The tweets combined in December 2016 like a well-executed give-and-go: First, one healthy top-10 pick announced his early retirement, then another followed a day later. J.J. Koval and Steve Neumann, feeling they’d given enough, were gone.
Former Georgetown star Neumann, then 25 and the No. 4 overall selection in the 2014 MLS draft, was set on business school. Former Stanford captain Koval, then 24 and taken ninth that same year, wanted to become a dentist.
Both had options if they wished to remain in the sport. After three professional seasons apiece, neither did.
“I have other interests in my life, and the longer you play, the narrower your potential career path gets,” said Neumann, who is back at Georgetown to work toward a master’s degree in business administration.
“My passion and excitement about playing soccer was kind of declining, and my excitement about whatever was next, and that became dentistry, was growing,” echoed Koval, who’s planning to start school at Creighton in the fall.
In another major American sport, such career switches by top recent draftees would be stunning. In MLS, they’re tradition. And as the league’s 23rd season opens Saturday — and as college soccer’s influence wanes — they seem poised to continue, if not proliferate.
Neumann, like Koval, had grown up dreaming of becoming a pro player. But by his second year of being one, he was frustrated enough with his club, the New England Revolution, and curious enough about his non-soccer talents that he was considering a change. A role as a players’ union representative, he says, “opened his eyes” in particular to the business side of sports.
It also accentuated a slight.
The attacking midfielder’s playing time had dropped from his rookie year, and his trade requests were denied. After the season ended, the Revolution declined his club option, then offered him a one-year qualifying contract worth $30,000 less than he was making. Per league rules, it meant he wouldn’t be able to sign anywhere else in MLS. He was irritated, but took it.
“I think when the league was formed, those rules were necessary,” said Neumann, who recalled checking in with his agent “on a weekly basis” about the regulations and how they work. “[Now] it’s unnecessarily complicated for what I think it should be, and I think a lot of people hold that same sentiment.”
A marketing major as an undergraduate, he says he was “befuddled” at his inability “to seek market value.” Upon his return to New England for 2016, his minutes dwindled further, and his joy in playing went with them.
“If I was an all-star in MLS, starting every game, I’d still be playing right now,” Neumann acknowledged. But while he could have sought a spot on another team after his third season, the lifestyle and club situation wore on him. After a lot of conversations with family and friends and “a lot of soul-searching,” he desired no more of it.
Koval, like Neumann, cited enduring relationships with teammates and occasionally disappointing ones with management as notable takeaways from his brief MLS career. Not feeling “invested in” by his San Jose Earthquakes amid his 39 appearances over two years, he similarly pushed for a trade, was rebuffed and then was released in February 2016.
The holding midfielder spent the ensuing season with Sacramento of the second-tier United Soccer League, and he grew increasingly uncomfortable with how the volatility of an athletics career impacted his wife, Karli. She wanted to attend school to become a physician assistant. He’d long seen himself in health care, too. They decided to start early.
“Kids that went to college in the United States, they have a different mind-set than guys in Europe,” said Connor Hallisey, the No. 10 pick in 2015 and, since early 2017, a perfectly content, sports-centric investment banker. Here, “the mind-set isn’t, ‘Soccer’s the only thing. If I don’t make it in soccer, I won’t make it in life.’ ”
Indeed, all early retirees who spoke with The Washington Post, Hallisey among them, appeared at peace with their decisions. So much so, in fact, that the average fan might find it odd.
“He really expressed no regrets,” said Neumann’s father, Mark, himself a Lafayette College Hall of Fame striker.
“I expected him to miss it more than he seems to have,” Karli Koval said.
“I’m a lot less stressed,” said 2013 No. 9 selection Ryan Finley, who moved on in May. “It’s been a big weight off my shoulders.” (To put that serenity in context: Finley now works in finance.)
For some, their post-playing careers have still involved soccer, whether watching or coaching or, in Hallisey’s case, working. Koval, for his part, said in December, “I can’t even tell you the last full soccer game that I’ve watched.”
Of all of them, the one with the biggest soccer aspirations may be Neumann. His experience with the union has lingered, and he sees a future in a “blending” of his sports and business passions, whether with a league or club or otherwise.
“I know the different roles, I’ve researched the different roles, and I don’t want to pigeonhole myself too much into one particular role,” Neumann said. “I still think I have a lot to learn.”
This summer, as it turned out, will offer plenty of lessons. In January, Neumann learned he had landed a coveted internship offer from Boston Consulting Group, one of the field’s top firms and his faraway favorite.
When he got the news, he returned to Twitter. He rang his parents and texted a reporter. He called it “a defining moment,” because four years after the last time — after the snubs and the frustrations, the lasting bonds and the accomplished dream — he had again been in demand, and the choice this time was his.
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