Former Blue Devils make impression in MLS

After leading the Blue Devils in goals this season, Andrew Wenger was selected first in the MLS draft.
After leading the Blue Devils in goals this season, Andrew Wenger was selected first in the MLS draft.

One of Duke’s goals is preparing students to enter the workforce upon graduation. The same holds true for a professional soccer career.

In the each of the past two years, one former Duke player has joined a Major League Soccer team, after being selected in the league’s SuperDraft. The two, Andrew Wenger of the Montreal Impact and Cole Grossman of the Columbus Crew, join a host of other former Blue Devils making an impact in the top soccer league in the country. This group now includes two head coaches and four players.

Wenger, who played three seasons at Duke, was the highest-drafted player in program history, after being selected with the No. 1 overall pick.

“Him being the number one pick, going to an experienced team and already having two goals is so exciting for MLS and Duke,” Jay Heaps, the head coach of the New England Revolution and a Blue Devil forward from 1995-1998, wrote in an email June 21. “[Wenger is the] most highly-talented guy out of Duke in a long time.”

Heaps, like Wenger, was a recipient of the Hermann Trophy during his time in Durham, and at 35, he is also one of the youngest head coaches in the MLS.

In addition to starring on the soccer field, Heaps was also a walk-on for men’s basketball during his time at Duke and said his involvement with the two programs is a key to his current success.

“[The experience] was vital to how I am as a coach,” Heaps said. “Being in the presence of a great coach—probably the greatest coach, [Mike Krzyzewski]—from a player standpoint and seeing how the players react to his intensity and how the players react to his commitment, his passion and his preparation ... was important because those are the qualities you want to emulate as a coach.”

From then-Duke head coach John Rennie, Heaps learned about soccer tactics and what he describes as fundamental philosophies, which he uses coaching the Revolution today.

Darrius Barnes, another of the former Blue Devils in the league, plays for Heaps with the Revolution. Even though the two played over a decade apart at Duke, both experienced Rennie’s coaching. Heaps noted that their shared background and soccer mindset makes it easier for him to coach Barnes.

Barnes, Grossman and Wenger all said they are grateful for the growing network of Blue Devils that they can rely on.

Grossman said he learned about the combine and the draft from Barnes, and he later became a resource to Wenger.

“Talking to Cole [Grossman] last year, and learning what the experience is all about was very important for me,” Wenger said.

To continue this mentorship, Grossman and Wenger have spoken about visiting Duke together this fall.

In addition to this mentorship, another friendly face in each team’s tight schedules makes things that much easier for each of them during the rigorous MLS season, Wenger said.

“The Duke soccer family is close and hopefully will remain close as more players become pros,” Grossman said.

Barnes noted in an email June 21, however, it is difficult to stay in touch “when you’re travelling week after week.”

Ultimately, these former Blue Devils see their individual successes paying back to the program that got them started, giving Duke the reputation and clout it needs to recruit the best prospects to the program.

“Recruits see this success, and it sets a good example for the program,” Wenger said. “They know that when they come to the program they can have higher aspirations and set sights on bigger things.”

Grossman said Duke should be sending more players to join him in the league each year and not just one a year as has been the trend.

“Any program wants as many of its guys go pro,” Grossman said. “To become part of the top five, Duke has got to send five or six guys per year to the league because that’s what the Akrons, the Wake Forests and the Marylands do.”

Heaps, like Grossman, said he wants more Blue Devils turning professional each year.

“I will always bleed blue, and I am very excited that talent is continuing to get better and better, and you want to see that,” Heaps said. “I want to see three or four [Duke] players every year going into MLS or going to play overseas.”

With Wenger starting and contributing significantly in the Impact’s recent games, however, the Blue Devils may already be on the right track to competing on this elite level.

“Duke soccer holds a great tradition and lately has been able to produce some top prospects—like this past year, Andrew Wenger being drafted number one overall and coming in and contributing straight away,” Barnes said. “I feel like the program is heading in the right direction.”


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