SEABROOK – College students usually breathe a sigh of relief after finishing their last final exams before graduation. Fall semester graduates get some extra joy out of graduating by unwinding with family during the winter holiday season. Prince George’s county residents Jacori Hayes and Chris Odoi-Atsem did not have the time to take a breath. […]
SEABROOK – College students usually breathe a sigh of relief after finishing their last final exams before graduation.
Fall semester graduates get some extra joy out of graduating by unwinding with family during the winter holiday season.
Prince George’s county residents Jacori Hayes and Chris Odoi-Atsem did not have the time to take a breath. After finishing up school in mid-December, the 21-year-olds traded their cap and gowns for a pair of cleats and began preparing for the next chapter of their lives.
Both will have the opportunity to become professional soccer players after receiving an invitation to the Major League Soccer (MLS) Combine, which started on Jan. 8, and the SuperDraft on Friday, Jan. 13 in Los Angeles, Calif.
“It’s just great having a close friend and a player like Jacori to go through this experience with,” Odoi-Atsem said. “And I am really excited that we can go through this together.”
The invitation comes after both players excelled in their final college seasons. Odoi-Atsem was part of the Maryland defense that allowed just 14 goals during an undefeated regular season and won both Big Ten championships. Meanwhile, Hayes’ eight goals and three assists helped guide Wake Forest win its first ACC Tournament title since 1989, and made the NCAA College Cup final.
Recent draft projections have both players going within the first 15 picks, a rarity for college seniors in today’s MLS as underclassmen are chosen earlier due to salary cap flexibility. Not resting on their laurels, Hayes and Odoi-Atsem used their free time over the winter break to prepare for the combine and improve their positioning for draft day.
“I’m proud to have one of my best friends at the combine with me,” Hayes said. “We both know that this is a serious job at hand as we are on the cusp of realizing our dreams and being professional soccer players. We were both (training) and are on a mission: to get drafted and to get the best out of each other.”
Friends since elementary school, the pair began their soccer journey through DeMatha High School, who was slowly growing its soccer status around the country. The school’s boys’ soccer team was ranked high nationally and some of its former students, like D.C. United’s goalkeeper Bill Hamid, have excelled in the professional level.
Both players arrived as underdogs, as they were short height-wise but “large in heart,” according to former DeMatha Head Coach Dafydd Evans.
“(They) had a different competitive toughness about them, which is what you usually see in the process around this age of 13-14,” Evans said. “They were leaders and top performers on DeMatha’s second team (JV) in year one and had experience toward the end of the season on Varsity – a feat that is only achieved as freshman at DeMatha for the truly gifted.”
DeMatha went undefeated between 2010-2012, a three year span of 62 games, including winning two Washington Catholic Athletic Conference titles, becoming the No.1 ranked high school team in the country, and winning the 2011 NSCAA National Championship.
Odoi-Atsem was the offensive muscle, using his speed to attack up and down the wings while Hayes was seen as the “defensive midfield lynchpin” that focused on keeping possession and breaking the opponents’ attacks, according to Evans.
“(DeMatha and) Coach Evans had high standards for all of his players and I learned at an early age as a freshman in high school,” Odoi-Atsem said. “Coming to practice every day, working hard and taking no days of practices off. It would translate over to the games and helped me transition over into college.”
The pair continued to defy expectations in the college ranks after high school.
Within his first year playing for Maryland, Odoi-Atsem excelled quickly, filling in the center-back role in the heart of the defense. Maryland Head Coach Sasho Cirovski moved him to right-back in order take advantage of the speed and offensive skills he gathered during high school to help create more goal-scoring opportunities.
The 2016 season was Odoi-Atsem’s best offensively, scoring one goal and obtaining six assists.
“I always felt that right-back was always going to be his best position,” Cirovski said. “After his sophomore year, we decided to make him our right-back permanently and I think he has flourished over the past two years, becoming one of the top two right-backs in the nation.”
Meanwhile, Hayes struggled to perform on the field for Wake Forest. A coaching change before his junior season and a conversation with his father, Reggie, got him to refocus.
“Jacori is a dribbler by heart,” Wake Forest Head Coach Bobby Muuss said. “And a skillful one that loves to take players on, likes to make them turn and take them on between the lines.”
Moving Hayes up allowed him to shine offensively during his final two seasons. He scored 10 game-winners, including a driven goal to the top left-corner of the net to defeat Norte Dame in the quarterfinals of the 2016 ACC Championships. He finished his career with 15 goals and 15 assists all while completing his degree in physics within three-and-a-half years.
While the pair is ready to start their professional soccer adventures, both expressed sadness in leaving the state and the county. However, they both hope to been seen as examples for the other county soccer players that may have dreams of playing college or professional soccer.
“Growing up, PG County has always been a basketball and football county,” Hayes said. “Nobody ever really mentions how good of a soccer area it is but if you just push yourself and work hard every day. I think you can make it as far as you want to.”