Zach Steinberger graduated last fall with a degree in Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Even before he enrolled at Butler University the young midfielder was already an expert on the subjects.
Even as a 16-year-old he was unafraid to step outside his comfort zone in a bid to help his career, working his connections and creativity into a trial at Middlesbrough. It was the start of an adventure that took him from Florida to the former English Premier League side then on to Slovakia and Germany and back to the U.S. Now the California native is headed for Houston after the Dynamo selected him with the eighth pick in Thursday’s 2015 SuperDraft.
The Dynamo also chose University of Maryland, Baltimore County defender Oumar Ballo with the 30th overall pick and North Carolina forward Rob Lovejoy with the 36th overall selection, leaving vice-president/general manager Matt Jordan more than happy with the day’s work.
“As a staff we prepared very hard for the draft and we feel like that hard work has paid off,” Jordan told reporters on a conference call from Philadelphia. “We feel we accomplished our goals and improved our team.”
It was the first draft for new head coach Owen Coyle. “I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience,” the Scot told reporters. “The three lads we’ve managed to bring on board, we interviewed the three of them, we were very impressed with them. Matt deserves enormous credit for all the work to complete the signing of the targets.”
Coyle said that he and the Dynamo staff used the Combine in Florida over the past couple of days to assess personality as well as talent. “It’s no different to signing a player [in other ways]. You want to get a feel for a player, you want to know how they are as characters, their own personalities, that can add to your group dynamic. All three of them conducted themselves very well,” he said. “The three of them were certainly in our top ten so we were delighted with how we went about it and how we executed it.”
The Dynamo had not picked as high as eighth in the SuperDraft since 2011, when Kofi Sarkodie was grabbed in seventh place overall. Steinberger’s intelligence is not in doubt - he graduated from Butler with a 3.7 GPA - and nor is the 22-year-old’s maturity given his unique experiences in Europe.
“I went over when I was 16, I went on my own for two or three years. If anything it helped me mature as a person and even more so as a player. it allowed me to understand the professional environment more so than a lot of college players are able to do at such a young age, so that definitely has helped,” he said.
Middlesbrough were impressed by Steinberger but unable to sign him because he did not have a European Union passport or work permit. He headed to Kosice, in eastern Slovakia, in the hope of eventually being able to secure one there and return to Middlesbrough. He left after nine months and went to Karlsruhe, Germany, playing for their under-19 side for a year.
“As a kid coming from California and going to high school for a year in Florida it was the epitome of a culture shock - you go to a country where it’s in a part of the world where you only read about it in the textbooks in eighth grade,” he said.
“So to live there, living there alone as a 17-year-old, learning to cook for yourself and do your own laundry, it humbles you as a person but at the same time it was an incredible experience. When I was there I got to play with [Slovakian star Nemanja] Matic in his younger years and now he’s at Chelsea. Having that exposure at such a young age definitely prepared me for the professional lifestyle of a soccer athlete.”
Now he’ll get the chance to live out his pro soccer dreams in Houston after impressing Coyle in the Combine. “He caught my eye in the first game immediately and he continued to; every game he played he certainly dominated the games, and then when we got the chance to sit and chat with him you could tell he has a good background in the game, an understanding of what’s involved in playing the game, and we got a good feel for him as a personality,” the head coach said.
Steinberger can play in a variety of positions, but for Coyle, “we’ve certainly seen him as a central midfield guy. We want to add competition for places, we’ve obviously got good players in there but we want strength in depth and we’ve got a young man now who’s going to come in, be very respectful of everything around him, but I fully believe he’s prepared to come in and stand toe to toe and try to show that he merits being in the team. That’s the type of player I want. “
Steinberger is confident he has plenty to offer. “I’ve always been a kind of guy that can kind of bring a locker room together. I’ve never really put myself above anything, I’ve been the captain on pretty much every team I’ve played on and that’s due to my personality and to my ability to always think about the team before myself,” he said.
“My ability to be a vocal leader on the field has always allowed me to control the tempo of the game, the pace. It’s something that I kind of attribute to my fitness level. I’m always one of the guys who’s the fittest on every team I’ve ever been on.”
Coyle and Jordan were also pleased to address an area of need by adding Ballo to the central defensive mix alongside a new recruit from Spain, Raul Rodriguez, who joined last week. Ballo, from Baltimore, is 23, 6-foot-2 and a two-time NSCAA All-American.
“He is a big center back, he’s got pace, he’s got power and he’s got a real desire to get better. That came across very clearly. Myself and Matt sat with him at length and it was very evident he wants to improve,” said Coyle.
Born in Greensboro, North Carolina, Lovejoy stands 6-foot tall and produced 15 goals and eight assists in 36 starts in his first three years as a Tar Heel. He was a part of the side that won the national championship in 2011.
“Lovejoy is a player who a few years ago [had] a huge reputation,” said Coyle. “He picked up an injury, missed a season [in 2013] but played every game of last season and in the Combine. Showed real pace, balance, flair, and can play in two or three different positions on the left side.
“We’re absolutely thrilled to get very talented young men, very nice and with real desire to be a part of the Houston Dynamo.”
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.