Looking back on his stint as a pioneering player in the early days of Major League Soccer, Paul Holocher can’t help but see how far the league has come in the past 14 years.
It’s enough to make the 41-year-old Cal Poly head men’s soccer coach wish he was 20 years younger so he could have another run in what has become a stable and quality league.
What Holocher can do at this point is try to give his players the best leg up at having the career that eluded him.
“It’s a great carrot for these guys to have when they’re in college knowing that there’s a professional league to aspire to,” said Holocher, who was selected in the fifth round of the inaugural MLS player draft in 1996 but had his career hampered by a torn ACL that first season. “We didn’t have that when I was growing up. Everyone knows about Major League Soccer now.”
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This weekend, coaches and managers from both the Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes will be exposed to Mustangs players looking to join the professional ranks when all three teams take to the field.
After today’s 7 p.m. preseason exhibition between the professional teams at Alex G. Spanos Stadium, Cal Poly will scrimmage both teams in a closed-door session Saturday morning.
That could be one of two easily identifiable benefits of the MLS return to Cal Poly after its one-year hiatus.
The other: Tonight’s matchup gives locals the opportunity to see the defending MLS Cup champions in action against the team they took out in the conference semifinals.
Colorado came away with what Rapids technical director Paul Bravo called a very intense 1-0 victory over the Earthquakes before going on to earn a 2-1 comeback win over FC Dallas in the final.
“That makes this game all the more interesting,” Bravo said. “We’ve got a great deal of respect for San Jose and their organization.”
The current Earthquakes are a resurrection of the San Jose Clash, the team Holocher and Bravo started with in the league’s inaugural 1996 season. The franchise changed its name in 1999 and won two MLS Cup titles before ceasing operations in 2005.
Since re-forming as an expansion team in 2008, the Earthquakes had a streak of two straight annual preseason exhibitions at Alex G. Spanos broken in 2010.
Holocher, who along with Bravo also helped lead Santa Clara to a collegiate national championship in 1989, made it a priority to resume hosting the event. It comes only two months after Cal Poly midfielder Junior Burgos was selected in the third round of the SuperDraft by Toronto FC.
“That’s part of the reason why we do this is to give our players exposure,” Holocher said. “Guys like Patrick Sigler, Wes Feighner, Cameron Walters, Patrick McLain, there are guys that have real MLS potential, and now they’re going to get in front of two coaches, two directors of soccer, competing against professionals, and it’s a great opportunity to show what they can do.”
Bravo, who oversees Colorado’s scouting according to his bio on the Rapids’ official website, confirmed that Holocher’s assessment is more than lip service.
“This is a great opportunity for our coaches to keep an eye on that talent, there’s no doubt about that,” Bravo said. “That’s a part of this trip that becomes very important for us. I know Paul’s got some very important players in his group, and it’s important for us to keep an eye on them.”
For Sigler in particular, he could be matched with a world-class player. The 6-4, 190-pound center back would go head-to-head with Colorado’s Conor Casey, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer and a player who helped the U.S. national team clinch a spot in the 2010 World Cup with two goals in a qualifying match with Honduras.
Casey formed a potent scoring duo with teammate Omar Cummings in MLS play last season. Cummings led the team with 14 scores. Casey had 13 goals and was also second on the team with six assists.
If Sigler and the MLS Cup MVP do face off, it will have to be out of sight. NCAA rules prohibit the university from opening the scrimmage to the public, according to Cal Poly media relations.
The more public matchup will feature the high-scoring attack of the Rapids against Earthquakes star Chris Wondolowski, who led the league with 18 scores last season, netted a league-high nine game-winning goals and finished third in regular-season MVP voting.
With only two weeks left before the regular-season openers for both teams, Bravo said to expect Colorado’s starters to play between 60 and 75 minutes at this late stage of the preseason.
“We’ve got two more matches after this to prepare for the season,” he said. “This is a very important stage for us. It’s that last little bit to the finish line, getting guys 90 minutes a day.”