In the run up to the draft, the 91st minute is catching up with some of those hopefuls, giving them a chance to chat about a multitude of things on and off the field.
First up this week is Stanford captain J.J. Koval. The hulking center midfielder and California native discusses his mindset ahead of draft season.
How would you describe yourself as a player?
I play center mid. I’m kind of a bigger center mid, 6-foot-1, 180 pounds. A big part of my game is the physical game, I really take pride in making tackles, winning the ball in order to start the attack, not only on the ground but also in the air. I take pride in winning the ball in the air and that’s part of my game that I’ve really worked hard at to improve, and I’m still working hard to continue improving in those areas.
Definitely winning the ball defensively is something that I focus on. I would also say that I’m very comfortable on the ball, I’m comfortable with the ball at my feet, making decisions with the ball, so I like to keep possession and look to go forward and really start the attack.
I also like to make runs from deeper in the midfield into the box, so if the ball gets out wide to our midfielders or two our forwards, my fitness level is good enough that I’m able to make runs into the box and get my head on the ball or to help score a goal, get an assist or be in those areas…
Being in the middle of the field really gives me the opportunity to be a leader – I was the captain last year. A big part of my personality, especially on the field, is I’m pretty loud, so you’ll hear me on the field being very vocal, organizing the team, looking to pull the strings and really get guys on the same page, especially defensively, also in the attack. That’s a big part of my game, getting guys able to play around me and play with each other, dictate the tempo of the team and be a leader in the middle of the park.
What is your favorite moment or memory from playing college soccer at Stanford?
The first three years we did not make the tournament. This year, in our last game of the regular season we played against Cal, who are our rivals. We played them at home, they were obviously ranked highly because they were a very good team this year. It was kind of a do-or-die for us. As you know, we won in overtime, we scored a couple minutes into overtime, which was an unbelievable experience because that pretty much gave us a berth into the tournament, [and] that was the first time we had made the tournament ever since I had been at Stanford.
For me personally that was an exciting experience, but even more so for that team, for all the hard work that I know we put in, especially since the new coaching staff came in with Jeremy Gunn, those guys poured their heart and soul into the team and it was really cool to see all the hard work that the coaching staff put in to bring some fruit and get us into the tournament like we had hopes to get into. That was a really cool moment, especially because it was overtime, against our rivals, last game of the season, it was pretty cool.
What one part of your game do you think you’ve improved the most while playing in college?
If I had to pick one it would probably be my confidence on the ball. Just because I know over the past four year I spent a lot of time on my own getting touches – not because it was poor before – but I think there’s a difference between being technical and actually having confidence on the ball in game situations.
Do you have a favorite pro team in MLS or abroad?
Growing up it was definitely the LA Galaxy. My family had season tickets one year when they were playing at the Rose Bowl, so that was a while ago. It was fun because we got to go to a lot of their games, and growing up I always looked up to the guys on the Galaxy, that was cool for me.
As of late in Europe I follow Arsenal. Over the past eight or nine years I’ve been an Arsenal fan.
If you had to change position – you’re a big center mid – but if a team asked you to play center back, have you played there before?
I’ve never really played too much center back. I played center back this year for about 30 minutes this year when we played UCSB and went down to their place. One of our center backs went out with injury and so I filled in that position until the end of the game.
I was very comfortable there, but I feel like a center mid is definitely my position. I’m not used to playing [center back], I would have to learn from scratch how the position works, positioning, all that kind of stuff. It’s definitely something that I could do, but I’m definitely a center mid, and that’s where I really enjoy playing and feel like I can contribute the most at this moment.
I want to play wherever a team is going to need me. Hopefully I get that opportunity, and if it means I have to switch to another position to help the team most, that’s definitely something I want to do.
What have you been doing to prepare for January’s MLS combine?
I’ve been preparing for the combine a lot ever since I found out I was invited. I was very honored and very excited. I’ve been preparing a good amount. I’ve talked a lot to my coach Jeremy Gunn, discussing the things I’m going to be doing there, the things I want to do right now leading up to it with training.
I’ve talked a lot with my agent Stefani [Miglioranzi] he works with First Wave, he’s a great guy and he’s been taking really good care of me, making sure I’m doing the right things in training, mentally preparing the right way for the combine.
I’ve been spending a lot of time out on the field, getting a lot of touches on the ball, keeping my fitness up. I couldn’t be more excited about it – I want to enjoy the experience and make sure I’ve given everything I’ve had to do well there and take it all in.Koval works with Miglioranzi and Kevin Weinress of First Wave Sports Marketing.