Sometimes you want to shake some sense into Eddie Gaven, the MetroStars? 17-year-old MLS All-Star midfielder.
Don?t you know U.S. soccer phenoms are supposed to brag about making it big in Europe someday? ?I don?t think about Europe too much,? says Gaven, a Hamilton, N.J., native. Don?t you know you?re supposed to take that salary and buy some real wheels, not a Pontiac Grand Am straight from the Avis lot? ?I don?t want to waste money on a car,? he says with a laugh. Don?t you want to forget about college instead of slaving away on business-degree papers during road trips? ?I didn?t want to stop doing the school thing just because I was in MLS,? says Gaven, who is pursuing an online degree from American Intercontinental University.
Gaven isn?t your typical soccer prodigy--but he is the player who heads the list of teenage prospects for the 2006 U.S. World Cup team. (The U.S. starts the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying in Jamaica on Aug. 18.) ?He?s got tremendous ability with the ball at his feet, and he wants to learn,? MetroStars coach Bob Bradley says of the 6-foot, 145-pound Gaven, who had four goals and six assists in 19 games through Saturday. Adds U.S. coach Bruce Arena, ?He?s headed in the right direction. He could help the national team, whether it?s this year, next year or in five years.?
In a league that?s growing younger--MLS has 13 teenagers, an alltime high-- Gaven is fast becoming the model for age-group stars trying to develop into top professionals. Since his MetroStars debut in July 2003 he has steadily improved his field vision, his strength (especially in his legs) and his confidence to take on defenders. What?s more, he?s done it without any undue fanfare. ?He?s earning his reputation instead of just telling you how good he is,? says Kansas City Wizards defender Jim Conrad. ?And unlike most young guys, he?s consistent. For him to have that level of professionalism at a young age is impressive.?
Much of the credit, Gaven says, goes to his daily education in the game. Most mornings Bradley pulls him aside to discuss a particular play that the two watch on videotape. ?He knows I?ve set the bar real high for him,? Bradley says. Gaven?s teammates have also embraced him, nicknaming him the Gavel--a play on his surname--which has morphed into the Judge. ( Captain Eddie Pope calls him the Professor, after the playground hoops trickster and Gaven look-alike on the And 1 Mix Tape Tour.)
It certainly helps Gaven?s adjustment that he?s living at home in Hamilton, where he returns most days to have lunch, listen to some of his favorite punk rock and work on his college degree. ?Eddie has always been extremely self-motivated,? says his mother, Janet, who notes that he taught himself to play the piano and writes his own music. Although many college-age players never take advantage of the up to $37,000 that the MLS?s Project-40 development program offers, Gaven has already bagged 72 of the 180 credits he?ll need to earn an accelerated four-year degree by December 2005. ?It?s not too hard,? he says, ?except sometimes when you?re on the road, and you need to get on the Internet to do the work.? (He has a solid 3.58 grade point average.)
After two years in the U.S. under-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla., Gaven has enjoyed his homecoming, as have his parents, who attend his games at Giants Stadium, the same place his father, Ed, a former Rutgers player, took him to see the 1994 World Cup and stars like Carlos Valderrama and Marco Etcheverry during the early days of MLS. Now Eddie--who made his U.S. debut to positive reviews against Poland last month--is one of the players young fans come to see. ?It?s pretty wild, isn?t it?? he says. ?Everything has happened so fast, I haven?t taken the time to think about it.?
Smart kid, that Gaven. When you?re 17 and shooting up the pro ranks, maybe you?re better off not asking why.