MASL COMBINE 1st OVERALL PICK
Nathan Neal sat in the chair on the field of Utica University Nexus Center in Utica, N.Y. with several teammates from the Cincinnati area, hopeful and optimistic that he would be selected at the Major Arena Soccer League draft on Sunday, Oct. 22.
There were only 33 precious spots available for more than 115 combine candidates who just completed three days of training and clinics in front of MASL head and assistant coaches.
What Neal didn't expect came quite early in the draft when MASL commissioner Keith Tozer made this announcement from the podium:
"The first pick in this pro player combine to the Dallas Sidekicks, from Cincinnati, Ohio. Nathan Neal. Congratulations, Nathan Neal."
After hearing his name uttered by Tozer, Neal experienced a range of emotions.
"Relief, excitement," he said.
His teammates were excited for their friend as Neal shook their hands.
"It was a little bit of a blur,' he said. "Before I knew it, I was walking up the stairs. It was very humbling as well. I was trying not to get too excited. I was trying to stay calm."
After posing wearing a Sidekicks scarf and holding a Dallas shirt, Neal slowly returned to earth as he appreciated being the first draft choice.
"I wasn't thinking about that going into the combine," he said in a telephone interview from Fairfield Township, Ohio earlier this week. "I was just really looking to have a great experience playing with really good players. I was hoping to get drafted. But I had no idea what the level would be. But once I got in there, the coaches were giving me good coaching points to work into my game. I was gaining confidence. I knew that I was doing pretty well. So, when I got drafted first overall, I was very nervous and excited, but I wasn't surprised, but I had spoken with Eddie [Puskarich, Sidekicks head coach] a little bit. I wasn't surprised that some people might have thought."
As the top draft choice, Neal was awarded a one-year sponsorship contract Capelli Sport. "I'm excited to get into that as well," he said.
Like every player at the combine, Neal said it was "a big dream” to play professional soccer.
"Growing up, everyone wants to play professional soccer," he said. "I won't say that it was unique to me. I wasn't even necessarily striving towards it when I was younger. I just really thought it was cool and I wanted it but it wasn't like a goal that I was like sprinting towards 24/7. That didn't really happen until college."
And that didn't happen until Neal's junior year at Otterbein College (Westerville, Ohio), when he started playing with many local players from the Columbus area who were playing professionally overseas or competing with Division I schools and those who were drafted by Major League Soccer teams.
"In training with them every day, I was able to pick up on their habits and I really started to believe that it became a real possibility," Neal said. "It wasn't a distant thing anymore as I continued to train with them. It didn't work out for outdoors. There was a moment where I was looking to go overseas and that didn't work out."
In his fifth year - remember, the COVID-19 pandemic made shambles of many sports, including college soccer - Neal's body started to break down from playing 90 minutes in every game at Otterbein for five years.
"I kind of stopped pursuing professional, especially outdoor," he said.
But the fire returned, as Neal continued to pursue playing, coaching and even officiating indoor soccer.
"Indoors, it's different muscle groups, a little bit," he said. "I was playing indoors, and it felt really good. I started to get that fire again. I wanted to play professionally last winter. I got invigorated again. It became a real dream again, within the past year or two. I've been working towards it.
"I've been guided so well by so many people that it came to fruition. I'm very thankful for that."
Neal, 23, started playing soccer at the age of seven, but not before trying out another form of football, the American gridiron variety, with his older brother Joshua and younger brother Isaiah.
"When I was very young, I tried every sport," he said. "My dad was an American football player. And so we started out playing American football mainly and we were very gifted in that right away. But my dad noticed that there we were all wearing pads. You get talked to like your soldiers basically. There wasn't a whole lot of friendly community aspect to it on the field.
"He wanted to get us into something else. When we started playing soccer, it was obvious that it was a more joyous experience rather than a gladiator one."
Soccer opened up a whole new world to Neal and his brothers.
"There was still and there are so many different types of players and there's so much culture," he said.
His father founded a club called the Cincinnati Hat Tricks, a youth soccer club that lasted for three years. The team was competitive in indoor soccer and played many 3 v 3 and six-a-side tournaments. That gave the Neals plenty of opportunities to touch the ball a lot and improve their skills.
"Especially in 3 v 3, you learned so many interactions that you have in the game," Neal said. "Outdoors, when it's 11 v 11, most of your interactions are only with a couple players around you and the opposing players around you. So, you got to work in those tight spaces 1 v 1, and 3 v 3, we got to learn so many of those interactions and got to apply those throughout games."
It certainly didn't hurt that Neal played soccer with his siblings and father in their backyard on a regular basis, whether it was 1 v 1 with his older brother Joshua and younger brother Isaiah, or 2 v 2 with everyone involved.
Growing up in the Cincinnati area, Neal became an indoor soccer fan, following several teams in southern Ohio, including the Cincinnati Excite (American Indoor Soccer League) and then the Cincinnati Kings (Professional Arena Soccer League), which played at Cincinnati Gardens and then at GameTime Training Center.
“I would go to the games and go to the free field and kick around with all my friends the whole game," he said. "When the game got really close and exciting at the end, I watched a little bit. Once I got a little bit older, we would go to Cincinnati Gardens I would watch the whole game. It was exciting. There was a shirt cannon and the lights. It was really exciting. I knew some of the players personally because they had coached me. I was always really excited to watch them play."
While starring for St. Xavier High School, just outside Cincinnati, Neal earned Greater Catholic League all-conference honors and was a member of the wrestling team. He also competed for Cincinnati United Premier on the youth level.
By his senior year, Neal admitted that he "was pretty anxious and nervous about where I wanted to play in college."
Neal had several suitors.
"But I just didn't really know how to how to really pick a school," he said. "I only went on one visit, and it was with the coach and players."
That was Otterbein. Neal liked the coach, Jason Griffiths, who played with the New England Revolution in 2010.
"I felt confident that there was a winning mentality," he said, adding that Griffths “held us to very high standards every day. It taught me to hold myself to a high standard, not to be content with how I'm playing, to look at the highest level and tell myself, 'That's where I want to be. I want to surpass that standard.' That aided me a lot in my own personal development outside of training and to find ways to get better."
Neal performed as a defender and forward. In the classroom, he pursued degrees in economics, accounting and finance.
Since then, Neal has kept busy, playing with the Cincinnati Swerve (Major League Indoor Soccer), outdoors with the Northern Kentucky Nitro (Ohio Valley Premier League), coaching players and teams and officiating games.
"Just trying to stay fit and stay sharp," he said.
When he was drafted on Sunday, it was announced that the 6-4, 220-lb. Neal was a defender. He noted that he played a lot of the combine up front.
"That was a little bit of a miscommunication," he said. "When I submitted my application, I said I was a defender. But before the combine, I was told by my coach to really go and play target. I had been training to play target since last winter. I hadn't really been playing defender, but I did play it a little bit. I played about half and half defender and target.
"There was a little bit of confusion. Coaches would put me on teams and teams became a little bit unbalanced. We had too many targets and not enough defenders. But I decided to stick to it and play up front."
In any sport, it certainly helps to be versatile. You get an opportunity to play more, and it could extend a player's career.
"It helps to be a little bit versatile in situations where maybe we have a bad sub or something and they're already three or four players high up the field and I get stuck in the back of the field," Neal said. "I feel comfortable there with defending and distributing the ball before I get back up. I'm glad that I have that experience."
As he is set to embark on his first training camp, which begins on Nov. 1, Neal enters it with a healthy attitude.
"I hope to be pushed and to be coached," Neal said. "When I have an opportunity to learn the game better, and to enjoy time with my teammates, those are very building relationships. We're all trying to get better. I'll try to have a better season than last year to strive to win things, games, titles. I want that to be the mentality in the locker room and in the training. I feel like I can add to that. I want people to help bring me up to speed when it comes to the indoor game."
Give Neal a lot of credit. He has shown himself to be self-aware and knows what he needs to work on to become a viable MASL player.
"I was successful in holding up the ball for the most part this weekend and that was encouraging," he said. "But I have so much to learn and so many other skills to develop, [including] movement off the ball, my touch, my control of the ball. Even my shots can be tightened up so much better. Being big helps a lot but I want to be able to add so much more to my game so I can be unpredictable. I don't want to be that target that's just going hold the ball up. I want to be able to score goals in all types of ways and get assists of all types of ways."
With that type of attitude, Nathan Neal is ready to take his first professional indoor soccer steps with the Dallas Sidekicks.
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. Lewis can be reached via email at email@example.com. He has written two books" Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers and a sequel, STILL AND ALIVE AND KICKING: The story of the 21st century Rochester Lancers. It has many features about indoor soccer and MASL players. Both books can be purchased at www.RochesterLancersBook.com.