A little over 10 minutes into Sunday’s matchup at Lafayette, junior forward Matt Bouraee gave the men’s soccer team a one-goal lead. The speedy forward, whose natural skills tend to make him a breakaway machine, had to work for it, using several fakeouts and having the good luck of a defender slipping and falling to the ground in his wake.
Bouraee’s first thought after scoring the goal: “Finally.”
It was his first goal of the 2008 season, a season in which Bouraee is expected to build on a standout sophomore season that saw the Manasquan, N.J., import become Cornell’s leading scorer for the year.
Bouraee scored in more than half of Cornell’s games last year, and two of his nine goals were game-winners. He was also named to the All-Ivy second team last year after netting honorable mention honors his freshman year — the 5-11, 185 pound striker was on elite U.S. soccer’s radar.
That talent was recognized early, as he played for the New York Red Bulls youth team since the age of 16 until this summer. From the day Bouraee got back home last May, he had four practices a week and a game on the weekends.
“Being in a pro environment, you have to be fully fit in mind [and] in body,” he said. “You have to be at peak performance consistently. As a 16-year old, I couldn’t quite get it, I sat the bench. But even still, practices were harder than any type of game I could find.”
This summer, Bouraee experienced that “pro environment” at the next level — playing across the Atlantic — with better results than his early experiences on the Red Bulls team. The opportunity, ironically enough, appeared when the normally serious striker was goofing around.
Over winter break last year, Bouraee was playing in a pick-up game and decided to have some fun.
“I was playing goalie, and there were only a couple seconds left in the game and I decided to dribble everyone onto the field, just for the hell of it,” he said. “I shot it at the 50-yard line, and it happened to go upper 90, which is in the corner with the angle, which is a perfect shot, and [it went] over the goalie. Everyone at the game is like ‘Oh my god.’ [For me] it was just a fun game, I was enjoying it.”
Someone was observing Bouraee’s performance, someone who would offer the college sophomore an amazing opportunity. A man watching from the sidelines approached the player of the game afterwards and ended up coaching him later in the year. Through that random observer’s connections, Bouraee even scored an invite to play in Portugal over the summer. [img_assist|nid=32038|title=Leading scorer|desc=Junior forward Matt Bouraee (12), last year’s leading scorer, has one goal so far this season.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“[Playing in Portugal] was really the climax of my soccer career,” Bouraee said. “I played against two second division teams, and I was able to blend in with the crowd. I did fine. Nothing special, but I wasn’t bad either.”
Of course, he was comparing himself to players who regularly sign for six-figure salaries and who are superstars around Europe.
“Eventually toward the end of the trip, I had the chance to play one of the best teams in Europe, one of the best teams in the world probably, Vitória de Setúbal,” Bouraee said of the almost 100-year old Portuguese fútbol club. “[That team I played] had a 6-5 guy from Senegal. So fast. His touch was perfect. His mind was impeccable. It was just the best experience, because I experienced the ultimate.
“When you watch Manchester United or Arsenal on TV,” he explained, “you don’t really acknowledge how fast each guy is and how quickly he makes up his mind on his next play. I saw the contrast between college level soccer and that level, and that itself was amazing because now I know what it’s like at that level and it gave me a better idea of how to get there.”
And then came the current slump, and now Bouraee isn’t so sure if he wants to pursue a pro career. Bouraee is far and away the shot leader with 21 — the next highest total being six from classmate J.J. Bain — but has only connected on one of those attempts after six games.
“I’m just trying to enjoy soccer while it lasts,” he said. “At worst, I’ll graduate with an Ivy League degree.”
The Economics major is also trying to change his mindset a little, toning down his accustomed intensity.
“I want to just enjoy the season,” Bouraee said. “I used to say if I don’t score and my team doesn’t win, I didn’t have fun. I’d be really stressed out. But now I’m starting to realize just having fun out there, just being relaxed, is when you play your best.”
Even though he is enjoying his “worst start since starting to play soccer,” scoring is what Bouraee is meant to do — this talent has been encouraged by both personality and heritage.
“From my perspective as a forward, when someone asks about the game,” Bouraee said, “they ask who won and who scored. It doesn’t matter how many passes you put together or how many people dribbled. [My dad] was a forward also, and it got him to the professional level.”
Bouraee’s father Madgy played professionally in Egypt, including on the Egyptian national team. Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the younger Bouraee learned the fundamentals from his dad.
“I was always around soccer as a kid,” Bouraee said. “It was nice being in Brooklyn, kids there aren’t really distracted by video games and all that expensive stuff. All they really have is a baseball bat, soccer ball, a basketball. So they’re more focused on athletic play, and that kind of enhanced my coordination skills and my interest in sports.”
When Bouraee was 12, his family moved to the Jersey Shore. The move ended up being a good thing for the youth’s emerging soccer career, as the area featured excellent sports training and coaching. It took awhile, however, to adjust to the new environment.
“I moved to a really small town on the Jersey Shore,” he said. “At first, I really wasn’t accepted there. I was kind of different, being from Brooklyn I guess. Eventually they accepted me, and I actually led their school to a state championship.”
The former Brooklynite outcast won a state title with Wall High School his senior year and his 31 goals that season broke the school’s goal record held by George Gelnovatch, the current head coach at the University of Virginia.
Bouraee completed the adjustment to college soccer by his sophomore year, relying heavily on the guidance of Brian Kuritzky ’08.
“Mattie works very hard on his finishing ability in training each week,” said Cornell head coach Bryan Scales, “and he’s a good example to the rest of the guys in that regard. I think that he really follows in the footsteps of Brian Kuritzky, who kind of took Matt under his wing last year when they constantly worked on what their responsibilities were going to be in the game.”
Bouraee and Kuritzky, who was first team All-Ivy with eight goals last year, alternated between the Nos. 1 and 2 spots on the Red’s goal-scoring list in 2007. After graduation, Kuritzky tried out for a pro team in Israel. Though it didn’t work out, the former Red co-captain is still training with the goal in mind of a pro career. That perseverance stood out to his protégé Bouraee.
“The biggest impact he’s had [on me] is that he’s the strongest person I’ve ever met, mentally [and physically],” Bouraee said. “He’s always training so hard. It might sound cliché, but he always goes 100 percent in school and soccer. He’s my biggest mentor.”
He still talks weekly with Kuritzky. But though Bouraee looks to emulate his mentor’s work ethic, the younger player isn’t yet comfortable being a mentor himself to the team’s relatively young corps of strikers.
“I’m a very good leader of myself, but I’m not good at leading others,” Bouraee said. “Bryan was good at both. Maybe next year, being one of the most experienced on the team, I’ll be able to share my experience, but now … I’m not really the guy who says let’s do one more run or really motivates the team.”
“But you know what,” he added with assurance, “I could learn.”