of the Millennial generation,” Kinney says. “However, I don’t think that is necessarily why Elon has turned out pro players the last few years.” That, he says, is due to the coaching staff. Former head coach Darren Powell left the team earlier this year as its winningest leader. He’s moved on to work with Orlando City Soccer Club, which will debut in the MLS next year. One of Powell’s former assistants, Chris Little, is now head coach.“Under Coach Powell’s guidance, the program has become prestigious and sought-after for young, aspiring soccer players,” Kinney says. “I have no doubt Coach Little can take what he’s learned under Coach Powell’s tutelage and propel the program to compete on the national stage every November.”
Lovitz, the most recent professional product of the Phoenix soccer program, agrees. The Toronto FC midfielder believes Powell and Little are the engine behind the success of the program. “I can’t truly quantify or measure their impact on the program over the years. The standards and values they instilled in us will remain the fabric of the Elon soccer program for quite some time,” he says. “To see how far the program has come since my freshman year is amazing. The players, the coaching staff, facilities and support from the athletic department and the school as a whole propelled us to a new level each year.”
That sort of leadership, player loyalty and program growth isn’t limited to the men’s team. Mackey, the 2014 graduate and W-League player, says both sides of the program can compete on a national scale. “We have shown numerous amounts of evidence to support that being true: multiple conference player-of-the-year titles, the men’s bids into the NCAA Tournament and having players compete for the leading goal scorer in the nation,” she says. “People recognize those kinds of things.” Like Lovitz, Kinney and Irwin, Mackey praises her coaches for her personal and professional growth, namely Elon head women’s coach Chris Neal, who earned his 100th career victory in September, and assistant John Pardini. “To be honest, I didn’t think I was capable of playing at the next level until Coach Neal asked if that was something that I would be interested in doing,” she says. “Without Coach Neal and Coach Pardini, I would not have been as prepared as I was when I arrived in Seattle.”
Mackey also thinks Elon’s national academic ranking is leading to better athletes joining the soccer squads. Irwin believes the recent move to the Colonial Athletic Association will only continue that trend. “The CAA is a much more competitive conference [than the SoCon],” he says. “It should help Elon make an even bigger name on the national stage.”
That influence will also get a boost as long as the program’s alumni continue to thrive professionally. Mackey has no plans of walking away from the game anytime soon. Kinney is working to battle back from injuries that have limited his playing time. Lovitz has made an immediate impact for Toronto, earning a handful of starts as a rookie. And Irwin is a consistent headline generator, grabbing MLS Save of the Week honors and even training with Premier League team Everton last winter. Irwin’s name has also been mentioned in some circles as a candidate for a future position on the U.S. Men’s National Team. “My goals are to win an MLS Cup with the Colorado Rapids and get into the U.S. national team picture,” he says. “I’m one to dream big, so I’d love to play in Europe. I realize there’s a lot to be done and work on, but I feel I can get there.”
For Kinney, Elon’s trailblazer in the MLS, the outlook is different. “I would love to play soccer at the professional level until the day I die, but that’s not realistic,” he says. Battling injuries that trace back to his rookie year have left him wondering how much longer his soccer career can go on. “The next time we do an article we might be talking about the other thing Elon blessed me with—an education that looks great on my resume,” he says. “I’m sure there will be plenty of Elon players to fill my shoes on the field.”
Lovitz, whose connections with the program are the freshest of Elon’s professional players, has huge expectations for the future of his alma mater’s place in the sport. “I hope that the program continues to excel in all dimensions and eventually gets to the point where we win a national championship and our alumni are scattered in some of the bigger leagues around the world,” he says. “With Coach Little and the rest of the staff in place, I feel success on that scale is a real possibility.”