Coming off one of the best seasons in school history that included an Appalachian Athletic Conference championship and an appearance in the NAIA playoffs, several Reinhardt soccer players are already getting a jump on next season.
Six Eagles were selected among some of the top college players in the nation to play in the USL2 and NPSL leagues during the offseason.
“It’s great for guys to have the opportunity to play alongside and against the best college players in the country,” Reinhardt coach Joey Johnson said. “It makes you better to have that summer season against top competition to have that time for their development.”
For players not participating in summer development leagues, Johnson said a summer workout plan is in place, but continuing to play on organized, competitive teams provides additional opportunities to improve.
Midfielder Taylor Gray, who has earned national recognition, and defender Nathan Ashburn have played well together for the Tri-Cities Otters, who lead their division in the USL2 league.
Todd Fidler has been playing with the Dalton Red Wolves, a team with direct affiliation with USL Pro team Chattanooga Red Wolves.
Edgardo Obregon is also playing in the USL2 league with Weston FC in South Florida, while forward Aaron Whitten and goalkeeper Cameron Verona have been playing together with the Georgia Revolution of the NPSL.
“It’s the best college players in the country,” Johnson said. “Every level is essentially represented there. These teams are difficult to get on. Our guys are out there with Division I kids from all over the country and allowing them to compete with each other. You can’t really get that level of competition any other way in the offseason.”
During their time apart, Johnson said he always keeps up with his players.
He said he tracks their performances and regularly checks in, but as for the coaching, he allows their summer teams to take charge.
“I have good relationships with most of the coaches,” he said. “I trust them to help with their development. I’m pretty hands off and let them do what they feel like they need to do. I definitely keep in touch with the players, though. I see how they’re doing, but I wouldn’t want other coaches trying to coach my players during our season.”
While Johnson said he believes in the benefits of playing in developmental leagues, it does come with some risk.
As with anything, injury is a possibility, and players can have adjustments to make when they rejoin Reinhardt in the fall, but with most teams wrapping up their seasons this week, Johnson said he thinks there is ample time for his players to be ready for practices beginning next month.
“That gives them about a three-week buffer before training camp,” he said. “There’s always a concern with injury, but there’s always a trade off for these competitive guys. There’s always an injury risk when you’re playing or training at a high level, but that’s how they continue to get better.”
Besides improvement this season, developmental leagues also offer chances for players to gain exposure to professional leagues after their college days are over.
The USL2 league in particular has seen 70 percent of players drafted by MLS teams since 2010 at some point, and Reinhardt has seen the exposure pay off after former all-American goalkeeper Torge Wiedenroth signed a professional contract with NPSL Pro club Chattanooga FC.
“It’s really a platform for the best players in the country,” Johnson said. “I’m really proud of how many guys we have there. It’s tough to get in, but it’s a great opportunity for them to get exposure for pro teams.”