MSOC : International affair: Syracuse spans globe in search for fresh soccer talent
Raoul Meister sat in front of his laptop in Germany last December, contemplating his move overseas to play soccer at Syracuse. Up to that point, he had liked everything Syracuse men’s soccer assistant coach Jaro Zawislan had to offer during Zawislan’s recruiting visit to Germany. But Meister still needed a clearer picture of his future.
So he went to the only place he could think where he could actually see his future home – Google Maps.
He entered the address of the SU Soccer Stadium into the search engine, and saw his surroundings for the next four years. The images fascinated him so much, he called Zawislan. At that moment, the Orange officially received its first international commit of last offseason.
Meister isn’t the only foreign-born player to find a home in Syracuse.
Of the 27 players on this season’s team, nine hail from territories outside of the United States, including Canada, Poland, Puerto Rico, Hungary and Germany. The nine players represent the largest number of foreign players in team history and a significant aberration from the Orange’s previous recruiting history. In Syracuse’s last game against DePaul, seven of the 14 SU players who participated in the game were born outside the United States.
Throughout the ’90s, SU averaged about one international player per season, and he was usually Canadian. During that period, the Orange coaching staff relied on talent from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
The recent shift toward international recruits can be attributed in part to Zawislan’s efforts to acquire players equipped to compete in the Big East.
‘This is an American university, and we’re looking for American soccer players first,’ Zawislan said. ‘In the meantime, we would be shortchanging ourselves and the university if we didn’t look at international soccer players.’
During Zawislan’s first offseason in 2002, he helped the coaching staff recruit two Canadian players and one Colombian. The following season, he helped compile a top 40 recruiting class, according to collegesoccernews.com. That year, he landed two more Canadian players, including former Orange standout Richard Asante (who was eventually drafted by the Major League Soccer franchise Toronto F.C).
Since his arrival, the number of international athletes on the Syracuse roster has steadily increased each season. By 2006, the roster boasted eight foreign players from countries such as Jamaica, Barbados, Switzerland, Canada and Hungary.
For Zawislan, the recruiting process has been time-consuming, especially as he expands his search overseas. He sorts through an abundance of recruit mail sent from aspiring collegiate soccer players around the world each year. After narrowing down his choices, he usually requests each player’s video and resume. If both look promising, he eventually scouts the player.
In addition to recruiting via mail, Zawislan – who played professionally in North America and Europe after graduating from Clemson in 1993 – also uses his own sources to recruit international talent. He relies on former teammates, colleagues and coaches for player referrals.
‘In the soccer circles you get to know enough people that it usually becomes your recruiting network,’ Zawislan said. ‘You develop it over the years, and you trust the coaches input and that they will be straightforward with you.’
In December, Zawislan contacted a former teammate who now coached in Germany. The coach brought up Meister, his star midfielder.
‘I was interested in going to the U.S., so my coach spoke with Jaro,’ Meister said. ‘He came one week to Germany, watched me play two games, came to some practices. A few days later he called me with an opportunity, and that’s really the story.’
Despite a deluge of European connections, Zawislan tends to rely on his Canadian referrals more often because of the country’s close proximity to Syracuse. During his free time in the fall and spring, he travels across the border to scout the best high school players playing in the country’s most noteworthy tournaments.
In 2004, Zawislan visited Toronto to watch one of the country’s most prestigious club tournaments. In the championship game, he noticed the stellar play of Ottawa Fury midfielder Kenny Caceros, then a junior in high school.
A year later, the two met again, and Zawislan offered Caceros a spot on the team. Caceros missed the Syracuse application deadline, and ultimately enrolled at Maine. The school wasn’t a good fit, he left the team and called Zawislan, pleading for an opportunity to play at Syracuse. Zawislan obliged, advised him through the application process and reclaimed his former prized recruit.
Despite a demanding, coaching schedule, Foti occasionally takes his own scouting trips as well.
In 2005, he contacted a friend who coached at the University of Toronto to organize a friendly match between both universities. During the game, freshman Kyle Hall showcased his abilities and impressed the Syracuse coaching staff. After the game, Foti approached Hall and offered him the opportunity to transfer and play soccer at Syracuse.
‘For what I want to do with soccer, I needed to take my game to the next level and play at a high level,’ Hall said. ‘And the Big East is a much better conference, I thought.’
Other times, the Orange has stumbled onto international talent. Midfielder Tom Perevegyencev, the team’s leading scorer, made the team as a walk-on in 2005. Perevegyencev grew up in Hungary and came to SU because of his interest in the Martin J. Whitman School of Management.
Besides those players, Syracuse’s roster also features forward Jose Zuniga (Puerto Rico), defender Karol Wasielewski (Poland), and Canadian-born players Kevin Chan-Yu-Tin, Rob Cavicchia and Brien Chamney.
Several other Division I universities have also adapted to the international trend and have made significant strides to integrate its soccer program with foreign talent.
This year, St. Francis (Pa.) boasts six international players, one of the highest totals in team history. Second-year head coach Michael Casper played an integral role in recruiting during his tenure as an assistant coach and employed similar tactics to those of Zawislan.
‘Sometimes we go (overseas) to watch players, which is the best way because you are making informed decisions based on what you see,’ Casper said in a phone interview. ‘Other than that sometimes we use contacts and friends, some that we met over the years in different countries to make recommendations. We’ve gotten our two boys from New Zealand from my good friend of mine from over there. It’s an effective strategy.’
It certainly has been for Syracuse. Still, taking on an international player is somewhat of a risk. So far, it’s been one the Orange and Zawislan have been willing to make.
‘When they go overseas it’s a really big investment,’ Perevegyencev said. ‘They’re looking for players that are definitely going to start each game. They’re looking for players that are strong, know how to play the game, can adapt quickly, and can add that special something as soon as they get in.’
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