Summer is the time when most college students are busy with internships or summer jobs, trying to make money and gain experience in their desired field, while squeezing in the occasional concert or lazy beach day on the weekends.
Gaining experience is one thing that the Virginia Commonwealth University men's soccer team can relate to, but instead of watching a favorite band perform, many of your favorite Rams were putting on a show of their own on the pitch.
Several of Head Coach Dave Giffard's players spent this summer working out with teams all over the country, working on their skills for this upcoming season and beyond. Most notably, three players were selected to participate in the 2014 MLS Homegrown Game, a part of the league's All-Star Weekend. Kharlton Belmar, Dennis Castillo, and Devon Fisher all played in that game as members of the Portland Timbers' U-23 PDL team.
"To be in an environment with a lot of the other top college players from around the country, to compete week in and week out with those guys, and then obviously to play in a showcase game at the end of the summer against some of the best homegrowns in the MLS was a very valuable experience for all 3 of those guys," Giffard said of his players' experience with Portland.
As for the players, they definitely made the most out of this valuable experience. All three were among the team leaders in minutes played, while Belmar (eight goals) and Castillo (two) were two of the four players on the team to score multiple goals over the summer. For Giffard, though, the time spent with a professional soccer club is really the big takeaway for his guys.
"To have them understand and to give them a little taste of what it's like to be a pro in the MLS and some of the things in certain areas of their games that they need to work on," said Giffard, "it's certainly, I think, a good preview not just for the staff in Portland and the management in Portland, but good exposure to all of the clubs as a part of the homegrown game."
Portland wasn't the only MLS team to play host to some of VCU's soccer players; the Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City both afforded multiple Rams the opportunity to train with their first team this summer.
Jason McGlothern and Ritchie Duffie both travelled out to Seattle to play with the Sounders U-23s. McGlothern came up through Seattle's youth academy, so sending him back home was a pretty easy decision to make. As for Duffie, coach Giffard considered him a guy "that needed to have some opportunities to be in that environment for the first time."
Seniors Assane Keita and Jose Manel (pictured, left) spent two weeks training with Sporting KC's first team, giving them both a great opportunity to be evaluated by professional coaches as they enter their final year of college soccer.
"[Training with Sporting KC] gave those guys an opportunity, for a small amount of time, to see what that environment's like and see what things they'll be challenged with at the end of our season when the time comes for them to make the next step," Giffard said.
For the majority of the summer, however, Keita and Manel spent time with local club RVA FC of the National Premier Soccer League.
VCU's connection to local soccer also extends to the Richmond Kickers. Each year the Kickers take five Rams players in to show them the ropes. This summer those five players were: Mario Herrera Meraz, Juan Fajardo Ortiz, Kai Marshall, Garrett Cyprus and Juan Monge Salano.
"Each year we send five guys out to them to train with their squad, and those five guys were the guys that went this year," Giffard said. "I think they had a really good experience in terms of being in a professional environment and train with and against pros every day, and helping to get them more ready for this year and certainly getting them more prepared for the time after the season when they're off trying to make their way into pro soccer."
With so many opportunities out there for young soccer players, it takes a lot of planning to decide which player goes where once school is out.
"We look at every player over the course of their career here, we try to map out their time both with us, during the fall and the winter and the spring, but also during the holiday periods," Giffard explained. "We try to determine what makes sense for each individual player developmentally and then try to open doors and give them an avenue to continue to develop."
One specific example he mentioned was that of Herrera Meraz with the Kickers: "Mario was coming back to full fitness from an injury in 2012 and it's been a long way back for him. So just to be able to jump in and train with and against pros every day was very, very valuable. The game experience for him, to me, wasn't as important as the training environment was."
One of VCU's players, senior Ray DeLeon (pictured, right), didn't even limit himself to playing here in the U.S. As a member of Bridges FC, based outside of Chicago, DeLeon travelled to Scandinavia to play team from Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. The time away obviously did wonders for the midfielder, as Giffard had glowing remarks for him upon his return.
"Seeing him now, coming back into preseason, he looks very sharp," Giffard said. "I think the summer not only maybe opened some doors for him upon graduation but also gave him a lot of confidence and got him going as he heads into the fall."
The bottom line, though, is that every player is different and every opportunity is different. It's critical for coach Giffard and his staff to determine which player fits where so that, when the season starts up again, he has a group of guys who are playing as close to their maximum potential as possible.
"Each guy's situation is a little bit different," he said. "So what we try to do when we're looking at each of the guys' opportunities and what we project in terms of the number of games they played last year or the games they may play the next year, we try to find environments that can help them reach what they can reach during that time period a much as possible, and prepare them to do as well as they can with an eye to their overall development. Everybody takes a different path."
If this summer was any indication, then that path should lead to some great things for Giffard and his team. VCU will host William & Mary for an exhibition game on August 22 at 7 PM, then take on Farleigh Dickinson in its regular season opener on August 29 as a part of the 2014 VCU Invitational.
Written by: Chris Cullum, VCU Athletic Communications Assistant