For most student-athletes, the end of the season means a chance to rest after months of hard work. But for six VCU men’s soccer players, the end of the collegiate season is just the beginning of their professional soccer dreams.
Friday, Jan. 19 marks the 2018 Major League Soccer SuperDraft, where each of the league’s 23 teams participates in four rounds of selections. Rafael Andrade Santos was invited to the MLS Adidas Player Combine in Orlando, and has the best shot of making an immediate splash on the American soccer scene.
The Atlantic 10 Offensive Player of the Year is projected to be a first round pick according to Top Drawer Soccer. With top-level technical ability, Santos led the conference with 12 goals and 29 points. What pushes him to the next level is his work rate.
“Just because he was better on most days than everybody on both teams on the field, he still had the intrinsic motivation to push himself and do the things he needed to do for him to be successful and for our team to be successful,” VCU Head Coach Dave Giffard said.
For VCU’s other pro prospects, the path ahead is less clear. Luc Fatton and Steven Dal Molin have all attended try-outs at MLS clubs like the Columbus Crew and San Jose Earthquakes, but could very well end up playing in the United Soccer League (the second division of the American soccer pyramid) or overseas. Francesco Amorosino, Greg Boehme and RJ Roberts are training to chase their dreams in the leagues across the world as well. The uncertainty is one of the hardest parts of the process.
“It’s been full of a lot of unanswered questions,” Amorosino said. “The pathway isn’t super clear when you’re done and you’re waiting around for a lot of stuff to happen. Just not knowing where you’re going to be, that’s definitely the hardest part about it.”
After the grueling college season, the Rams played 19 games in just under three months, professional tryouts can take a physical toll on the body. Many of the VCU prospects are nursing lingering injuries from the season. The process of chasing a professional contract becomes a balancing act of playing enough to stay in form, but not risking further injury.
“It’s difficult because at the end of the season you’re tired and you typically want to take some time off,” Fatton said. “But these combines start up pretty quickly so you have to maintain a level of general fitness but also not work yourself too hard because you just played a full season and you don’t want to get injured and you need to give your body a chance to recover.”
It’s a challenge to manage all of the physical demands of these tryouts that generally include physical testing and multiple scrimmages with unfamiliar teammates. That challenge is amplified with the demands of student life, with most of the Rams trying to complete their senior year of college.
“So you have the finals, you have to think about playing well, taking care of your body and everything, clearing your room, because I was in Ackell in VCU housing,” Dal Molin said. “There’s so many things you don’t think are going to affect you or your playing time, but they do.”
Despite the challenges, the pursuit of professional opportunities would fulfill lifelong dreams for these players.
“That’s been something I’ve been working towards my entire life,” Amorosino said.
“It would mean everything,” Fatton said. “Having that be your livelihood and getting paid to play is all you can really ask for. That’s the goal and hopefully it comes true for some of us in the next month or two.”
VCU has a history of producing MLS-level talent. Forward Dominic Oduro was a second-round draft pick for FC Dallas in 2006 and has enjoyed an MLS career over a decade long, racking up 71 goals along the way. Undrafted out of college, goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra has played for eight years in MLS and USL, including four with DC United. After scoring 10 goals for the USL’s Swope Park Rangers in 2017, forward Kharlton Belmar earned an MLS contract with Sporting Kansas City. Jason Johnson landed a Generation Adidas deal while in Richmond, and Dennis Castillo battled his way onto the Colorado Rapids roster.
These players were prepared for the next level in part because of the competitive training environment at VCU.
“A big part of it is we try to create a competitive situation where guys are fighting for spots all the time.
As each of the former Rams had a unique path to the professional ranks, each of the current Rams has a unique path to where they are now. Dal Molin played as a center back throughout his youth career in France, but when he was old enough to sign for the senior squad he was told he was too small. Now, he’s looking to become a professional as a defensive midfielder. Fatton came into college as an attacking midfielder, but has evolved into a dynamic goal-scoring forward.
While VCU has helped shape the players that are now looking to play at the highest level, the graduating senior class has left its mark on the program as well.
“Hopefully getting a top-16 seed this year after not having gone to the tournament for a few years, that lays a foundation for teams to come and that becomes the expectation,” Fatton said.
“I think this group of guys has in the last maybe two years, but certainly the last 12 months, they’ve really taken a tremendous amount of ownership in the team and in the program and how it’s going to go in the direction that they’re going to make sure they take it.” Giffard said. “They left it better than they found it.”
Having left VCU with the Rams back on the national stage, this senior class now gets the opportunity every child who plays soccer dreams of.
“It’s the dream of playing the game that you love and doing that for a living. There’s not a lot of things that are a lot more fun than working two and a half hours a day playing the game you love and that’s your job,” Giffard said. “That’s pretty cool.”