Cruz standouts among his peers
WINDSOR, Conn. - The sun settles on another round-the-clock day of soccer for the top 144 high school-aged soccer players in the country at adidas ESP (Elite Soccer Program). In the midst of it all former U.S. national team star Paul Caligiuri takes a long look around the immaculate playing fields at the Loomis Chaffee School, the 100 or so college coaches lining the sideline of the camp's all-star game and the quality of soccer that's currently on display before him.
"You know what?" asks the recent inductee into the National Soccer Hall of Fame after a moment of reflection. "This doesn't exist anywhere else in the world."
He's right. Whether you are speaking of Germany, Argentina, Brazil or Italy -- places where the game of soccer is practically embedded into your bloodstream sometime shortly after birth -- there's never a time when this many of the country's best young players are all together at once for a full six days. That's what makes adidas ESP, now in its ninth year since being founded in 1997, a can't-miss event for every single one of the top college programs in America.
Not only have several little-known players gone on to secure their collegiate futures with impressive performances at the camp that have led to immediate scholarship offers, but a select few others have parlayed strong showings at ESP into opportunities overseas with professional clubs.
Danny Karbassiyoon got a look from Arsenal after playing well at ESP in 2002, which eventually led to a contract and a three-year spell with the mega-club that only recently ended.
Probably the best recent example of a player using ESP to put himself on the map came just last year when Johann Smith, only a mid-level recruit from the Oakwood Soccer Club coming into the event, wowed the coaches in attendance with his sprinter speed and goal-scoring abilities. His play at the camp earned him simultaneous invites to play with the U.S. Under-18 national team as well as the Jamaican U-20 national team later in the summer, as well as a look by English Premier League side Bolton Wanderers F.C. Smith ultimately signed with Bolton as a member of their youth side, and is currently training with the first team during the preseason for the 2005-06 campaign.
That sort of meteoric rise was not lost on the top players in camp this week.
"They all want to be (Johann)," said Caligiuri. "That's why they are playing with so much passion here all week."
Knowing that the players would be going 100 miles-per-hour from the moment they arrived in the Constitution State on July 5 until closing ceremonies on July 10, adidas ESP coaching coordinator and former U.S. national team midfielder Brian Quinn tinkered a bit with the schedule from previous years to better serve the players.
"We really tried to tone the sessions down," said Quinn, one of nine coaches at the camp. "Last year, there was so much heat and the players are under enough pressure as is, that many were burned out a little by the last day. This year we made the sessions more technical than strenuous and gave a little more down time so that they'd be at their best for the matches each night."
While the overall talent level wasn't as strong as last year, according to several of the college coaches in attendance, the intensity was greater right down to the championship match on Sunday, which saw Quinn's Colorado Rapids defeat Carlos Juarez's New England Revolution.
After much consulting with over two dozen college coaches and several of the staff coaches at camp, the following 10 players emerged as the top players from the 2005 adidas ESP:
Andrew Adlard, Brookfield Red -- A striker who had a lot of buzz coming into camp after eye-opening performances at the Region II ODP tournament last month. With his father, Steve, who is the head coach at Marquette University looking on, the New Berlin, Wis., resident showed his tremendous pace and soft touch. He also was one of the few players at camp who didn't hesitate to pull the trigger when 25 or 30 yards away from goal. Adlard won't be graduating from high school until 2007, yet is hoping that he'll join a youth academy in England in the immediate future since he holds a British passport. He's had contact with Fulham, where U.S. national team players Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra earn a living, as well as Birmingham City, where he trained last summer. If it does not work out overseas, Adlard lists St. Louis University, Indiana University and the University of New Mexico among his top choices of colleges.
Josh Bienenfeld, FC Delco Crunch -- No player covered as much ground as this future Duke Blue Devil did during the week. It didn't matter that he played out wide on the right side of the midfield as opposed to his usual attacking midfielder position. The Huntingdon Valley, Pa., resident dominated every matchup. "He's constantly in motion," said one college coach. "He can play in the middle or on both sides." Only 5-foot-8, 152 pounds, Bienenfeld seemingly won every tackle and showed an uncanny ability to serve balls into the box even when it appeared a defender had closed him down. He'll fit in perfectly with John Rennie's side's athletic style of play when he arrives in Durham.
Cameron Brown, Solar SC -- Even though this 16-year-old won't be graduating high school until 2007, his game is mature. The Garland, Texas, resident is one of those center midfielders who runs the break with precision and always displays good vision. "His passes have a purpose," said one coach when scouting Brown. His work-rate is strong, as well, which allowed him to win balls and start counterattacks several times during the week. Among the schools he's interested in are: UCLA, Maryland and two-time defending NCAA champion Indiana University.
Leone Cruz, AU Capitals -- One coach was blunt after watching the Round Rock, Texas, resident standout in his first two matches: "He'll be a pro someday." With a 6-foot, 175-pound frame and toughness to go with it, the strong centerback is well on his way. Cruz stood out because he already looked like a collegiate player due to his size and organizing ability in the back. He's also good with his feet and makes solid well-timed runs into attack. The colleges he has an interest in are: SMU, Santa Clara, St. John's, New Mexico and UCLA.
Bill Dworsky, Dallas Texans Red -- The top striker in camp, according to many of the coaches. Already committed to the University of North Carolina, the 6-foot-1 forward from Huntsville, Ala., lived up to his growing reputation by scoring four goals in four matches, as well as two more in the all-star game on Saturday night. Dworsky resembles a young Brian McBride with the way he can hold off defenders when playing with his back to goal and his ability to create shots for himself. His willingness to combine with the midfielders and the other striker also stood out throughout the week.
Matt Mitchell, FC Greater Boston Bolts -- Despite being slowed by a stress fracture in his tibia, the speedy striker once again turned heads at this camp. When every other striker seemed tentative during the first day or two, Mitchell was simply doing his thing, as he effortlessly broke down his defender and went to goal on several occasions. "No one here goes one-on-one like Mitchell," said one coach. "And no one else did last year, too." In total, the Tariffville, Conn., resident tallied three times in his first two matches before his injury started taking its toll. One of the most highly-recruited players in the nation over the past year, the University of Virginia seems to have the inside track on signing him for 2006.
Chance Myers, So. Cal United -- A complete unknown outside his own home state until he committed to UCLA in the spring, this centerback quickly put himself on the map from the first game at ESP on. Whether it was winning balls, chasing down strikers that had snuck by one of his teammates or getting forward into the attack, Myers was absolutely relentless. "He's hard as nails," said one college coach. "He just does everything well and everything with pace." The Thousand Oaks, Calif., resident mostly played as a centerback, yet he said that UCLA has plans to play him as a right back, probably behind U-20 national team standout Marvell Wynne. Since he's a shaggy-haired surfer from Southern California with speed and tenacity out of the back, it's not a stretch to compare him to a young Frankie Hejduk.
Ciaran O'Brien, FC United -- His primary position is as an attacking midfielder, but he spent much of the week playing as a striker or on the left side of the midfield. Either way, it was easy to see his talent as a playmaker, since the Tacoma, Wash., resident linked very well with those around him no matter where he lined up. "Best passer in the camp," said one coach in attendance. "Just a smart player who knows the game." Having spent time with the Under-18 national team this year, O'Brien is heading over to England later this month to train with Blackburn.
Jonathan Villanueva, Dallas Texans -- The most creative midfielder of the bunch. After not performing up to his liking at ESP as a 16-year-old in 2004, the attacking midfielder from Cedar Hill, Texas, truly stood out this time around. The Parade Magazine All-American is already committed to the University of Virginia, where he will give head coach George Gelnovatch a playmaker who can sit either behind the strikers or play out on the left side either as a wing or as a midfielder. His bending free kick around a wall from 25 yards out that he scored during a match on Friday afternoon was among the best goals scored throughout the week.
Taylor Waspi, Chicago Magic -- Now a three-time adidas ESP all-star, Waspi makes ESPN.com's list for the second year in a row. The powerful centerback shook off nagging back injuries that have hampered him for much of his season to anchor the championship-winning team's backline. Just as he did last year, the Deer Park, Ill., resident won every ball in sight and organized his defense effectively. While one coach noted that he likes the former U-17 national team defender as a holding midfielder, Waspi proved that he can be effective both as a center-back and as a left back, which is where he played in the all-star game on Saturday night.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com.