The demanding schedules of Duke student-athletes prevent many from returning home during the summer for anything more than a short vacation. Nick Palodichuk, however, found a way to combine sports, school and family by spending his summer with the Portland Timbers U23 team.
Palodichuk, a midfielder entering his junior year, spent the first half of his summer playing in the Player Development League (PDL) before returning to Durham in late June to enroll in a summer class and train with his Duke teammates. Palodichuk also played with the Timbers during the summer of 2011, just months before he made his collegiate debut. Growing up just 30 minutes outside of Portland, Ore., the Battleground, Wash. native's most recent stint with the Timbers allowed him balance family time with his lengthy recovery from a season-ending ankle injury.
“During the summer it’s just nice to come home and see my family, and I really value that time—going back to play with the Timbers where the caliber is really high and the players are great as well." Palodichuk said. "The coaching really helped, and I think will have a great impact on this season in terms of how I will play.”
When Palodichuk first signed on with the Timbers U23 team in the summer of 2011, they were the only PDL team in the Northwest and the league’s reigning national champions. Timbers U23 head coach Jim Rilatt described the PDL as “a poor man’s minor league baseball,” where teams invite collegiate players who they are considering drafting in the future. The players must pay their own way for the summer, but they benefit from MLS-caliber coaching and the opportunity to compete with and against the best collegiate players from all over the country.
For Palodichuk, who Parade Magazine named National Player of the Year heading into his senior year of high school, his summer with the Timbers in 2011 provided valuable playing experience heading into his first NCAA season. After logging two goals and an assist in 11 games with Portland, Palodichuk turned in a breakout freshman campaign with the Blue Devils, leading all ACC freshmen with eight goals and six assists en route to earning second team all-conference honors.
After undergoing ankle surgery following his freshman season, injuries continued to bother Palodichuk during his sophomore campaign, limiting him to two goals in 10 games. Palodichuk underwent a second ankle surgery in October after the pain became too much to bear.
With his sights set on fully rehabbing his ankle for the 2013 season, Palodichuk reached out to Rilatt about spending another summer with the Timbers U23 squad. Despite a schedule that required Palodichuk to return to Durham well before the end of his team’s season, Rilatt said he was happy to have him back.
“He did a great job for us two years ago,” Rilatt said. “I have a lot of time to work with Nick Palodichuk. He’s a good player, and he’s a really good human being. He works hard.”
Despite dealing with the added challenge of regaining his soccer form after months of rehab, Palodichuk found a way to make an impact in games through his aggressive play, Rilatt said. Palodichuk entered the Timbers season having not played in a competitive game in more than half a year, but Rilatt said that the midfielder improved steadily throughout his two months with the team.
“I think Nick was probably more frustrated with himself because the process was slower than he wanted it to be," Rilatt said. "But a lot of times some players don’t appreciate that it doesn’t just happen again for them.”
Although Palodichuk was not able to match his level of production from two summers ago, Rilatt said he sees a future for Palodichuk in the MLS—a player he watched recover from his second surgery in 18 months—if he stays healthy.
“The game we play is obviously high-tempo [and] high-movement, and he just had to get himself back into that rhythm—and he did,” Rilatt said. “He had to get his mind acclimated to game situations again, but that all happened.”
Palodichuk’s Duke commitments cut short his season with the Timbers U-23 team, a scheduling conflict he made clear when offering his services to Rilatt earlier in the year.
Returning to Durham midway through the summer allowed Palodichuk, a political science major, to take a class called "War and Peace," but it resulted in him missing the conclusion of the PDL regular season, including a game that took place at his former high school. In his absence, the Timbers U23 team made it to the semifinals of the PDL postseason tournament.
Although Palodichuk said competing for a league championship would have been nice, another goal took precedence—preparing to become an impact player once again in his junior season at Duke.
“Especially with the playoffs coming up and the season they were already having, it would have been nice to stay,” Palodichuk said. “But I thought this was equally important, just to get back to get ready for the [collegiate] season.”