Kicking open new doors - Local duo's success helps pave way for New England soccer

Boston Globe - Frank Dell'Apa - August 22, 2007

While growing up in Dorchester, Aaron Maund and Sheanon Williams used to play soccer wherever they could find a game. They dreamed of growing up to become professional players and being selected for the US national team.

Maund and Williams have moved far beyond those cold winter days of kick-arounds in the Frank V. Thompson Middle School gym as they compete in the FIFA Under 17 World Cup through Sept. 9 in South Korea.

Sheanon Williams.

For a change, though, Maund and Williams are on opposing teams. Maund was cut by the US and is performing for Trinidad and Tobago, the country of his father’s birth. Williams, who is also of Trinidadian descent, is starting at right back for the US after being converted from a striker position.

Both Maund and Williams played the entire game but their teams got off to unsuccessful starts Monday. The US lost to Tajikistan, 4-3, and next plays Tunisia; Trinidad & Tobago lost to Ghana, 4-1.

"We first met when we were 6 years old," Williams recalled. "To see [Maund] on the other side will be great. He looked at the situation after it didn’t work out [with the US] and it’s going to be a great experience for him to be with Trinidad. It’s definitely weird, but I have had other friends switch countries. I could have done the same thing."

The results of the U17 World Cup could go far in determining the futures of its participants. Most of the starting players in this event are either with professional clubs or destined for them soon.

The emergence of Maund and Williams also symbolizes the progress of local players, dozens of whom have forged professional careers from Major League Soccer to Eastern Europe.

Williams and Braintree’s Scott Caldwell are enrolled in the Bradenton Soccer Academy in Florida, a full-time residency program for prospective national teamers. Williams has committed to the University of North Carolina but will likely receive professional offers before ever playing a game for the school.

Revolution defender Michael Parkhurst followed a similar path, leaving Cranston, R.I., to enroll in Bradenton at age 14 and progressing to become MLS Rookie of the Year in 2005 and a US national team player this year.

Maund, 16, attends Roxbury Latin and is going down a road similar to the one Charlie Davies took from Manchester, N.H., to the Brooks School to Boston College to Hammarby IF in Sweden, making his US national team debut this year.

Professional players with New England ties have usually gone through the collegiate ranks but Maund and Williams might be opening the doors to the inner city for prospective national team players.

But if this is to become a trend, the process of player development might have to change.

The progress of Maund and Williams was facilitated by the Greater Boston Bolts club team, which won a national championship two years ago at the U16 level. The team was coached by former MLS defender Francis Okaroh, who is attempting to change the prevailing developmental program.

"I don’t believe kids 10, 11, 12 years old get to understand the game when they have to win, win, win," said Okaroh, who is now working with the South Shore United Blazers and is an assistant coach at Boston University. "If they are thinking about winning all the time, they are not going to last. They are going to be burned out by the time they could be thinking about playing professionally.

"Once they hit 14 or, if you have a special group of 13s, you can do it. If they start too early with coaches emphasizing winning so much, they won’t be ready at the next level. The bigger kids will play a lot and they end up being cheated, because when the other kids catch up they have lost their edge."

Okaroh’s program might not produce win-loss results quickly.

"It could take five, 10 years, but if it works, everyone will copy it," Okaroh said. "New England is not looked at for players. They will look in New Jersey, New York, and, on a good day, Connecticut, but that’s where it ends. It used to be we would have a national team player coming out of here every 10 years or so but now we can change that.

Williams recalls envisioning a professional career when he first heard about Freddy Adu being recruited by MLS.

"A lot of guys want to get to the pro level but they don’t want to put in the work," Williams said. "You can’t just say you want it. You have to practice every day whether it’s outdoors or indoors.

"I keep in contact with Charlie Davies and he tells me that it has been hard and he has had to work so hard; but he is seeing it pay off now."

Davies showed that a New Englander could become an international player without leaving the area, though he refused MLS’s contract offer and the chance to likely be a No. 1 draft pick to move and start his pro career in Sweden. Williams is on the verge of confronting a similar choice.

"It all depends on how the tournament goes," Williams said. "Everyone is looking at it like we need a team effort, we need to help each other, and hopefully it will happen for us. A lot rests on our shoulders but we think we have a chance to win."