And so the Rangers had barrels of fun, and they learned. And with some especially talented players, they began to win. A lot. In state tournaments, regional events and national competitions. With each year, as the team moved into new age categories, others from the area joined the squad.
And those players, many of whom knew one another from childhood in Takoma Park, Silver Spring, Olney and Bethesda, began to catch the eye of college recruiters and pro scouts.
Last year, attacker Jeremy Ebobisse (Duke) was chosen fourth in the MLS draft by the Portland Timbers. The most famous Ranger, Gedion Zelalem, left the group before age 16 to join Arsenal, the hallowed Premier League club. (He turned 21 on Friday.)
“If you’re a club coach, one player becoming a professional is great,” Pilkington said this week. “But to have five or six, it’s the biggest reward. It’s not about the trophies; it’s about getting them to the next level.”
For most, the next level was college soccer. Everyone from the Rangers’ U-18 squad played at a Division I university: UCLA, Maryland, Virginia, Duke, Wake Forest, Georgetown, American, Virginia Commonwealth, George Washington, Lehigh, Colgate, Navy, Coastal Carolina, Dartmouth, Loyola, Winthrop and Massachusetts-Lowell.
From there, a few have taken the next step to the pros.
Zelalem was one of Arsenal’s hot prospects and, in 2014, the former Walter Johnson High School student was entering first-team matches in the FA Cup and UEFA Champions League. Loan assignments to Glasgow Rangers (Scotland) and VVV-Venlo (Netherlands) offered regular playing time, but last summer, he suffered a major knee injury while with the U.S. squad at the Under-20 World Cup in South Korea. A recent setback delayed his recovery timetable.
Ebobisse (Walter Johnson High) played two seasons at Duke and trained overseas before signing with MLS. Last season, he made 14 regular season appearances and scored once for Portland, which finished atop the Western Conference.
Manley, a three-year starter at Duke, is vying to make Minnesota’s roster, while Danilack (16 goals in four years at Dartmouth) seems likely to land in the second-flight United Soccer League. Rozhansky, who won an NCAA title as a Virginia freshman in 2014, skipped the MLS scouting combine this month to sign in Israel. In case Rozhansky returns stateside, the Columbus Crew secured his MLS rights last Friday by drafting him in the second round.
Said Manley: “I remember learning a lot, and it wasn’t just technical and physical. It was a lot of mental and tactical stuff. It made me think more and become more consistent and clean in my game. I wouldn’t be [in MLS] if not for those experiences and coaching.”
Manley is from Elkridge, Md., and attended Baltimore’s Mount Saint Joseph High School. Several times a week for several years, he traveled about an hour each way to Montgomery County for training and matches, first with Bethesda Soccer Club, then with Olney Boys & Girls Club beginning at the U-15 level. By the time the Rangers were in the U-18s, they had merged with the Bethesda organization and entered the elite U.S. Soccer Development Academy.
“It was competitive and challenging,” Manley said. “In small-sided games, I’d try to be on the opposite team as [Ebobisse] so we could push each other and get better. The entire time, you could see the potential in the group.”
When the team first formed with 11-year-olds, some weren’t very good. “They could barely walk,” Pilkington joked. “But they pushed through it and got to the college level.”
Some players left the Rangers over the years, but most of the standouts stayed. “The other kids looked around,” Pilkington said, “and they knew they were in the right place.”
Pilkington, 38, is a native of Manchester, England, and a former midfielder at George Washington. He coached in the D.C. United academy and, after his success with the Rangers, moved to Downtown United Soccer Club in New York. In August 2016, he was hired by MLS’s New York City FC to oversee the academy’s U-16 squad. He’s now in charge of the U-19s.
The rise of his former Rangers players has rekindled fond memories.
“We never won at first, but we tried to do the right things,” he said. “It was always about developing. We had good kids and good parents. As they got older, we gradually got better. We picked up a few skillful and creative players who were able to do special things. We played with fluidity. The energy was collective, and to have top, top talent that wanted to stay together made it easy for me.”