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NIU soccer recruits overseas to help field winning team

Richard Hall (left) and Chris Bernard, both freshmen and from England, participate in a drill during a Northern Illinois University soccer practice in DeKalb Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013.
Richard Hall (left) and Chris Bernard, both freshmen and from England, participate in a drill during a Northern Illinois University soccer practice in DeKalb Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013.

DeKALB – International talent is more widespread and accessible in soccer than almost any other sport, and Northern Illinois men’s coach Eric Luzzi has taken note.

In just four years at NIU, Luzzi has fielded players from Belarus, Canada, England, Germany, Ghana, Japan, Mexico, Norway and Scotland. Last year, the Huskies’ leading scorers were Gael Rivera and James Stevenson, from Norway and Scotland, respectively. And this year, three English freshmen have joined the squad.

Luzzi’s focus isn’t on leaving the country to find players, but sometimes that’s where his best opportunity at success lies.

“Our priority is always to go and try and get the best players that we can,” Luzzi said. “We first start in the states, but it’s really hard sometimes to overcome the reputation of the North Carolinas, the Indianas, the UCLAs, the Wake Forests of the world.”

Teams like those have been dominating in-country recruiting for a while, which leaves Luzzi searching outside the U.S. for a winning edge. As a result, while the four teams he named have a combined seven international players, NIU has six.

Although Rivera ended up at NIU via a connection built by past Norwegian players on the team, Luzzi has had much of his success by using sports consultancy companies.

Stevenson was found through Sporting Futures USA, and the English players, Chris Bernard, Richard Hall and Albert Levett, all used PASS4Soccer.

Generally, these players choose to come to the U.S. because of the unique collegiate athletic system. Overseas, there isn’t the same combination of higher education and competitive sports, which draws the players to the states.

Of course, adapting to the American style of soccer isn’t easy.

“I think the game is pure athleticism, really,” Stevenson said. “They have a lot of athletes who are big and strong, and I think that’s the difference between here and back home. Back home, it’s a lot more technical, so I have to adjust to that.”

With 29 career points, Stevenson has shown that the adjustment can be made. The new players are adapting as well, although Hall said he has confused some people by referring to soccer as football.

In coming from a very unique background, the three freshmen are in a tough spot, but the team has welcomed them and helped them adjust.

“Everyone’s been really helpful in our transition,” Bernard said, “whether it’s with living accommodations or just helping us get around campus.”

Ultimately, to both the American and international players, it’s not about the individuals on the team. They want to come together to have success as a team. Luzzi’s efforts haven’t been toward finding players outside the country, but rather to build a team that can win.

In the MAC, that’s difficult to do. Akron has won eight consecutive conference titles, and even with the departure of head coach Caleb Porter to the MLS, they’re the favorites once again. West Virginia came into the conference last season and have already proven to be a mainstay near the top of the standings.

As for NIU, not many people outside of the program expect them to compete with those powerhouses, but that doesn’t matter. Luzzi has gone to both sides of the Atlantic to find the players he needs to succeed.

“Any player we add to our roster, we would hope he’s going to help us compete for conference championships and compete for a spot in the NCAA Tournament,” Luzzi said. “That’s the goal: trying to win trophies and get to the tournament.”

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