When University of Virginia midfielder Todd Wharton lined up at the penalty spot last week in a penalty shootout to decide the 2014 national championship, he knew that the title was coming home.
“I don’t believe in pressure,” Wharton said of the situation. “I don’t get nervous before games or for PKs like that. It’s more exciting than it is nerve-racking. The last couple days have been surreal.”
After 120 minutes of scoreless soccer with UCLA, the Cavaliers would win on penalties and gave them their seventh national title and first since 2009.
The road to the final was a bumpy one for Virginia, but Wharton saved their season days earlier as the No. 16 Cavaliers needed a last minute headed goal from Wharton to draw even with No. 8 Georgetown in the quarterfinals of the tournament.
“That was probably the biggest goal I scored in my career,” the junior added.
In the dying minutes, the midfielder found himself in the right spot, heading a deflection off a corner to send the game to overtime. UVA would eventually win on penalties and move another step closer to a national title.
“I’m not called upon to score goals, but if the opportunity is there and if I can get on the end of a good pass from one of my teammates, it’s always fun to score, especially in big games.”
They were able to avenge their 3-0 loss to top-ranked Notre Dame (who won their first national championship in soccer last year) in the ACC Tournament as they beat the Irish in the previous round.
Among the euphoric celebration of their national championship was senior Eric Bird, who now focuses his shift to the Major League Soccer (MLS) Combine next month in Fort Lauderdale, FL.
“I am extremely excited as it’s a huge honor and I’m looking forward to meeting some of the guys that I could be potentially playing against next year,” Bird said. “I will be excited to be representing my university as well.”
Bird, who has been battling a nagging groin injury, will now use the next few weeks to get healthy since he will take part in the four-day MLS Combine in the second week of January, just before teams make their selection in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft on January 15, 2015.
“I will be dedicating this time off right now to get healthy,” the native Virginian said of his recovery. “I want to obviously go to the combine at 100% so I can show the coaches and the scouts how well I can play. It’s just a day-by-day process by getting my rehab done and getting better every day.”
After finishing his degree this week, he finished a career in which he captained the Cavaliers to an 11-5-2 record this year and collected five goals in the process. In 2012 and 2013, Bird played in all 45 matches on his way to collecting a plethora of awards. He also led the team with goals, with seven, and tied for the most assists last year.
This year, he was named to the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) All-America Team, taking home second team honors.
Where the Virginia Beach native excelled on the field, was his playing the number eight role and truly going “box-to-box,” something that MLS clubs find attractive.
“I think that I am an unique player in that I really like playing in the middle third,” Bird said of his skill. “I love playing defense and getting stuck in. I love going forward and love scoring goals and playmaking. I can play the sitting role, but it really depends on where teams want to play me. I think I’m pretty versatile. I love contributing to the team and doing whatever the team needs. If that means being the guy that’s out there for 90 minutes, then that’s exactly what I’ll do.”
Even though Bird and Wharton grew up less than 120 miles from each other in Virginia, the pair grew up navy blue and orange fans, especially given the amount of quality that the program has produced. They both became teammates again during their collegiate careers as they signed up to play in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL).
Wharton won the 2013 NPSL national championship with expansion side RVA FC. Bird joined Wharton and five other classmates (Ryan Zinkhan, Patrick Foss, Luc Fatton, Julian Cummings, and Steven Gandy) at RVA this past summer.
There is no doubt that both Bird and Wharton raised their game in 2014 as a result of their time there.
“Grover has been a great resource for me,” Bird said of his time at RVA. “He knows exactly what he’s talking about and has the experience of going pro and has taught us how to handle ourselves as he is a true professional.”
Bird speaks of another Virginia native, Grover Gibson, who played professional soccer in Germany for thirteen years. Gibson, who served as head coach for RVA FC for two seasons, is now the Executive Director and President for Fredericksburg Football Club (FFC), a new program born out of the merger of two NPSL clubs and a major youth program. He will also be leading FFC’s NPSL squad as head coach.
“I think the NPSL is a great summer league for athletes and something that American soccer needs more of, especially in the college ranks, since European teams are running 10 and 11 months,” Bird added about his summer work. “College season only last three months, so it’s a great way to stay in shape, keep your touches sharp, and continue to develop you as a player.”
Wharton added that the positives of playing in the NPSL are endless.
“The goal for me in the summer during the NPSL season is to stay focused. Winning the national championship was a bonus, but the teams that I played against during the summer prepared me for the fall.”
RVA FC, and now FFC, make an attractive case to those playing in Virginia to play among the best in the state.
“I think that Coach Grover is positive that he can bring in a player and make them better by putting them into a great environment,” Wharton said. “Everyone buys into the concept and guys look to get better every day. A lot of it is trusting in him.”
“It’s truly humbling to have a coach that excelled in his playing career ask you to come in and play for him. He knows what talent is. I’ve been lucky to play for him for a few summers now.”
“I think coming out of high school or first year of college, it’s a good league to play against other guys in college who are looking to get better. I am happy to have played in it.”
With the commitment of summers playing in the NPSL, players like Todd Wharton and Eric Bird can now set their sights on what’s next in their career. Wharton has another year at the University of Virginia and looks to defend the title, but Bird stares down a very possible selection in the first round of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft.
Another success story as the NPSL continues to pave the way for the future of American soccer.
“This is almost like a dream,” Bird concluded as he reflected on the possibilities of playing against the greatest in the world.