Nowadays, players picked in the MLS draft face long odds of ever getting a first team deal.
But the path to a contract was far from a straightforward process. It was one earned more or less in the middle of a pandemic, while finishing his final semester at West Point.
“It feels great,” McGraw told TopDrawerSoccer. “A lot of uncertainty the past couple of months with Covid-19, balancing everything out with school, obviously focusing first on graduating from West Point because without being able to graduate none of this would have been possible.”
A native of Torrance, California, McGraw was a third-round selection by the Timbers in this year’s draft (68th overall). That itself was something of a surprise; McGraw had trained with LAFC the summer prior to his senior season, and according to his head coach Russell Payne, the team liked him.
But the Timbers were the ones to pulled the trigger, setting up the first obstacle for McGraw: getting the go-ahead to take remote classes while he had the chance to battle for a contract in Portland’s preseason. With the West Point semester beginning on January 6, class was already underway when McGraw was tabbed by the Timbers.
“I was excited for him,” Payne told TopDrawerSoccer, “Obviously, we had to make sure we got everything sorted out with West Point and the U.S. government and miss class, but once he went to Portland, he did really well.”
During the first couple of months of preseason, McGraw received positive feedback from the Portland coaching staff. Payne, a longtime fixture in American that played professional soccer, knows McGraw’s new head coach Giovanni Savarese, and played with assistant coach Miles Joseph. He kept tabs on McGraw’s progress, as he former star center back adjust to the demands of preseason.
Previous stints training with LAFC and LA Galaxy (he had trained with the Galaxy in the summer of 2018) had given McGraw exposure to the level in MLS. Preseason only reinforced those demands of the step up from college soccer.
“It really is the speed of play, every touch has to be good to setup that perfect pass,” McGraw said. “That’s a really big difference between college soccer and the pro level.”
As the preseason continued, everything was moving in the right direction. He traveled with the team for camp in Costa Rica, getting minutes against local teams Saprissa, Herediano and Municipal Grecia. Before Covid-19 began to truly spread, he shuttled back-and-forth between Portland and West Point. A deal with Timbers 2 appeared to be the more immediate outcome. That would save the roster space for the MLS team while McGraw spent the spring finishing his degree.
But then the Coronavirus forced the country into a lockdown. McGraw remained at home in Southern California, and West Point told him to stay. Like other universities, he finished his course work online. That presented its own challenge for a Division I athlete at a Service Academy used to a lot more structure.
“It was definitely very different,” he said of the lockdown. “We would have Zoom calls like I’m sure a lot of other colleges would, but they would all be on Eastern Time because West Point is in New York. I’d have to wake up at 5 a.m. to take tests, study for an upcoming test. I knocked out a lot of the class portion before 12 o’clock even hit just because it was all Eastern time.”
He wrapped things up in the classroom, traveling back to West Point in mid-May to outprocess with his degree. A ruling handed down in 2019 by the Department of Defense allows Service Academy graduates the chance to continue competing in their respective sport before being commissioned as an officer. McGraw can play soccer indefinitely, and is placed in the Individual Ready Reserve.
With academics taken care of, and the ability to defer his military obligation, McGraw returned to Portland for individual training as MLS began to plan for what the 2020 season could look like. On June 22, the Timbers announced that he had signed a contract with the MLS side, not the USL Championship team. It made him the first player from the Army men's soccer program to move to MLS.
“The leadership experience that Zac received at West Point was also a big reason that Portland trusted him with a contract as a rookie with the first team,” Payne said. “He has a competitiveness in him that is what makes the difference between most college players and most pro players. That’s why only a handful of players sign first team contracts.”
Payne is no stranger to working with high-level players. Along with his previous coaching stint as an assistant at Maryland, a 10-year career as head coach at Army, he’s often in camp with various U.S. men’s national teams.
He thinks that McGraw has what it takes to carve out a long career for himself at the professional level.
“He’s one of these kids that’s hard to put a ceiling on because you see how quickly he can take on challenges and mentally just not limit himself,” Payne explained. “He’s in with Portland’s first team now, if he gets a chance to get on the field in this MLS is Back tournament or sometime during the year and he gets real minutes, I expect it to become increasingly obvious that he is going to make it hard for anybody to wrestle [those] away from him.”
McGraw and the rest of the Timbers traveled to Florida on July 3. Pandemic-permitting, they are slated to play against the Galaxy on July 13, Houston Dynamo five days later and LAFC on July 23.
The 6-foot-4 defender is optimistic that he’ll get that chance that Payne alluded to. A tight schedule of games, the possibility of injury or illness, could aid his quest for time on the field. What he does with that chance is up to him.
“I think I’ll get some minutes, there’s just that unique time period between games, with so many games in a short amount of time where I think everyone is going to have a role in some capacity,” McGraw said.
Portland Timbers/Craig Mitchelldyer