Two weeks into their preseason training camp, the San Jose Earthquakes are slowly building up to their season opener in mid-March. And among the unsigned players hoping to make the cut and find a place on the team’s 30-man roster is a trio of rookies that just might have what it takes.
The Quakes top three selections in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft — JJ Koval, Joe Sofia, and A.J. Corrado — celebrated solid college careers before making the jump to the professional ranks, but none of them seems fazed by the challenge in front of them. After all, poise is a trait they all possess in spades, as is the confidence gained from their collegiate experiences. But most of all, Koval, Sofia, and Corrado display the type of character that goes a long way with the Earthquakes technical staff.
“First and foremost, they were good players,” said head coach Mark Watson of the Quakes draft picks. “They were certainly drafted for positions we needed to deepen our roster. But character is part of the equation and something that is really important to us.”
General manager John Doyle echoed his coach’s comments, adding that displaying good character makes a big difference in which college players the team scouts, and which prospective draft picks move beyond a cursory evaluation.
“A huge component,” said Doyle. “We look to see if the player is fast, the player is skillful, the player is tactically aware, and then at what they are — their character. Those four considerations are equal for us. You have got to have good character.”
Character is often qualified as an intangible when it comes to rating players, but it no doubt deserves its place in the list of qualities that makes for a great professional. For collegiate players, character takes its place alongside community, classroom, and competition as the four prized attributes recognized by the annual CLASS awards given to an exclusive group of senior NCAA Division I scholar-athletes.
And in no coincidence to the factors that go into the Earthquakes draft day decisions, Koval, Sofia, and Corrado were among the 30 NCAA men’s soccer players nominated for the award last year. In voting results announced at the College Cup, Sofia was named to the CLASS first team and Corrado to the CLASS second team. The recognition received by all three Quakes rookies only bolstered their credentials as potential professional players.
“Many people like to say that it is an advantage to forego college and become a pro,” continued Doyle, “but when you get a chance to interview the kids at the MLS Combine that went to school for four years, you sense their maturity. And even though there is a learning curve for them once they do join MLS, they are mentally and physically prepared for it.”
Koval was a two-time Pac-12 All-Academic team selection during his four year career at Stanford University. And when he wasn’t captaining the Cardinal during his senior season, playing his way into an All-Pac-12 first team selection, the human biology major maintained a 3.41 GPA and made time to volunteer at the nearby Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital.
Sofia was a starter at center back for his entire four year career at UCLA and earned All-Pac-12 honors in each of his last three seasons. In 2013, the communications studies major, carrying a 3.95 cumulative GPA that was the highest of all UCLA student-athletes, was named the Pac-12 Men’s Soccer Scholar Athlete of the Year. Sofia was active in service advocating for his fellow Bruin athletes as well as in community outreach efforts to introduce local middle school students to what college has to offer.
Corrado was a major component of Indiana University’s 2012 NCAA championship team and All-Big-Ten selection in his junior and senior years. A pre-dentistry major with a 3.60 GPA, the defense midfielder rounded out his time as a Hoosier with volunteer efforts aimed at providing direct health care in impoverished countries. In his just completed senior season, Corrado was a teammate of Earthquakes homegrown player signing Tommy Thompson.
“JJ spent four years at Stanford, got great grades, and is clearly smart,” said Doyle. “You talk to him and realize he’s a good fit and wants to be here and is excited to be a part of Major League Soccer. Sofia and Corrado have very similar stories.”
So far in the Earthquakes preseason, the SuperDraft trio has appeared in each of the team’s two matches, playing for a half against the Seattle Sounders and a half against the Houston Dynamo. All three players made solid contributions in their first Quakes appearances, and by all accounts have settled in nicely with the rest of the team, just as Watson expected.
“Much of the homework we do during the college season is watching the games and seeing what they can do,” said Watson, “but we also ask a lot of questions about how they are off the field, what kind of people they are. On all those guys we got consistently positive responses.”
The Earthquakes have been blessed with a very stable locker room since the club’s return to MLS in 2008, and bringing aboard talented players that also display character becoming of a professional goes a long way to ensuring that won’t change. In Koval, Sofia, and Corrado, San Jose has three rookies that make the grade in more ways than one.
“It might sound corny,” said Doyle, “but they are really good kids, and you’d be proud to call them your own.”