HOOVER, Ala. — About five years ago, Georgetown assistant Zach Samol returned from a scouting mission in the Philadelphia area and reported his findings on several players to Coach Brian Wiese.
As Wiese recounted Saturday, Samol told him: “They’ve got this little guy in the middle of the field. He is a really good player but he’s so little. You’ll like his soccer.”
Steve Neumann was bursting with energy and ideas, the conductor for YMS Xplosion, a club team for which he performed since he was 7 years old. But he also stood just 5 feet 3 inches. Wiese wasn’t convinced he could play at the high Division I level and figured he might end up at Lafayette, where Neumann’s father, Mark, was the program’s all-time leading scorer.
Georgetown kept tabs on him, but as Wiese explained, “He recruited us.”
Neumann began to grow, and the Hoyas took a chance on him. He wasn’t at the top of their recruiting class, but thanks to the skills he developed in part to compensate for his lack of size, Neumann arrived with promise.
Neumann, who on Friday was named a second-team all-American, has sprouted in ways that Wiese never fathomed. A consistent scorer through three seasons, the withdrawn forward rose to new heights in the NCAA tournament semifinals Friday, recording the first College Cup hat trick in 19 years as the third-seeded Hoyas (19-3-3) defeated Maryland on penalty kicks after a 4-4 draw and advanced to Sunday’s 2 p.m. final against No. 16 Indiana (15-5-3).
Neumann’s goal production had actually dropped this season, to seven entering the semifinals after posting 10 and 11 in his first two campaigns, respectively. He had become more of a facilitator than a scorer, leading the team in assists with 13 and helping Brandon Allen become the highest-scoring freshman in the country with 16 goals.
But on Friday, in a match that defied convention, Neumann finished Tyler Rudy’s cross with a finish deep in the box in the 33rd minute and struck from distance 89 seconds later to provide a 2-1 lead. Fifteen minutes into the second half, after the teams exchanged goals, Neumann’s sliding touch on Andy Riemer’s cross increased the lead to 4-2.
Maryland recovered to force overtime and penalty kicks, but Neumann was the first to convert during the five-round tiebreaker.
“Being one of those top four seeds was something different for Georgetown soccer, but it was something we handled really well,” he said. Although they’ve never gone further than the round of 16 and face a seven-time champion Sunday, the Hoyas aren’t “super-awed by playing for a national title. We have had enough experiences this year to prepare us for this.”
It has been an unexpected journey for Neumann, who spent his childhood in New Hope, Pa., a picturesque village on the Delaware River 45 miles northeast of Philadelphia. His father, Mark, an executive at a pharmaceutical company, remains Lafayette’s career leader in goals (49) and points (121) and was elected to the university’s Hall of Fame in 1993-94.
The younger Neumann considered Lafayette but believed he could play at a higher level. His size, though, turned off many programs. “It drove me to work harder, to prove everyone wrong, that my size isn’t an issue,” he said. “I developed the tools that helped me overcome it.”
Said Wiese: “He was always a terrific player. When you are playing against the U-Conns, the Notre Dames, the Louisvilles of the world, athleticism is a big part of it. We liked his soccer so much, we were willing to bring him in.”
Neumann caught up physically, reaching 6 feet. “All those little problems he had to solve because he wasn’t the biggest kid on the field,” Wiese said, “suddenly he had all those skills and was as big as anybody else.”
He was a sniper as a freshman, starting just one of 20 matches but recording 10 goals on just 15 shots on target (34 overall) and adding eight assists. (College soccer rules allow unlimited substitutions and players to re-enter, so coming off the bench is not as restrictive as on the pro level.)
The following year, Neumann cracked the starting lineup and pushed further forward for 11 goals and seven assists. This season’s production has moved him into fifth in program history in goals (31) and sixth in both assists (28) and points (90).
In the quarterfinal against San Diego, he assisted on one of the three goals and served a dangerous ball that led to an own goal.
“He’s such a dynamic player now,” Wiese said. “If he needs to score goals to beat you, he will. If he has got to be the playmaker to beat you, he will. He has found ways to win games for us in all different manners.”