March 9, 2005

Mahoney Living the MLS Dream

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Where in the world is David Mahoney?

He’s definitely not playing soccer at Berman Field, drinking coffee at Collegetown Bagels or studying history in Uris Library. He is not anywhere near Ithaca, that’s for sure.

Instead, he is getting a different type of education. A lesson in professionalism. A lesson in taking his game to another level. A lesson in becoming a professional soccer player.

See, Mahoney, a senior Cornell goalkeeper, was taken by the Chicago Fire in the second round of Major League Soccer’s supplemental draft earlier last month. Since then, Mahoney has been training with the Fire in Florida, and more recently, in Guadalajara, Mexico, to cement his place in his new life after Cornell.

While Mahoney’s talent and ethic are undeniable, he has also been aided by the substantial expansion of American soccer. This growth has been seen most tangibly in Major League Soccer, which contrary to preconceived stereotypes, has evolved since its inception in 1996. The league now has 12 teams, including two expansion squads in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City that are set to kick off action this April. Last year, Ian Pilarski ’04 was also selected by Chicago in the MLS SuperDraft.

Additionally, soccer-specific stadiums have been built or are in the process of being produced. The Columbus Crew for example, already plays in a soccer-specific venue, while teams such as Chicago have construction of its new facilities already underway.

MLS teams have also expanded the rosters to include reserve squads. There are also other extremely competitive smaller leagues, ranging from the youth to higher levels, which make it generally more feasible to become a professional soccer player after college. This is despite the fact that many players are turning pro at a younger age.

One Cornell player who also received a similar opportunity is senior defender Scott Palguta, who was drafted by the United Soccer League first division team, the Rochester Raging Rhinos, earlier this year. Palguta, who went with Mahoney to a combine in Florida over winter break to display his ability to scouts, is entering a league which is right below the MLS, but holds bright possibilities for the Cornellian.

This is not to say the life in professional soccer is easy. In fact, it is far from it.

“There’s definitely pressure to perform because we’re not going to be making a ton of money and there are a couple of hundred of kids that would love to be in the situation we’re in,” Palguta said. “If you don’t perform … someone could easily come and take your place.”

Indeed, for both Mahoney and Palguta, salaries are relatively paltry compared to those in mainstream sports such as baseball or basketball. In addition, most contracts are not binding, making it relatively easy for clubs to cut a player at anytime.

According to Cornell head coach Bryan Scales, not every player has the attributes to make the jump to professional soccer. While having strong technique is a given, Scales said that you need to be able to adjust to a faster pace of play, have superior mental focus and have the ability to deal with failure well.

“At the next level, players can’t afford to take breaks during a game. You just can’t afford to switch off,” Scales said.

“Just from my experience [training with] Chicago and the MetroStars [in the past], if you lose focus or if you lose concentration for a couple of split seconds, guys are all over you,” Palguta said.

Cornell assistant coach Nate Fuller ’00, whose younger brother, Ian, played for the MLS team the New England Revolution, said that those who want to play at the top level must have the strongest drive and commitment to be a professional soccer player. In addition, Fuller said that there is a degree of humility that one must have, where you can be self-confident but not cocky at the same time.

“You can’t come out with an attitude, because there’s a lot of guys who have done a lot more than you have or a lot more than you’re ever going to do,” Mahoney said.

Yet, the dream for Mahoney and Palguta has always been alive. To stay fit after Cornell’s season, Palguta has continued going to the gym with teammates practically every single day and made trips over the last three weeks to Rochester for informal training sessions. He did give out resumes and attended some career fairs just in case that the soccer thing didn’t come through, but he was pretty confident that things would work out.

Mahoney also trained in the off-season and was also assured that he would get his opportunity at some level. But, he still has to complete 15 credits to graduate at Cornell and has been doing extra work and coming back to Ithaca for major exams, while also attending preseason training camps and matches for the Fire.

And both players will not have the smoothest roads ahead. Palguta said that Rochester’s brand new coaching staff has “no loyalties to anybody,” and that he will be going head-to-head against guys who will be fighting for a spot on the squad. His team’s preseason camp officially starts during Cornell’s spring break.

Mahoney, who is third in the pecking order behind goalkeepers Zach Thornton and Matt Pickens, felt that he adjusted to the MLS game quicker than he thought he would. He said that he needs to take it one day at a time to reach his goal of being at least the second-choice keeper on the squad.

However, both players are optimistic that with their work ethic and determination, things will work out. And maybe, they’ll play on the same field once again — this time on the pro level. While many of their classmates will probably be entering jobs which are higher-paying, less demanding, less time consuming and less stressful, these are the chances that Mahoney and Palguta have been waiting for their whole lives.

“This is what I’ve wanted to do since I was little kid,” Palguta said.

So where in the world is David Mahoney?

He’s chasing his dream. That’s where he is.

Brian Tsao is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. Life of Brain will appear every other Wednesday this semester.

Archived article by Brian Tsao