CHESTER, Pa. — A feeling of nostalgia swept over Rob Vartughian as he watched the University of Pennsylvania and Maryland collide in the second round of the NCAA men’s soccer tournament last weekend. Vartughian, after all, coached at both places before accepting a job as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Union last year.
But as much as those two schools are linked to his past, they also represent a bridge to his future. Not a day goes by where Vartughian isn’t scouring the local college scene to find the next great Philadelphia Union star.
“That’s a big part of the responsibilities I took on this year because I came from the college game,” said Vartughian, who, by his estimation, has been to nearly 70 collegiate soccer contests this season, including every one of Penn’s home games. “I enjoy that part. We just want the most information we can going into the combine and the draft.”
In other words, there really is no offseason for the Union assistant coach, who will be traveling the country leading up to the MLS SuperDraft on Jan. 13. Vartughian says he and the rest of the coaches already have good knowledge of the top college players, but a lot can still change depending on who decides to come out early.
Either way, the Union will almost certainly draft an impact player with the No. 5 overall pick. Last year, they plucked Danny Mwanga, Amobi Okugo, Kyle Nakazawa, Toni Stahl and Brian Perk from the collegiate ranks, while drafting Jack McInerney out of high school. Only Perk is no longer with the club, and Mwanga, of course, was a Rookie of the Year finalist.
“I think you look at everything,” said Vartughian, who in addition to his scouting duties also serves as the team’s goalkeeping coordinator. “You look at technical ability, tactical ability, the conference they played in and what kind of competition they’ve seen. You look at the environment the coaches created for them. And you look what kind of character they have. That part can sometimes get lost.”
Even with the landscape changing and more players either leaving college early or skipping it altogether in search of their pro dreams, Vartughian has still seen plenty of well-rounded collegiate standouts in his travels. He’s also noticed more excitement and increased attendance at games – a direct correlation, he believes, to the growing popularity of Major League Soccer.
“The league is doing fantastic right now and the college game is part of that process,” said Vartughian, who helped guide the Terrapins to seven straight NCAA tournament appearances and two national championships. “I look at my time at Maryland and how the attendance rose pretty much every year. This year, if you look at the crowds at college games, it’s been great. Our domestic league is a good one and it’s only getting better. Because of that, it trickles down to college.”
So with the end of the season looming, does the former college assistant coach have any predictions on which team will take home the College Cup on Dec. 12?
“I think [Maryland] has the pieces to win it all, but you can say that for a lot of teams,” Vartughian said. “So does Akron, North Carolina and Louisville. If you look at our team from 2008 that won it all, I don’t think we deserved to win it. It’s all about getting hot at the right time.”