During his summer break, Maryland midfielder A.J. Godbolt conducted an informal question-and-answer session with members of his former club soccer team in Austin. As he talked with the players, who ranged from pre-adolescents to high school seniors, he came to a few surprising realizations.
His audience knew the names of his Maryland teammates. They knew of his head coach, Sasho Cirovski. They knew of his assistant coach, Rob Vartughian. And they were asking Godbolt to put in a good word.
"Tons of 'em were saying that, all of them, 'Talk to Rob about me, talk to Rob about me,' " Godbolt recalled this week. "You should have seen it, 12- and 13-year-olds, 'I want to go to Maryland when I get older, I want to go to Maryland I get older.' These kids were from Austin, Texas!"
With the top-seeded Terrapins (17-4-2) preparing to play in their fourth consecutive College Cup this afternoon in Cary, N.C., such long-distance recognition should perhaps be expected. Strong facilities, national exposure, coaching success and aggressive recruiting have allowed Cirovski to assemble teams filled with elite prospects from across the country. The 13-man rotation that recorded a quarterfinal victory over Akron last weekend included three players from California and two each from Ohio and New Jersey. Player of the year candidate Jason Garey, the Terps' career leading scorer, is from Louisiana. Godbolt, the Texan, leads the team with 12 assists. Freshman Graham Zusi, whose four goals are fourth on the team, is from Florida.
"If you look at anybody else's roster, I think we have the most diverse roster, with people from all around the United States," said freshman forward Robbie Rogers, a Southern California product. "Especially now, I really think that Maryland, Indiana, UCLA -- when [recruits] think of college soccer, that's what they think of."
In fact, ACC powers have traditionally lured players from across the country and beyond. The Clemson team that will face New Mexico in today's second game, for example, has regulars from Ireland, Jamaica, New Mexico, Texas and New Jersey. New Mexico, on the other hand, starts four players from Albuquerque, while Southern Methodist -- Maryland's opponent today -- started eight Texans in its quarterfinal win over North Carolina.
Partly this is a product of geography. New Mexico and Southern Methodist are the only Division I men's soccer programs in their respective states, and thus can monopolize local recruits. In contrast, there are 10 Division I teams in Maryland and the District, and with most of the ACC's other traditional powers also within a four- or five-hour drive, coaches are almost forced to recruit nationally.
And partly this is because Maryland is fourth in NCAA history with 10 final four appearances, and is reaping steadily more television coverage and national recognition as a result. The Terps' four straight final four appearances have taken them to Texas, Ohio, Southern California and North Carolina. Four of their regular season games this season were televised; today's will be broadcast by ESPN2.
"There's an amazing amount of interest from kids from all over the country now: 'Hey, I saw you on TV,' or 'I saw you at the College Cup last year,' or 'I know one of your players from this club,' " Cirovski said. Recruiting is "never easy, but it's a lot easier. Any time we call a kid, we're right in the top one or two immediately, so that's a pretty good place to be."
The California connection, in particular, has helped the Terps strengthen their talent pool. Midfielder Maurice Edu, a Californian who has started 21 games this year, arrived in College Park last fall. This year's recruiting class, which was ranked second in the nation by CollegeSoccerNews.com, included starting goalkeeper Chris Seitz and starting forward Rogers, both Southern Californians and veterans of U.S. national youth teams.
When Seitz first heard from Maryland, he dismissed the idea of moving across the country instead of attending UCLA, the national power 200 miles from his home town; "I was pretty focused on the West Coast," he said.
But Cirovski was persistent. He followed up with Seitz's club coach when initial mailings didn't yield a response. He urged Seitz to take an unofficial visit to Maryland. He flew to California on the first day he was allowed to make contact with recruits. He showed Seitz and his parents a highlight film that emphasized Maryland's recent success; Seitz's father, Michael, had in fact watched the Terps' 2003 final four appearance on television. And Cirovski eventually got a verbal commitment before last season even began.
Rogers received the same treatment last winter. He had planned on "pretty much just going to UCLA, because that's what everyone does in California," until Cirovski's recruiting push began.
"He talked to me about the whole program and how they'd been in the final four in the past three years," Rogers said. "That's just what really caught my eye."
The Terps will play this weekend without defender Kenney Bertz, who fractured an orbital bone against Akron and had surgery this week. They have lost in the national semifinals three years in a row. But regardless of whether this is the year they break through, Cirovski said his recruiting message won't change.
"We want to always get the best players from this area, but we're also going to go find the best players nationally," he said. "You're not selling a promise any more; you're not selling something that you hope for. It's here and it's real."