Steve Neumann had made up his mind some six months earlier: He would return to Georgetown for his senior year, earn a marketing degree a semester early and, if all went well at Shaw Field, lead the Hoyas back to the NCAA championship game. Only then would he turn his full attention to a pro career.
Still, as he practiced informally with three MLS clubs this summer, the thought of leaving school streaked through his mind like a searing free kick.
“You always think: ‘What if? What if?’ ” the forward said this week.
There were, however, no regrets.
“It was always a pretty clear decision.”
Neumann had company a dozen miles away. Maryland forward Patrick Mullins, the 2012 Hermann Trophy winner as the national player of the year, also contemplated skipping his senior season. He, too, decided last winter to return.
With those verdicts, the Hoyas and Terrapins preserved towering positions on the national scene and the Washington area retained perhaps the two finest college players in the country.
Maryland, seeking its eighth national semifinal berth in 16 years, is ranked No. 2 in the coaches’ poll and will open Friday at Stanford. Georgetown, a Final Four debutant last year and runner-up to 2013 favorite Indiana in the College Cup final, carries the No. 3 ranking into its game at California on Friday.
The teams will swap Bay Area opponents Sunday before returning for home openers next Friday: Maryland vs. Duke and Georgetown vs. West Virginia.
Neumann and Mullins received offers from MLS after last season under the league’s Generation Adidas program, which targets non-seniors. Early projections showed them going early in the league’s draft in January.
Numerous college — and even high school — players have turned pro early in the past dozen years. Some go into the draft, others sign directly with the team with which they were affiliated on the youth level.
Neumann and Mullins still could have changed their minds after MLS training stints this summer: Neumann with Philadelphia, Portland and D.C. United; Mullins with Kansas City and D.C. (They are not affiliated with specific clubs and would have been made available in weighted lotteries.) But academics, finances and unfinished business on the field colluded to keep them in school.
Both are on pace to graduate in December, allowing them to enter MLS — or go overseas — in early 2014 without outstanding credits. Several MLS players who departed school juggle careers and academics in pursuit of a degree.
Financially, the reward for dropping out is not enticing. While the NBA’s multimillion-dollar contracts lure prized prospects, MLS, in just its 18th season, offers modest salaries. This year’s top draft pick, New England Revolution defender Andrew Farrell, sacrificed his senior season at Louisville to earn about $160,000 as a rookie.
For years, in an effort to attract young players early in their development, MLS would offer more to those leaving college early — or skipping it altogether — than those who stayed four years. Essentially, the league was penalizing players who stuck out college. In recent years, the pay gap has narrowed.
Mullins said he “hasn’t looked back one bit” at the decision to remain in school. The manner of Maryland’s elimination last year — on penalty kicks after an epic, 4-4 semifinal draw with Georgetown — also factored into his decision.
“It was a very difficult decision, very tempting, but finishing my degrees was important to me and I still have some unfinished business on the field,” said Mullins, who is majoring in American studies and communications.
He consulted with Jason Garey, a four-year Maryland star and fellow Louisiana native. Garey returned for his senior season in 2005 and won an NCAA title before getting drafted third overall.
Maryland Coach Sasho Cirovski cited former Terrapin Graham Zusi, who earns almost $400,000 with Kansas City and is a regular with the U.S. national team, as a player who benefitted from four years in college.
Mullins (17 goals and 10 assists in 24 matches last year) will lead a Maryland squad that lost three senior starters to MLS: London Woodberry (FC Dallas), John Stertzer (Real Salt Lake) and Taylor Kemp (D.C.). Mullins is attempting to become the first two-time Hermann Trophy winner since Virginia’s Mike Fisher in 1995-96.
With Mullins’s skills and reputation, Cirovski is bracing for double-teaming and challenges. “He had a big name last year, and he has a bigger name this year,” Cirovski said. “We have to figure out how to create more space for him and take more pressure off him.”
Neumann (10 goals and 13 assists in 26 games last year) will partner with sophomore striker Brandon Allen (16 goals).
Neumann is “confident enough in his ability that he knows, if he is good enough, he will play” at the next level, Hoyas Coach Brian Wiese said.