Off the beaten path
Updated: Wednesday July 11, 2001 5:23 PM
By Scott French and Will Kuhns, Soccer America
Colorado Rapids defender Steve Herdsman and MetroStars forward Rodrigo Faria have a lot in common. They both had abandoned hopes of playing pro soccer after stints abroad. They both went in the second round of the 2001 MLS SuperDraft after brief small-college careers. And they're both now playing significant roles in their first year of MLS play.
Faria is grateful for his good luck
Throughout his life, Rodrigo Faria always has been able to turn to his father, Enrico, for guidance. Dad supported Rodrigo's pursuits in soccer, yet reminded him of the other important things in life.
Heeding his father's wisdom led Faria to leave behind his home in soccer-frenzied Brazil to concentrate on an education in the United States. For the first time, Faria diverted his attention from his quest for professional soccer. Instead, it found him.
Faria grew up in Rio de Janeiro, and latched onto the youth program of Flamengo, a local professional club where he developed into a gangly, stubborn forward. But Flamengo released him at age 16. Seeing how the rejection devastated Rodrigo, his father helped him start anew with Vasco da Gama, another powerhouse Rio club, but it too, turned him aside after a year.
"In Brazil, there is so much politics and so many kids trying to make it," Faria said. "So the competition was too hard. In Brazil, if you don't make it [by the time] you're 17, that's it. It's not like [the United States], where you can go to college and then go with a team. In Brazil, you grow up inside the club. I was more frustrated with Flamengo than Vasco, because that's where I spent all my time -- for nothing."
This time, when his father told him to focus on other ways of being successful, Rodrigo listened. A friend, Ricardo Coelho, an assistant coach at Concordia College, told Faria he could study at the private, Lutheran school of about 630 students outside of New York.
The chance to immerse himself in English would be invaluable, "so that I could come back to Brazil and get a nice job in marketing," Faria says.
Soccer was placed on the back burner, but not abandoned.
Faria scored 22 goals and added 10 assists for Concordia in 1999 and was named the top newcomer in Division II's New York Collegiate Athletic Conference.
That, plus a four-goal performance against a Brazilian team in the Copa Latina tournament, caused one scout to recommend he try out for the MetroStars reserve team.
Faria not only made the squad, but led it with 17 goals in New Jersey's amateur Champions League.
"We never saw him at the Copa Latina," MetroStars coach Octavio Zambrano says. "But he came into our radar at those tryouts."
Realizing that Faria could count as a transitional international under MLS rules, Zambrano entered him in the SuperDraft. The MetroStars used their first pick, 13th overall, on Faria.
Four days later, Faria flew to Portugal with the MetroStars for preseason training. But just as his professional dream burgeoned, terrible news arrived: Enrico had cancer.
Faria immediately returned home. While veterans and hopefuls battled in Portugal for one of 18 roster spots, Faria stood by his family. Enrico underwent successful surgery for prostate cancer and almost three weeks passed before Faria rejoined the MetroStars.
"He barely, barely made the team," Zambrano says. "I hadn't seen as much as I wanted of him, but we had gone through too much with him to give up. It's kind of an unusual path, but he is very humble. He knows that he's had a little bit of luck and that we took a chance on him. He is grateful for everything that is coming his way, and I think that makes him even more malleable as a player."
Against D.C. United May 5, Faria scored his first professional goal during the MetroStars' rally to a 3-2 victory. At the final whistle, Faria raced back to the locker room. When his teammates ambled in, they found him on the pay phone, gleefully recounting every detail to his father.
Faria's luck ran short on June 27, when the MetroStars placed him on the injured-reserve list with a small tear of the fascial tissue in his lower right leg.
Herdsman is still in disbelief
Steve Herdsman has reason to be star-struck.
Six months ago, he was a soccer nobody, a sweeper at a small Christian college who spent summers in the PDL and was about to walk away from the game, as he'd done twice before.
That's before this "whirlwind of excitement" took over the 25-year-old Floridian's life. The surprise selection, at No. 17, in MLS's SuperDraft, Herdsman is getting substantial playing time with the Colorado Rapids. He's been a fixture in the Rapids' lineup, starting their first dozen games -- tops among rookies -- at sweeper and as a defensive midfielder.
Coach Tim Hankinson, awed by Herdsman's speed and defensive instincts during the combine that preceded February's draft, sees enormous potential in need of heavy seasoning.
"If we were a stronger club," says Hankinson, whose team is last in the West, "maybe he's a player fighting for his time off the bench. But he's in the frying pan, and that's great for him. At 25, he may be a rookie in this league, but he's not a young player anymore. He needs to be in the action right now so he can grow as quickly as he can."
It'll take some time. The jump from the Premier Development League -- the fourth-tier in the American game -- to MLS is huge, and Herdsman has much to learn.
"He's green -- he really is," says Robin Fraser, the Rapids' No. 1 sweeper and Herdsman's roommate on the road. "He's got a bright future, but he's really green. ... Physically, he has everything he needs."
Herdsman, born in Jamaica and raised in Florida, where he moved at age 4, took a sputtering, meandering path to pro soccer. He didn't start playing until he was a high school sophomore, quit once, then ended up in Germany for two years, playing for Fifth Division club Spandauer BC and then Hertha Berlin's amateurs after impressing during an American team's tour.
He turned down a contract from Hannover 96 because "I wasn't ready for the league," returned home and quit again. Then he was off to NAIA-affiliated Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Mich.
He met his wife, Betsy, there, but managed just one season of soccer in nearly three years at the school.
Herdsman also spent two seasons with the PDL's West Michigan Edge, and that's how he came to the Rapids' attention. He participated in the MLS combine as part of a PDL all-star team, deciding at the last minute to attend -- his baby daughter had undergone surgery -- and quickly making his presence felt.
"He shut down a couple situations that broke through the defense," Hankinson says, "as explosively and cleanly as you could ever ask from a player."
Hankinson says three MLS teams have inquired about Herdsman, whose future is as a sweeper. How far off is that future?
"Stephen will achieve his potential when he realizes what his potential is," Hankinson says. "Right now he's in disbelief. He's going up against Clint Mathis, Tab Ramos, guys he's looking at like stars. He's not a star yet. He will be only when he starts to believe he should be the better man when he gets those matchups."
Herdsman recognizes this, but he can't help it. Six months ago, all this was inconceivable.
"I go out and play against the L.A. Galaxy," he says, "I'm like, 'That's Cobi Jones!' I call my friends: 'I'm playing with Robin Fraser ... Marcelo Balboa ... Paul Bravo' -- guys I thought I'd only see on TV. Then we play Chicago, this guy [Hristo Stoitchkov] was [European] Footballer of the Year, and I'm running beside him.
"I never could have thought that was possible. When they started the league [in 1996], they had some [preseason] games [in Florida], and I went to see them. I thought, 'Man, I could never play in this league.' But here I am. I'm here playing a lot of minutes, starting. I didn't think that would happen."
Scott French and Will Kuhns are editors at /I>Soccer America magazine.