Will Kohler Gets Ticket to Big Show
"In the second round, with the fifteenth overall pick..."
The franchise with the longest name in professional sports, the New York-New Jersey Metrostars, last Sunday drafted one of the shortest stars in all of NCAA soccer, a left-footed attacking midfielder by the name of Will Kohler.
"...of the Harvard Crimson."
How often have you ever been able to use "second round pick" and "Harvard" in the same sports-related sentence? Well, quite frankly, never. Before now. Kohler, the glue that held the Crimson's attack together throughout the 1996 men's soccer season, was picked earlier in Major League Soccer's collegiate entry draft than any other Harvard athlete had ever been under similar circumstances. And the senior from Bala Cynwyd, PA, has every intention of playing a significant role in the Metrostars' second season.
"It's all very exciting," Kohler says. "The Brazilian national team coach, the European team players...to be selected to play with the captain of the Italian national team is a great honor." The Brazilian coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, guided Romario, Bebeto, and company to the 1994 World Cup title before taking on the challenge of American soccer this season. The Italian warhorse, Roberto Donadoni, captained his country in last summer's European Championships, backboned Italy's run to the World Cup semifinals in 1990 and won a hat-ful of European cups with his previous club side, AC Milan.
Throw in the likes of two-time American World Cup veteran Tab Ramos and several other bright American stars in the Metrostars midfield...is there a place to be for a Harvard grad? Kohler's collegiate coach, Steve Locker, thinks so. "He can play in that league, and he can start," he says. "He has the ability--now it's only a matter of proving himself."
That process conceivably could have begun as early as today. The Metrostars squad departs for a month-long training camp near Florence, Italy this morning--but Kohler can't make it. He still has to get his Study Card signed. "It's not very easy to work out when I can go over there with all of my classes just starting," Kohler says. "They'll be working on fitness training, largely, for the first two weeks; hopefully I can make it over there for the end of the month."
"If he can go for a week, it would be really good for him," Locker concurs. "The opportunity to play and train under a coach like Parreira is fantastic, and Donadoni [whom Locker met while studying AC Milan in person last spring] is a great guy, the kind of guy that Will could learn a lot from."
Kohler isn't the only collegian struggling to adapt to the late March starting dates for the MLS seasons. In its inaugural season last year, the league tried jetting top college seniors to their clubs every weekend, but the experiment was less than successful, and players like Kohler might struggle to become fully integrated into the squad until, say, mid-June.
Another player facing the same problems as Kohler is Duke senior Brian Kelly, the Metrostars' first-round pick, and like Kohler a veteran of Pennsylvania's high school soccer scene. "[Kelly] is also a left-footed attacking player," says Kohler, "obviously the Metrostars knew what position they wanted to fill in the draft."
In contrast to Kohler, Kelly can only make it to Italy for the start of training camp. Though competing ostensibly for the same job, Kelly and Kohler will likely not be seen side-by-side until the summer.
As for Kohler's claim to that spot, the road from Ohiri Field to a potential slot on the pitch at the Meadowlands has been a long one, but his credentials suggest that he is ready to make the transition. Kohler's career stats are solid, with 28 goals and 26 assists since he arrived from his high school club team F.C. Delco, but his final year was a breakout season: nine goals (including five game-winners), ten assists and a stately procession to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Such performances earned Kohler a trip to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and to the Umbro Classic, the NCAA's senior all-star game-- the halftime "entertainment" of which was the first round of draft selections. "Going down [to Florida], I had no idea what the whole experience would be about," Kohler says. "I was hoping I would get drafted, and I thought I might even be a first-round pick, but I'm happy the way everything turned out."
Kohler had been sounded out by the New England Revolution and the Metrostars prior to the draft, so he had an idea who might be interested in choosing him--but in the end, he didn't find out his status until he returned to Logan Airport on Sunday. The draft had been moved into a hotel conference room that morning, and Kohler was made the fifth selection of twenty on the second and final day.
Being drafted more or less means that Kohler's spot on the Metrostars' roster is secure for now. The club is taking 24 prospective players to Italy; ultimately, all MLS rosters have to be reduced to 20 players, of which no more than five can be foreigners. "[New York-New Jersey] is a good organization to be a part of," Locker says. "I spoke with one of their front office people, and their management is sound, so from that standpoint I was pleased for Will."
And for a player who grew up loving the fast-paced, ball-to-feet style of Brazilian samba soccer, the chance to play under Parreira is a dream come true. Kohler may just have found a niche in the brave new world of American soccer--come this summer, he'll have a very real chance to prove it.
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