Stanford men's coach Jeremy Gunn wasn’t surprised that Earthquakes rookie JJ Koval played like an old pro filling in at right back in a 1-1 draw with the Columbus Crew on April 13.
To Gunn, Koval’s effort was as much about his can-do spirit than his impressive skill as a two-way threat.
“He has an incredible mentality that allows him to switch and change things,” Gunn said of Koval, a center midfielder for four years with the Cardinal.
After replacing the injured Brandon Barklage in the 53rd minute, Koval, the No. 9 overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft, helped an otherwise veteran back line stymie the Crew.
How green was Koval at right back? Think St. Paddy’s Day.
“I got to play right back a bit at the MLS Combine,” said Koval, 21, a native of Westlake Village. “So this is maybe my second time playing there. I’m just happy to get on the field to provide some energy and contribute however I can. It was great to get that goal and earn a tie.”
Koval’s new boss continues to be impressed.
“He has the maturity of a guy who’s been in the league for 10 years,” Quakes coach Mark Watson said. “He’s a good athlete, has a good understanding of the game tactically and has a good head on his shoulders. I think he’s played right back twice in his life and they were both with us, without preparation. He’s always adapted well.”
In his debut MLS season, Koval has made four appearances and played 115 minutes. Consider him a 6-foot-1, 195-pound young man for every challenge.
“My mentality from the beginning has been to work hard in training and contribute in any way possible to help the team,” Koval said. “Whether I’m playing center mid, right back or center back, I’m here to work hard to do whatever I can to help the team win.”
Not surprisingly, Koval comes from an athletic family. His grandfather, Gordon Gravelle, played offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers, helping them to two Super Bowl titles (IX, X). His dad, Jeff, rowed varsity crew at Loyola Marymount and also played rugby. JJ has two younger sisters, Becca and Tatum.
Gunn has felt that center back or right back would be Koval's best backup positions as a professional. Gunn added that Koval’s “unbelievably positive attitude” sets him apart and portends a bright future for him in the sport.
"The thing about JJ that's really special is it doesn't matter what's in front of him, he just attacks it with incredible gusto, and he's just excited to face new challenges," Gunn said. "A lot of players would be intimidated to play one of your first games out of position, but him, it's just, 'OK, new task. Off I go.'”
At Stanford, Koval made 74 appearances and started as a freshman. He was an all-Pac-12 selection as a junior and senior, including making the first team as a team captain in 2013. He helped the Cardinal advance to the third round of the NCAA Tournament as a senior. He was also a standout in Southern California with Real So Cal and Oaks Christian High-Westlake Village.
Koval seems to play without fear, staying laser-focused on the task.
“He just goes after everything he does,” Gunn said. “When you look at him as a player, he’s a very good soccer player, but he’s a very special individual.”
- Richter Media