It was a spring morning back in 1997, just months after I’d joined the US Men’s U-20 team down in Chula Vista at the US Olympic Center… I’d just barely sign a six month waiver excusing me from my classes at Cal St. Fullerton, allowing me to focus on earning a spot on the upcoming FIFA U-20 World Cup roster.
Our head coach Jay Hoffman had just announced that MLS’ head honcho (at the time) Sunil Gulati was on his way to California to meet with our squad of misfits, and after being bunkered in at the ‘training center’ for the better part of four months, this was welcomed news. Despite having absolutely everything we could ever need at the tips of our fingers, boredom had set in for the 25+ twenty year olds who were constantly on the look out for something exciting.
So in between a morning training session and an afternoon nap, the group of us meandered down a long hall way and found ourselves face to face with a man that in 30 or so minutes could possibly change the fortunes of a group of young men, myself included.
None of us had heard of MLS’ collaboration with Nike and the impending ‘Project 40′ program that had been born in the previous month. And for a few of us, the opportunity presented during that conversation would alter our life paths dramatically. And mine would be the first…..
How I Became The Second Project 40 Player Signed In MLS……
See, I had grown up with the game. But I was a late bloomer. Yeah, I’d had an incredibly amount of success with the sport in relative terms. Never the biggest, the strongest, the fastest…. But I’d out work 99% of the players I’d come up against. But while the accolades came in high school, the college scholarship offers didn’t.
There were ‘partial offers’ to 32k a year schools, but nothing concrete and definitely none that I could afford to make up the difference at. My parents were in the middle of what seemed like a divorce at the time and my birth father lived in San Francisco, a relationship that always seemed in flux. My Papa (grandfather) had just died a year and a half earlier. I wasn’t sure where I stood in the world. But there was one opportunity that financially and potentially made sense…. Cal. St. Fullerton as a walk-on and with books & food paid for, which basically amounted to $300 a year. I could still live at home with my Nana (grandmother) and help with her during her decline, commuting down the 57 freeway for a 30 – 2 hour drive, depending on the traffic.
Over the first couple of weeks of training sessions and settling in, it was clear that the Cal St. Fullerton coaching staff saw me as a central defender as opposed to an attacking midfielder like I was in high school. Most likely I would be ‘Red Shirting’ that first year as the coaches told me behind closed doors (before the first training session kicked off), ‘you’re not good enough right now and there are players that are much better than you…..’
At the time, I definitely didn’t agree with them… At least my internal dialogue said that, not my mouth.
And despite all that was said between those four walls overlooking the stadium field, that opening weekend of games saw two injuries to center backs that not only led to my debut for CSUF, but my opportunity to lock down the position for the season.
Fast forward through that first year of college and working four days a week on the side to make ends meet and help pay the $1,500 in school fees, I found myself watching a teammate reap the rewards of being on the US U-20′s and coming back with the latest in Nike x US Soccer clothing and boots. I was envious and jealous at the same time and at that moment, my internal motivation saw a bar set that would hold me accountable day in / day out from that day forward….. I’d never wanted something so badly in my life. Not the Nike stuff… Not the US Soccer stuff.
I would do everything in my power to be prepared for the opportunity when the chance and moment was presented. Immediately that meant as a center back, I need to mimic the ability to hit a long ball with both my left and right foot. That was the first goal. And I spent at the very least an hour a day working on striking a ball into the outside net of a goal over and over and over and over again to find the feel for the motion of my left foot to mimic the feel for my right.
The immediate goals would continue to be set :: Dominate in my aerial battles, decision making with the ball at my feet, managing the game in the back, limiting mistakes across the back line and becoming more dangerous on set pieces, just to name a few.
That ‘chance’ to be seen came on a Sunday afternoon at the UCLA Tournament in the fall of 1996 as CSUF took on Oregon State. Glenn ‘Mooch’ Myernick, who at the time was a US Olympic Team Assistant Coach under Bruce Arena, was there taking in the later game (UCLA vs Brown to see a defender named Tahj Jenkins) knowing full well he would be taking over the Colorado Rapids at the start of 1997 and would potentially have an early draft pick in the ’97 MLS College Draft.
With no knowledge of Mooch being in the stands (despite rocking a HUGE US Soccer x Nike jacket), we ended up beating Oregon St. 3 – 0 on the day and I had a goal and two assists playing in the back. After the game was over and walking towards the team van alongside my teammate Joey DiGiamarino (the aforementioned US U-20 player I was envious of) to head back to CSUF, Mooch appeared from nowhere to introduce himself to me and said hello to Joey.
I was excited and intrigued, but ended up writing it off as a US Soccer coach saying hello to one of the systems’ players…. I was disappointed in the following days when nothing immediate happened. We still had a couple of months left in the season and the U-20 team had already qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Malaysia, with around seven months of training before the tournament itself.
Fast forward three months later and the team succeeding in a run to the quarter-finals of the NCAA tournament, I was pulled aside at practice by one of the assistant coaches. The conversation went something like this…..
Coach :: ‘Dunny, come here for a second…’
Me :: ‘Yeah, what’s up coach?
Coach :: ‘We got a call from the US U-20 team… They want you to come to their January Camp in Chula Vista. I’m not sure how well you’d do, but they want you to come down anyways….’
Me :: “Really!?!?!?”
Coach :: ‘Yeah, don’t fuck this up.’
Me :: ‘Uh, yeah… Um, I’ll try not to.’
I spent every waking moment preparing for that opportunity….the day I walked through those doors in Chula Vista.
The following six months of training, friendships, games, travel, tactical sessions and relationships with older, established players changed my life forever. To this day, the friends I made and what I learned during that time…. It set the standard for the way I choose to live my life, even to this day.
So back to that fateful day in Chula Vista as Sunil Gulati stood in front of us and spoke for the first time about MLS x Nike’s ‘Project 40′ program.
There had been a kid playing with us on the US U-20′s named Carlos Parra. Now Carlos wasn’t the smartest kid in the world, but he was hilarious and could play a couple different positions and none of them great. He was solid, but not great. But the problem with Carlos is that he had been capped for the full US Men’s National Team during a trip to Chile when the rest of the ‘Full Team’ had been on strike over some issues with US Soccer. Steve Sampson, the coach at the time, had tabbed Carlos for the trip and ended up throwing him on as a sub in the second half.
That would be Carlos’ one and only International Appearance for the US Team, but because it had happened before he had graduated high school, there was a certain amount of pressure internally on Sampson. When Carlos found out that his ‘Full Scholarship’ to Maryland wasn’t going to happen because he’d failed an English Class back when he was a High School Sophmore, a conversation internally started about the creation of ‘Project 40′ (which is now known as Generation adidas), a program that would allow kids in high school and college to forgo their College Eligibility to sign a ‘Professional Contract’ with MLS and provide a ‘Financial Program’ for kids to take classes on the side.
While it may have started as more of a reactionary reflex to a less than ideal situation, Carlos had some immediate success in MLS after being ‘Allocated’ to the New York / New Jersey MetroStars and started almost immediately as a defensive midfielder. And again, the reaction for the ‘suits’ in MLS was this was a program that would fast track young players into the league and in the USMNT system.
And here was Sunil, standing in front of us and explaining the view from MLS. And then the question came…. ’Is there anyone in this room that’s interested in becoming a Project 40 player?’
Now I need for you to think about the guys in this room and their backgrounds, their individual current college situations… This was the cream of the crop in 1997…. UCLA, Virginia, UNC, Clemson, Indiana, etc… The big boys. All on Full Rides. Every single player on Full Rides, worth $30k plus for some $10k plus a year for others. All but one player…. Me.
After two years at Cal St. Fullerton, I was still paying for school and not doing a very good job at it. Jobs on the sides to make ends meet and to alleviate the financial pressure on my parents…. So when I found myself sitting in that room, listening to Sunil Gulati on that fateful day, my hand rose high into the air without even realizing it. He locked his eyes on mine and asked, ‘Dunny, are you sure?’, my response was swift :: ‘I am.’
I was the only one. And I’m pretty sure every single player in that room thought I was nuts. Giving up the final two years of eligibility….
Money wasn’t discussed, but I knew that I’d be playing professional soccer (something I’d told my parents I’d be doing when I was crying my eyes out at 12 years old after being cut from my club soccer team, Upland Celtic). I’d actually be paid for it as opposed to sitting in a class every day and trying to pay for school, while dreaming about becoming a professional soccer player.
I calmly and very quietly walked back towards our rooms (while internally going nuts inside) and when the guys turned left, I turned right. I walked to the bank of phones at the end of the hall and made a collect call back home. I got a hold of my mom and told her what had just happened ten minutes earlier. There was a long pause and a somewhat uncomfortable amount of silence….. And then she told me how proud of me she was.
Many would tell me that I was making the biggest mistake of my life, including the coach at CSUF…. That maybe I should reconsider.
Two weeks or so after that initial meeting, Sunil Gulati showed up at my parents house alongside Ivan Gazidis (currently in charge over at Arsenal) & Todd Durbin. After a few minutes of listening to the three explain what Project 40 was and the hopes they had for my career in MLS, my mother turned to me and asked ‘Is this what you really want? Are you sure?’
My answer was without hesitation. ‘Yes’.
I signed my first professional contract that day, a three year plus an option at $24,000 a year and became the second ‘Project 40′ player in the program. A couple of weeks later and I would end up being ‘Allocated’ to the New England Revolution and my first game with the team would be on July 4th, 1997 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena against the LA Galaxy, just twenty minutes from my parents house.
If They Only Knew.