Nigel Brooks

Path to the pros not easy, but worth the ride for Houston Dynamo rookies Taylor Hunter and Rob Lovejoy

CHARLESTON, S.C.—Just a few weeks ago, Taylor Hunter was fantasizing about becoming a professional soccer player. Today, he’s living his dream.

The defender was selected by the Dynamo in the third round of January’s SuperDraft and on Monday the club formally confirmed his signing along with their other picks, Rob Lovejoy and Oumar Ballo, to join fellow rookie Zach Steinberger on the roster.

The 21-year-old from the University of Denver did not attend the 2015 adidas MLS Combine but his talents did not go unnoticed thanks to the enthusiastic support of his college and club coaches and the connections of Dynamo general manager/vice president Matt Jordan, who closely scouted his fellow Denver native.

“If you’d asked me a month or two ago I would have had no idea of where I would be at this point. To finally get that signed and get that announced, it’s definitely an amazing feeling,” Hunter told HoustonDynamo.com in Charleston, where the team is taking part in the Carolina Challenge Cup.

Though Hunter (right) missed the MLS Combine, he was in Fort Lauderdale a couple of days earlier for the InfoSport Pro Soccer Combine, which is another chance for aspiring young players to showcase their ability.

“There were about 270-plus people out there. You fly out there, pay for the combine on your own, pay for the hotel on your own, it’s all on you; but there are a lot of USL coaches out there, got a lot of NASL and MLS, so it’s definitely the best bang for your buck,” he said.

Now that he has made it to the professional ranks, Hunter is trying to soak up as much knowledge as he can. “What I’m trying to do at this point is take it each day at a time, become the best player that I can be each day at a time. That’s listening to the coaching staff, listening to the players that I’m playing with, taking anything in that I can, that can only improve my game,” he said.

“Playing outside back, DaMarcus Beasley’s obviously a big [influence]. I watched him in all the World Cups, watching him transition from wing to outside back is a big thing. I played a lot of center back in college so I’m trying to relearn outside back as well. Watching him’s been great. I think it’s how smart he is with the ball—even defending, where he gets his body position in to when he’s trying to defend is something I can definitely take and learn from him. He’s not the biggest or tallest guy but it’s tough to get by him, tough to beat him.”

As a left-sided player, Lovejoy (top) also cites Beasley as a role model, along with Dynamo captain Brad Davis. “What they do which I’m not accustomed to is they simplify the game, they just make decisions that require a lot less running,” he told HoustonDynamo.com. “They’ve been really good at directing me with what types of decisions and where I need to be on the field.”

A North Carolina native who was a prolific scorer at the University of North Carolina, his parents made the five-hour trip from their home in Greensboro to cheer him on. Lovejoy came off the substitutes’ bench for the last 12 minutes of the Dynamo’s 1-0 loss to hosts Charleston Battery on Saturday.

Despite that defeat, the 23-year-old has fond memories of the Holy City. He scored a hat-trick for UNC against College of Charleston in 2012 on his comeback from injury after missing the first half of the season because of hip surgery. Then he had to stay strong to put his career back on track after another hip problem forced him to sit out the entire 2013 campaign.

“The physical part is one challenge of the whole process, you have to make sure your muscles are getting stronger to prevent injuries further down the road if you do come back. The hardest challenge is definitely the mental aspect,” he said.

“It took me probably an additional four months of my recovery to really get back into the game, have that passion come back, that desire to get better. I wasn’t seeing the little gaps, the holes I usually see, and it was frustrating me. I was ready to just take a break from soccer but I had great support around me, including my parents who really helped me around that time to get to where I am today.

“I’m a lot more disciplined in taking care of my body to make sure nothing like that happens to me again. I stretch multiple times a day and do exercises on my own outside of rehabilitation. In a way it’s a blessing in disguise. It makes you go out every day thinking this might be the last time I ever step on the field. That’s a desire that I think gives me a slight advantage over some other guys. You can always count that I’ll give 100% on the field on both sides of the ball.”

The Dynamo’s preseason fixtures continue on Wednesday when they face high-profile new franchise New York City FC at the Battery’s Blackbaud Stadium (4 p.m. CT; HoustonDynamo.com/live). Former Barcelona and Spain star David Villa featured for NYCFC as they tied 1-1 with fellow MLS newcomers Orlando City SC on Saturday.

Houston head coach Owen Coyle is looking for his team to replicate the kind of up-tempo performances they produced against MLS opposition in Tucson earlier this month. “They’ve already shown against three MLS teams that they’re capable of passing and moving the ball and doing it quickly,” he told HoustonDynamo.com.

“We managed to get 19 players involved again so it was always going to be chopping and changing [with the lineup] but I think in terms of how we passed and moved the ball we probably didn’t do it with enough purpose. I’m expecting them to move the ball quicker than we did.”

Win or lose, every day brings a fresh experience for the young players as they adjust to life as full-time professionals. “It’s been fun,” said Lovejoy. “It’s a dream that I’ve had ever since I was a child. To be able to reach that is quite an achievement, but I’m hungry to get even better now that I’m a professional soccer player. I want to learn from the older guys.”

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.