Taking it to the next level: SJU soccer stars in the pros

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“He came to me in the preseason and said he was delighted to be here but he wanted to be playing,” Nicol said. “That tells me about the hunger he...

By Dylan Butler

It didn’t take Shalrie Joseph long to make an impression on New England Revolution coach Steve Nicol.

“He came to me in the preseason and said he was delighted to be here but he wanted to be playing,” Nicol said. “That tells me about the hunger he has.”

Of course, wanting to play and proving you deserve to be a regular in the lineup are two different things, but the former St. John’s standout has backed up his words.

Originally drafted as a central defender, Joseph has flourished in the center of the park for the Revs, starting 15 of the 16 games he’s played this year.

“Initially when Shalrie came in I saw him as a center back,” added Nicol, a legendary former player at Liverpool. “But he got the chance to play in center midfield and he’s taken to it like a duck to water.”

Joseph is one of three former St. John’s soccer standouts playing their first full season in Major League Soccer. In addition to Joseph, midfielder Jeff Matteo is with the Columbus Crew and goalkeeper Dan Popik is with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Of the three, Joseph, a native of Grenada who calls Brooklyn home, has made the biggest impact and has proven to be one of the brightest first-year players in MLS.

After replacing deposed Daniel Hernandez at the half of New England’s season opener against Columbus — Hernandez has since transferred to Mexican club Necaxa — Joseph has been a regular in the Revs’ midfield.

At first Joseph, who played for the New York Freedoms of the USL’s Pro-Select League last season, played more of an attacking role in midfield but has since dropped back in defensive role for the Revolution, which is 5-6-7 in the MLS Eastern Conference.

“I’m definitely proud of what I’ve done in the season, but I don’t want to be content with that,” Joseph said. “We’re playing good so far but it’s just the midway part of the season, so I have to work hard every day.”

Joseph has proved to be a thorn in the side of opposing midfielders. At a solid 6-foot-3, 180-pounds, Joseph is an intimidating force both in the air and on the ground. But he also is skillful enough to consistently make the smart, careful passes around the field.

“His size makes him an imposing figure if you’re playing against him and he plays the game simply,” Nicol said. “He doesn’t overdo things and makes simple passes. His greatest strength is that he sees the simple pass and he plays it.”

One of his simple passes, actually a sublime ball threaded through the Chicago Fire defense, found Steve Ralston, who clinched a 3-0 score line, but also gave Joseph his first career assist.

“At this level you only have one shot, and you definitely have to make use of it,” said Joseph, a second-round pick by the Revolution in the 2002 MLS SuperDraft. “It was just great for me to get a start earlier on in the year, and it’s working well for me right now. I’m getting a good feel for the team and I’m just working hard to give support to my teammates.”

Jeff Matteo — Columbus Crew

It’s been his mantra through his short year-and-a-half MLS career, but all Jeff Matteo wanted was a chance.

Finally, in his second stint with the Columbus Crew after a disappointing first half of the season with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, Matteo received that chance on July 23 when he made his first career start against old buddy Joseph and the New England Revolution.

With a combination of injuries and national team call-ups decimating the Columbus midfield, Matteo played the entire 110 minutes of the 1-1 draw and scored his first career MLS goal in the 33rd minute to put the Crew in front, 1-0.

Matteo, a Developmental Player selected by the Crew in the second round of the 2002 MLS SuperDraft, received the ball from Duncan Oughton and ran into open space toward the top of the box. He attempted to flick the ball to forward Jeff Cunningham, but the ball deflected off of Joseph’s foot.

New England defender Brian Kamler attempted to clear the ball, but it fell right onto Matteo’s feet as he ran into the box, sidestepped defender Daouda Kante and ripped a left-footed shot past goalkeeper Matt Reis inside the near post.

“It was a one-two play that kind of got screwed up,” Matteo said after the game. “I got the ball at the top of the box and slotted it through the corner to the right of the goalkeeper. It was good to score, but it would have been a lot better if we would have won. We created a lot of chances. It’s just a matter of time until it comes.”

Matteo’s goal snapped Columbus’ 253-minute scoreless streak.

“I’m proud of Jeff Matteo and Michael Ritch,” Columbus coach Greg Andrulis said after the game. “They’re guys from our developmental team stepping up when we needed them.”

Later in the match Joseph made Matteo pay for his first career goal with an elbow to the head on a late challenge of a 50/50 ball.

“He was just making a meal of it. The whole game he was making a meal of it,” Joseph joked about Matteo. “He did have a great game, so I’m just happy for him.”

Matteo followed his impressive debut with his second straight start at Los Angeles July 30. Matteo played 66 minutes as a center midfielder before being replaced by Diego Walsh.

“I’m really happy. I feel I’ve done well with it and I’m just going to continue to keep plugging away,” Matteo said. “I think I played well enough and proved to (Andrulis) that I can play on this level. I’ll just keep working hard in practice.”

That chance never materialized in his first stint with the Crew, which traded him along with defender Chris Leitch for the rights to Ross Paule in March.

Initially Matteo was pleased with the trade and was looking forward to playing closer to his home in Stormville, a suburb of Poughkeepsie in Dutchess County.

But Matteo never cracked the MetroStars lineup and its already crowded midfield, which includes Honduran international Amado Guevara, Ricardo Clark, Richie Williams, Mark Lisi and Joey DiGiamarino.

He was released, along with midfielder Jeff Moore, to make room for a pair of players on loan from Boca Juniors — midfielder Jose Galvan and defender Juan Forchetti.

“It was very frustrating not playing, but people around me helped out and you have to be mentally tough and hope something is going to happen,” Matteo said. “You have to go out with confidence that you can do well, that you’re just as good as the other guys.”

Dan Popik — Los Angeles Galaxy

Dan Popik is a member of the defending MLS Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the former St. John’s goalkeeping standout plays behind Kevin Hartman, one of the top keepers in the league.

It’s a new experience for Popik, who was the three-year starting keeper for now-defunct Milwaukee Rampage of the A-League and led the club to the national championship in 2002.

“In Milwaukee I was more of the main guy, the leader on the team, and here it’s a different role,” said Popik, a standout at St. John’s in 1998 and 1999 after transferring from North Carolina State.

“The big difference is accepting your role, knowing that you’re not going to be playing game in and game out, and you just have to be a lot more focused,” he said. “It’s a lot tougher to be a backup because you’re not getting the time you want. But once you do get that time, you do have to be prepared and ready to play.”

But even though Popik is a backup to one of the hottest goalkeepers in MLS — in fact, Hartman was recently named to the MLS All-Star game — Galaxy head coach Sigi Schmid has been impressed with Popik’s work ethic in training sessions.

“His attitude has been really good and his training habits are excellent,” Schmid said. “He’s a player with experience who knows why he’s with the Galaxy, because he wants to take that next step. He knows he’s behind a good goalkeeper and he’s shown himself able.”

What Popik does have in his favor is that goalkeepers, more so than field players, get better as they get older and tend to have a longer career than other players.

“He comes in day in and day out and works hard and makes me work hard to make sure I’m on top of my game, and if I’m not he’s going to take my spot,” said Hartman, who was a backup to Mexican international Jorge Campos in his first season. “Somebody like that, who’s always pushing and always trying to accomplish his goals, is only going to make me better.”

That Popik is an American goalkeeper — he is a native of Syosset, L.I. — also bodes well because American keepers are the hottest commodity in soccer these days. The English Premier League is home to three of the country’s top goalies in Kasey Keller (Tottenham Hotspur), Brad Friedel (Blackburn) and recently Tim Howard (Manchester United).

“Every year you get better as you get older, and you keep working on the things that you’re not doing well at,” Popik said. “In this league, every team pretty much has a solid goalkeeper. You just have to wait to get your shot.”

Reach Associate Sports Editor Dylan Butler by email at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 143.

Posted 7:23 pm, October 10, 2011
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