Even at the tail end of summer break, a handful of college soccer stars are competing for a championship in the coming days.
This weekend, the final four teams alive in the USL Premier Development League playoffs descend on Tukwila, Washington for its title tilt.
Seattle Sounders U23, New York Red Bulls U23, Florida-based Ocala Stampede and Ontario, Canada’s K-W United are traveling to the Pacific Northwest prepared to contest Friday night’s semifinals. The two winners from each respective game will put a bow on the PDL season on Sunday at Starfire Sports Complex.
“As an organization, we are excited that our young players will have the opportunity to play such meaningful games and test themselves against the best competition the league has to offer,” Red Bulls U23 coach Rob Elliot said of this weekend’s trip. “This type of environment and these big-game situations are important for a player's development.”
Countless current pros competed in the PDL while playing college ball, and there is no shortage of stars that should feature this weekend from the DI ranks (and below).
Sounders U23, who serve as the weekend’s hosts, features a strong spine with North Carolina center back Jonathan Campbell, Sounders Academy graduate Paul Christensen (Portland) in goal (or Virginia’s Jeff Caldwell) and Delaware’s Spanish scoring sensation Guillermo Delgado spearheading the attack.
Seattle’s semifinal opponent K-W United is making its first trip to a PDL final, seeking to make an impression at a national level.
“It is another step in K-W United's short history in developing a culture of success and nurturing soccer talent,” head coach Chris Pozniak said of qualifying. “We hope to put our best foot forward and showcase the talented squad we have assembled.”
K-W certainly has the firepower to test Seattle. Perhaps the most intriguing name on the roster is the team’s top scorer, Ben Polk. The England native is set to join Syracuse this fall after starring for a season at Herkimer County Community College in New York, and he topped K-W’s scoring charts with nine tallies. Polk is far from the team’s only dangerous weapon. Former Toronto FC Academy and current Coastal Carolina attacker Sergio Camargo scored eight goals and added eight assists, while Wright State’s Wesley Cain has seen significant minutes as well. Defender Oyvind Alseth, also from Syracuse, keeps things tight at the back along with Florida Gulf Coast rising senior ‘keeper Nathan Ingham and Michigan State defender Ken Krolicki.
The other side of the championship bracket sees the Red Bull U23 take on Ocala Stampede. It’s something of a contrast in history between the two sides. Ocala has won the Southeast Division four years running, while the Red Bulls used to compete in the NPSL with its former Academy kids and debuted in the PDL in 2015.
And no matter who ends up making the trip to Seattle, the Red Bulls roster is stacked with some premier Division I talent. Hulking forward Alexander Tejera (Siena College) is a force up front along with Zach Knudson (NC State), while midfield options include Christopher Lema (Georgetown), Brian White (Duke), Chris Thorsheim (Bucknell) and Sean Sheridan (Villanova). Harvard center back Tim Schmoll provides an aerial threat at both ends of the field, and is partnered effectively by Wake Forest defender Kevin Politz.
That’s not including players like Adam Najem (Akron), Arun Basuljevic (Georgetown), Alex Muyl (Georgetown) and Mael Corboz (Maryland) who’ve played for the club this summer but are unlikely to feature this weekend.
Ocala head coach Cheyne Roberts is aware of the threat the Red Bulls pose this weekend, and eager to meet the challenge.
“We know NYRB are a great opponent and we will look to stay the course and execute with excellence as we have strived to do all season long,” Roberts said. “These are the games we all wish to be a part of.”
Division II players from across the pond have propelled them this far. Defender Paco Craig and midfielder Lewis Hilton both play at Young Harris College in Georgia, and the two Englishmen helped the team’s defense to seven shutouts in 16 games this season.
For the clubs making the trip, the final four weekend is in focus in the short term as the PDL season nears the finish line. But coaches of each team also appreciate the long view of the nature of the league as players head off to college a couple of weeks later, and anticipate where their next step might be.
“We send players to the professional ranks each year and we can't wait to see who in this crop of players moves on to the next level after the PDL final,” Sounders U23 coach Darren Sawatzky said.