After an Ivy League Championship in the fall three soccer players go professional

by Alexander Agadjanian | 5/17/15 6:01pm

After securing the Big Green its first Ivy League championship in three years this past fall, it was fitting for the 2014 men’s soccer team to produce one of the highest numbers of athletes to sign professional contracts in recent program history.

Over the past couple of months, Stefan Defregger ’15, Gabe Hoffman-Johnson ’14 and Colin Heffron ’15 signed contracts to play for American clubs in the United Soccer League, recognized as the third division league by the United States Soccer Federation.

“I think there’s a consistent trait in all the guys, that idea that they do what the coaches ask them to do, which is a big first thing because we ask a lot of them,” men’s soccer head coach Chad Riley said. “But then it’s all of the things outside of it, how do they spend their summers, how do they spend their off-terms even if they’re doing an internship or study abroad. For example, Defregger studied in Berlin, Germany for a term, and we helped him get fixed up with a fifth division team so he kept sharp.”

On March 24, Wilmington Hammerheads F.C. in North Carolina announced the signing of Defregger as the start to their 2015 USL drew close.

“It’s an unbelievable opportunity for me,” Defregger said. “Growing up in New Hampshire, not many kids make it out of where I’m from, or even make it to Dartmouth, so even that was a good step for me. But to be living my dream but also have a chance to keep improving that is a great place for me.”

During his four years with the Big Green, Defregger played at the midfield and forward positions, scoring his only collegiate goal late in his senior year in a hard-fought 1-1 tie against Harvard University. In the same year, he received All-Ivy second-team honors. Crucial to Dartmouth’s offensive success as a facilitator who moved the ball well into the offensive third during attacks, Defregger also added seven assists throughout his career.

During the winter, Defregger said he traveled to North Carolina for a few tryouts before the team offered him a contract. Defregger worked to complete his degree by the end of the winter term to leave his spring term open to play soccer.

“I basically was trying to go back and forth [during winter], so I could finish my classes and also get the opportunity to come down here,” he said. “Even though I knew it was going to be really hard not being there for senior spring, it was really the only way for me to finish school before I got the opportunity to play.”

Wilmington Hammerheads technical director and head coach Carson Porter, said he first became aware of Defregger’s potential when the athlete managed to stand out among hundreds of others during tryouts.

“[Defregger] came down to an open tryout in February,” Porter said. “Of the 250 to 300 players, he separated himself along with one other player. He was one of two guys that we invited to preseason as a result of the trial. He came to Wilmington on a short-term basis to spend the first two weeks with us for our preseason, and he earned his contract there.”

Connections between the Dartmouth and Wilmington coaching staffs helped facilitate Defregger’s path to professional soccer, as Porter knew both Riley and Dartmouth assistant Coach Chris Gbandi from past coaching experiences.

Based in Wilmington, North Carolina, and founded in 1996, the Hammerheads signed a one-year affiliation agreement in January with New York City F.C., a 2015 MLS expansion team. The agreement entails an exchange of players between the different levels for training and development, and Defregger hopes to take advantage of this connection and someday advance up the organizational ladder.

“I’d love to make it all the way here [in the United States], if I could,” Defregger said. “That’s definitely the goal. It might take a couple years, but a lot of guys start out in this position and then get moved up, so it’s definitely a good start.”

His new head coach, Porter, sees Defregger as someone who can contribute to the organization in several different ways.

“As a player, he’s versatile, he’s fit, he has good feet,” Porter said. “He has in a lot of ways what you call a Dartmouth mentality. He’s very smart and determined to succeed. Those are non-soccer character qualities that I’m really happy that he has.”

Defregger’s new team is currently in 11th place with six points in the USL Eastern Conference table. Defregger has made four appearances for the Hammerheads, three of which have been starts, for a total of 196 minutes played during which he recorded one shot.

Initially planning to begin a professional career overseas, potentially in Austria or Germany where he has family, Defregger ultimately decided to remain within the U.S. after his first professional tryout turned out to be a successful one. He has, however, considered leaving the country for soccer later on.

“The option is definitely open,” Defregger said. “If in a few years I haven’t gotten the breakthrough I want in the U.S., then I’ll look to Europe. It would be an adventure to go over there, so it’s definitely a part of the plan.”

A little more than a month after Defregger’s decision, Dartmouth teammate Hoffman-Johnson signed a professional contract with Saint Louis F.C. on May 7. Nominally a defender and midfielder, Hoffman-Johnson became a dominant force playing primarily at left fullback in 2014 as a fifth-year senior due to previous injury. Accumulating two goals and two assists during his career, he earned a spot both on the 2014 All-Ivy first-team and on the National Soccer Coaches Association of America All-East Region Team.

After the 2014 fall season, Hoffman-Johnson accepted invitations to try out for several teams, and the decision and tryout process began in November and lasted months. After his first tryout with St. Louis F.C., Hoffman-Johnson was invited back for the USL preseason without a signed contract, but earned one soon after playing well in the first few weeks.

Hoffman-Johnson’s connections and history in the St. Louis region influenced his decision to sign with the team.

“I was born out here [in St. Louis] and grew up and left right before high school,” he said. “The [youth] club I played with is affiliated with this new [professional] team.”

St. Louis F.C. head coach Dale Schilly also noted how prior knowledge about Hoffman-Johnson first drew him to the recent signee.

“I’ve known [Hoffman-Johnson] for a while,” he said. “I knew him and his family when he lived here in Southern Illinois, which is right across the river from St. Louis. He played at a rival organization, then I coached him briefly when he was about 13. They moved to Maine, [and] I followed his career at Dartmouth from afar.”

His new club, whose MLS affiliate is the Chicago Fire, is an expansion team currently in the midst of its first USL season. Like Defregger, Hoffman-Johnson envisions the possibility of climbing the ladder from within his current organization.

“It is affiliated with the MLS team in Chicago, so there’s a good opportunity to play well and then be seen, and hopefully you can move up to the next level,” Hoffman-Johnson said. “That’s the goal, there’s still a lot of work to be done. I’m just happy with the opportunity I’ve been given and need to make the most of it for now. I think if I work hard enough it’s a definite possibility.”

Several qualities about Hoffman-Johnson’s playing style and capabilities led Schilly to offer the professional contract.

“In our system, we were looking for a guy that could attack out of a leftback position, and he fit that mold,” Schilly said. “He’s always had sort of an attacking mentality about him, he’s always been an attacking player until probably his junior or senior year at Dartmouth.”

In terms of his rationale for deciding to play professionally, Hoffman-Johnson acknowledged that while the pay will not be great, he wants to make the most of the opportunity and continue to pursue his passion.

“Just in terms of quality of life, if this is what you enjoy [and] what you love doing, at least pursue it for a couple of years, and not succumb to sitting in an office, the corporate world, all that type of thing,” he said. “You’ve got the rest of your life for that. I think that was a big part of it for me was that I have the rest of my life to work and I love playing soccer, so why not see if I can do that?”

While he has yet to appear on the pitch for St. Louis F.C. — currently standing in sixth with 10 points in the USL Eastern Conference table — Hoffman-Johnson received some preseason action and has made progress in his recovery from a back injury, Schilly said.

Heffron, another staple of Dartmouth’s championship season, officially signed with the New York Red Bulls II on March 27. Playing in the midfield and tallying nine goals and 11 assists during his Big Green career, he earned first-team All-Ivy honors once and second-team All-Ivy honors twice, in addition to being named the program’s best freshman player during his first year.

Heffron trained with the organization’s first team during February and with the second team during its preseason before receiving a professional contract. The reserve squad for the MLS New York Red Bulls side, NYRB II is also currently in its inaugural USL season as an expansion team. Only a day after his signing, Heffron made his career debut and quickly found success.

Playing against the Rochester Rhinos on March 28, Heffron came on as a first-half substitute. As a result of the versatility shown playing at left and center back — even though he played wing midfielder for most of his Big Green career — and helping his team’s back line to a shutout in a 0-0 draw, Heffron garnered USL Team of the Week honors. So far, he has made two appearances for the New York Red Bulls II side, currently placed at ninth with nine points in the USL Eastern Conference table.

Riley remains very optimistic about his future.

“In some ways he had a very good last year [at Dartmouth], but I think he had a little niggling hamstring injury that held him back from maybe having a more productive year,” Riley said. “He just has a tremendous amount of potential as a player, he’s very versatile, I think he’ll settle as a fullback at the next level.”

The three new signees will now join four other Dartmouth soccer alums in the professional ranks — Lucky Mkosana ’12, Craig Henderson ’10, Daniel Keat ’10 and Kevin Dzierzawski ’13. The players and Riley noted how three players leaving the Big Green for the professional ranks reflects positively on the program, and how these similar instances in the past carried great influence.

“I always looked at those guys as role models, and that was obviously something I wanted to do from the start,” Defregger said. “I hope that when people look at our program now and see that three of us have taken it to the next level, that it improves the program.”

Riley also spoke to the importance of having three players go professional.

“I think it’s a testament to the culture we have within the team,” Riley said. “It helps people know that when they come to Dartmouth that’s something they can still keep as an option.”

It may not be long before another senior member of the 2014 Ivy championship team joins the three at the professional level. Alex Adelabu ’15 has also tried out with and received attention from teams, Riley said, and will soon pursue a professional contract as well.

The senior, who was the top goal-scorer on the 2014 squad with 10 goals and ended his Dartmouth career tied for fifth on the program’s all-time scoring list with 27 total goals, had to finish some requirements and elected to first graduate from school this spring before signing on to a professional team. Adelabu, along with the other three current pros, helped lead the team to the second round of the NCAA tournament this year.

Colin Heffron was not available for comment for this story.