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From College Doubt to MLS Cup 2014: The Rise of Bobby Shuttleworth

From College Doubt to MLS Cup 2014: The Rise of Bobby Shuttleworth

It was the fall of 2005, and Bobby Shuttleworth was thinking about quitting soccer.

The highs of winning two straight New York State independent championships with Buffalo-based Nichols School seemed a distant memory, the school-record 48 clean sheets just a fading achievement. Arguably the most decorated high school soccer player in Western New York history, Shuttleworth’s soccer future hung in the balance less than six months after graduation.

Recruited to Loyola College (Md.) with a chance to immediately compete for a starting gig, Shuttleworth had suffered a bad break, literally, right off the bat: a fractured thumb early in preseason left him resigned to a red-shirt year, leaving a heralded recruit frustrated and homesick with too much time to think.

“I knew I could play at [the college] level,” admits Shuttleworth, whose New England Revolution face the Los Angeles Galaxy in MLS Cup on Sunday (3 p.m., ESPN), “but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to. It was a difficult time – I wasn’t enjoying Loyola.”

“He couldn’t even be on the bench [because of the injury] – it was very disheartening,” recalls his mother, Maggie Hoeltke. “He didn’t feel like he was part of the team, and the fact that the University at Buffalo [a local school that had also recruited him] was having a great season just made things worse.”

“It’s funny how fragile your psyche is when you reach a higher level of soccer,” says Nick Christou, Shuttleworth’s private goalie coach, thinking back to his own playing days. “You begin to doubt yourself, and doubt how you got that far in the first place.”

Due to a character trait that he’s doggedly clung to as early as he can remember, Shuttleworth’s persistence outlasted this brief period of adversity – after all, it wasn’t the first or last time he and his family would have to surmount an obstacle.

A memorable line sticks with the Shuttleworths to this day, delivered first by their mother, lending perspective to any bleak situation.

“Something in your life happens that’s bad, but something good usually happens [as a result of that]. You may not realize it then, but it can be a turning point.”

A Special Family

Single-parent homes are incredibly common, but the frequency doesn’t make the process of growing up without one parent any easier. In addition to the absence of a father figure, Shuttleworth’s older sister, Kelly, was born with high-functioning Down syndrome.

Adversity tightened the bond between Hoeltke and her two children, and Bobby’s early involvement in soccer served as an outlet for the family. Picking up a soccer ball at age 4, Shuttleworth began playing at St. Andrew’s School in Kenmore, NY, and then nearby Delaware Soccer Club, where he volunteered to play goalie at every chance.

“It was more that I didn’t want to do the running,” Shuttleworth confessed in an interview with Nichols School on Dec. 4.

Shuttleworth’s blossoming love for the position coincided with Tony Meola’s 1994-95 stint with the Buffalo Blizzard, Western New York’s National Professional Soccer League team that folded in 2001. Given Bobby’s fascination with soccer, buying season tickets for the local professional club made sense.

“We just loved going to games so much,” Hoeltke remembers fondly.

Meola, of course, was one of U.S. Soccer’s megastars at the time – the previous summer, he’d backstopped the Yanks past the group stage of the 1994 World Cup, for which the U.S. was the host nation.

Given Meola’s peculiarities – he’d taken time away from the U.S. National Team to try out for the New York Jets and would soon leave the Blizzard to appear in an acting role in a popular off-Broadway play – suiting up for an indoor team in frosty Buffalo, NY, didn’t seem that unfathomable. Meola wasn’t around long, but he made for a larger-than-life figure locally, and 7-year-old Bobby Shuttleworth just happened to relish the same authority and responsibility that comes with being a goalkeeper.

While his peers were more enamored by Ken Griffey Jr., Brett Favre or John Stockton, Shuttleworth wanted nothing more than to emulate Meola – in any way he could.

“I’m actually from New Jersey,” Hoeltke says, “and Tony Meola’s family owned a barber shop in East Rutherford. Every time we’d visit my parents, Bobby would ask if he could get his haircut at the Meolas’ shop.”

The impressionable Shuttleworth was raised in this soccer culture, where nearly 7,000 soccer fans would rally inside Memorial Auditorium to watch indoor futbol – and few things foster future professionals better than a local pro example.

The Futbol Minds Take Hold

When Shuttleworth turned 12, a local premier-level coach took notice. Tom Garigen, then the U-12 head coach for Buffalo Premier, added him to his roster despite already having two goalies on the team sheet.

“Garigen was the coach who gave me my first real opportunity,” reflects Shuttleworth during a phone call just prior to the Revs’ departure for LA. “I’m thankful for that. He still checks in on me from time to time, too.”

“He separated himself from the other two keepers within a year of joining [Buffalo Premier],” Garigen remembers of the then-average sized Tonawanda native. Aware of Hoeltke’s sacrifices as a single mother and Kelly’s disability, the youth coach recognized a difference in Shuttleworth compared to his peers.

“You could tell he was used to taking on more responsibility,” Garigen remarked Friday, harkening back to his coaching years before taking his current position as director of coaching for Empire United Soccer Club. “He obviously wasn’t exactly a father figure at that point, but you could see he was a little more mature than the rest of the kids his age.”

Committed to making sure her son had every chance to develop his soccer skills, Hoeltke paid for Bobby to train once each week with Christou, a former Sweet Home and Canisius College standout who’d spent two years playing with professional indoor clubs in Tallahassee and Savannah before training with the NPSL’s Buffalo Blizzard for a year.

In many respects, Christou was the perfect goalie coach for the 12-year-old Shuttleworth. He was fresh off a professional stint, maintained a passion for coaching and knew firsthand the obstacles an aspiring professional goalie would face – three key ingredients – but he also had picked up wisdom from his own coaches that he was eager to pass along.

“A former coach of mine, an Englishman, told me, ‘Nick, you’re a great shot stopper, but you have to get better at communicating with your defense,’” Christou says. “You must be a leader on the field. You’re not just a shot-stopper, you’re also a shot preventer.”

Christou’s teaching philosophy was just as much between the ears as it was goalkeeping technique, positioning and refined reflexes. Through his own career, he knew mental toughness and work ethic were the two factors that separated a decent keeper with modest aspirations from an elite goalie with sights set on the professional ranks.

Like many others interviewed for this piece, Christou raved about Hoeltke’s sacrifice and support for further developing her son’s gift.

“Maggie is a wonderful mom,” says Christou, also the owner of Mitchell’s Tavern in Tonawanda, which sits no more than a few miles from Shuttleworth’s childhood home. “I remember when I’d be training Bobby at Sweet Home Middle School, and she’d walk around the track surrounding the field for the entire hour until we were done.”

Looking back, Christou’s influence wasn’t lost on Shuttleworth. “Nick was tremendous. He helped mold me into the player I am now – instilled a work-rate into me by pushing me so hard,” he said en route to MLS Cup. “I’m sure I didn’t always make it easy on him.”

Between Garigen’s foresight and Christou’s expertise, Shuttleworth had vaulted from a promising prospect to the top keeper at the highest level for youth in Western New York – it wasn’t shocking, then, that Shuttleworth carried that momentum to secure the starting job at Nichols School as a freshman.

The Glory Days

One sequence of events sticks out to Pete Marlette Jr., more than a decade after it occurred. The year was 2002, and Marlette was a promising midfielder who made the Nichols varsity team as a freshman. Shuttleworth, a sophomore in his second varsity season, had carried a young team on his shoulders, pushing Rob Stone’s Vikings to the independent state semifinals.

Overmatched, largely because of the Vikings’ collective inexperience, Shuttleworth stood heroically on his head in regulation and overtime – parrying away shot after shot — before thwarting an absurd four of five penalty kicks to seal the win.

“Bobby was the only reason we made it to the finals,” Marlette recollected. Although Nichols fell to independent power Horace Mann in the title game, the Vikings would exact revenge the next two years as the squad matured.

Throughout all four years – dating all the way back to elementary school, in fact — Hoeltke took a different approach to watching her son play than the typical high school soccer parent.

“I couldn’t stand in the middle with the others,” she recalls. “I was there to watch my son play soccer, and often they’d start talking about where they were going to dinner that night or something unrelated. From St. Andrew’s on, I’d stand to the side of the goal Bobby was defending, so I could watch him closely and I wouldn’t be able to hear the other parents’ complaints if he did something wrong. I’d then move to the other side at halftime.”

His mother’s commitment fueled Shuttleworth’s own work ethic, both on and off the field.

“Soccer kept him out of trouble – not that he was really prone to getting in trouble – but his time management was much better during soccer season,” says Hoeltke. “School-wise, his grades were best when he was playing soccer or basketball.”

Although he started as a point guard for the Vikings’ basketball team, there was no question that Shuttleworth’s future pointed to soccer.

“He was always an unbelievable shot stopper and goalkeeper in general,” raved Marlette, who played professionally in Australia before returning to Western New York for a season with FC Buffalo. “What really made [Shuttleworth] special was his communication, his command of the defense and [the other positions] all the way up the field.

“If you made a mistake, he’d let you know about it, but for the most part, he was more concerned with organizing, not criticizing.”

At the same time, Shuttleworth’s rise to local soccer prominence didn’t blind him from his responsibility of being an admirable brother to Kelly.

“If friends came over to our house and were put off by [Kelly’s condition], they were no longer Bobby’s friends,” Hoeltke said. “He was very protective of her.”

The proud mother of the New England Revolution’s goalkeeper looks back now at how Shuttleworth’s upbringing forced him to grow up quickly.

“It gave him maturity, insight and perspective in life,” Hoeltke said in a phone call Friday. “He’s very empathetic with everyone [because of it.]”

While Shuttleworth’s natural ability, 6’2″ frame, leadership, shutout record and state championships spoke volumes in the local community, it made rather little noise on a national level, as recruiting eyes were on the hotbeds of California, Florida and Texas – not Buffalo, NY.

Rebounding from Loyola

After the disaster at Loyola, Shuttleworth didn’t immediately waltz into University at Buffalo and take the program by storm. But, as Christou says, the change of scenery was nevertheless a “blessing,” while Hoeltke emphasized that the friends and support at UB made her son feel included, a positive change from Maryland.

“UB welcomed me and made me feel right at home,” Shuttleworth reflects now as he prepares for the biggest match of his life. The transfer’s passion for soccer returned, too, largely due to the environment in which he found himself.

As a red-shirt freshman, he was forced to bide his time behind incumbent ‘keeper Daniel Bell and make an impression on coaches John Astudillo and Dave Hesch through his consistency and leadership in training.

“I knew immediately he was special,” recalls former UB teammate Brian Knapp, who’d wrapped up his junior season (2005) with the Bulls when Shuttleworth arrived in the spring of 2006. “He was a fantastic shot-stopper, and for being a red-shirt transfer, he already looked ready to challenge for the starting spot.”

Sole possession of the starting job between the pipes would be elusive for Shuttleworth as Bell, a first-team All-MAC selection in 2006, surprisingly gained another season of eligibility due to a retroactive red-shirt ruling that stemmed from his freshman season.

“It was always an uphill battle for [Shuttleworth],” Christou adds, noting Shuttleworth’s slower than anticipated progress at UB. “As soon as he’d get an opportunity, he’d get knocked down, knocked down, knocked down…He was frustrated because he didn’t think he was getting the opportunities that he deserved.”

“I grew a lot,” Shuttleworth says, not referring to his solid 6’2, 200-pound frame, “especially at UB.”

His commitment and persistence were there from the start, remembers UB teammate Dan Bulley, the school’s leading scorer in both 2007 and 2008.

“During his time at UB, when he wasn’t studying or playing, he’d spend hours watching top goalkeepers on YouTube or putting in extra training,” Bulley explained through email. “He was very much a student of the game.”

After appearing in just three games as a red-shirt freshman, Shuttleworth rotated with Bell the following year, but statistics favored the former. The Bulls’ regular season record was 7-1-2 with the Nichols School graduate in net, including three shutouts and allowing an average of a goal per game. After Bell was beaten three times in the regular season finale against Canisius – dropping the incumbent’s record to 2-5 — Astudillo opted for the understudy as his postseason No. 1.

Shuttleworth didn’t disappoint the gaffer, as he stopped four shots in blanking Hartwick in the first round, then pushed away five Akron attempts in a heartbreaking 1-0 loss in double overtime to the eventual conference champions. Despite the cruel defeat, Shuttleworth’s individual efforts landed him on the Mid-American Conference all-tournament team, elevating expectations for his first season as an upperclassman.

A motto, passed along by Christou, stuck with the promising keeper. “Failure will never overtake me as long as my will to succeed is strong enough.”

Soon, the breaks would finally begin to go Shuttleworth’s way.

A Breakout Summer

Unlike in Europe, where aspiring professionals are groomed in academies to grasp their club’s style of play all the way up through the senior team, America’s soccer pyramid is a bit more complicated.

With the NCAA’s stringent rules about coaches’ access to players during the summer months, many professional hopefuls in America must temporarily relocate to find suitable competition – and those trips rarely guarantee professional development.

During his college career, Shuttleworth needed to stay physically and mentally sharp over the summers by continually seeing game action, especially considering he started just 13 matches in his first two years at UB.

While many of his college teammates chose to stay local with Queen City FC, Shuttleworth had other aspirations. “Coming from a small school like Buffalo, sometimes you have to play somewhere else for a while to get noticed.”

Bulley, UB’s sterling striker and a close friend of Shuttleworth’s, had been recruited out of high school by then-Evansville head coach Stu Riddle, and although the English striker chose Buffalo, he kept in contact with Riddle.

So, when Bulley was looking for a summer club before his and Shuttleworth’s junior year, he reached out to Riddle, who was named the head coach of the expansion Kalamazoo Outrage in Michigan. After discussions between UB assistant Dave Hesch and Riddle, it was determined that Bulley, Shuttleworth and fellow teammate Marco Stencel would spend the summer there.

“I remember the first time I met [Shuttleworth] was when he arrived at the crappy apartments we housed visiting players in, and just being blown away by his physical presence,” Riddle recalls. “This was a guy who had the frame of a goalkeeper.”

Playing alongside Eric Alexander, a star at Indiana University; Terry Alvino, a midfielder who’d already spent a season with the USL First Division’s Minnesota Thunder; and two former English professionals in Mark Briggs and Scott Ellis; Shuttleworth imitated their professionalism and approach to the game, which was aided by Riddle’s structure.

“He had all the boxes ticked,” Riddle says of Shuttleworth’s individual gifts when he arrived in Michigan. “Bobby was a shot-stopper, and his command of the [18-yard] box was very good. His communication was all that was holding him back.”

A crucial seed was planted, too, as Bulley’s Major League Soccer connections proved pivotal.

“That summer, I invited my father, who is very well connected in the game, out to watch and scout Bobby,” Bulley wrote in an email. “He was convinced right away with Bobby’s talent and placed a call into his contact, Paul Mariner, an assistant with the Revs at the time.” New England began to keep tabs on Shuttleworth, both in Kalamazoo and Buffalo.

The excitement of the Revs interest was balanced by the stability and comfort of familial support that followed Shuttleworth to Michigan, where his sister and mother visited regularly – a six-hour drive — attending matches even if they knew prior that he wouldn’t start.

“Their commitment really stuck out to me,” explains Riddle, who keeps in closer contact with Hoeltke than he does his former keeper.

Triumphant Junior Year

With the UB goalie job finally his own, Shuttleworth was ready to stonewall the Mid-American Conference.

The numbers were mind-boggling, in fact. Twenty starts, 13 goals allowed in almost 2,000 minutes (a GAA of 0.63) and 12 wins – a whopping eight coming by clean sheet (10 if you count the games in which backup Nick Fetterman finished in mop-up duty).

The Bulls’ offense vanished in a 1-0 loss in the conference semifinals to Northern Illinois, who then fell to Akron in the MAC final in double-overtime. After the season, Shuttleworth was chosen to the All-MAC second team.

“Bob was the real deal with his commanding presence in the box and his shepherding of his back line,” comments Bulley, who spent a few years as Riddle’s assistant coach in Western Michigan before accepting a head coaching gig with Olivet. “[Shuttleworth’s] kicking ability paired with his character, and his overall game separated him from the rest.”

Instead of going back to Kalamazoo – which was on unstable footing despite the previous season’s success – Shuttleworth stuck around Western New York, staying sharp with the expansion side Buffalo City FC of the National Premier Soccer League and head coach Mike Share, while waiting to see if the Revolution would pounce after his sterling junior season.

Marlette, Shuttleworth’s former Nichols teammate, found himself united with the keeper again, this time with Buffalo City FC.

“It’d been three or four years since we’d last played together, and judging by training, he’d taken his game to a new level,” Marlette recalls from May and June of 2009. “Bobby was constantly talking to the team in training and in drills, and you could tell the concentration and focus he put into every detail.”

After just six games with Buffalo City FC – propelling the expansion side to a two-point lead in the table over rival Erie — Shuttleworth’s contract offer arrived from the Revolution in the middle of June. He was faced with a decision – return to the University at Buffalo for his senior season, surrounded by his friends, where he could take one final stab at dethroning MAC power Akron, or embrace the opportunity of turning pro, one which could never come again.

“It wasn’t a real tough decision for him,” Hoeltke recalls. “It was a no-brainer, actually. I told [Bobby], ‘If you don’t take this, someone else will.’ He only had 15 credits and one semester left at UB – he could always go back and get his degree.”

When Shuttleworth opted to accept New England’s offer, Hoeltke said, “I’m totally behind you in your decision.” A family support specialist for Catholic Charities and Say Yes – in which she works with families from Hillery Park Elementary in the Buffalo Public School system – Hoeltke was by no means devaluing the importance of education in backing Shuttleworth’s decision; she just wanted her son to be able to fulfill his lifelong dream.

The MLS

Much of Shuttleworth’s Major League Soccer story has already been told.

The years of training with then-Revs’ starter Matt Reis, where the Western New Yorker learned the nuances of America’s top league from one its brightest and most experienced backstops, while still getting first-team duty with the PDL’s Western Mass Pioneers.

From 2010 through 2012, the Nichols product appeared in 20 MLS matches with the Revolution, compiling 6 wins, 10 losses and 4 draws. With Reis in the twilight of his career, the former MLS Cup winner and two-time U.S. Open Cup champ ceded more starts to the upstart Shuttleworth, whose 7-11-5 record in 2013 included nine shutouts.

When Reis retired in December 2013, there was little question who’d fill the legend’s role. Shuttleworth had all the tools to be a worthy successor – the confidence of Christou, the friendship of Garigen, the influence of Riddle, the unrelenting commitment of his mother and now the support of his wife, Geenamarie Ruggiero, whom he married in 2011.

“I handed Bobby off to the best possible person,” Hoeltke gushes.

Now a decade removed from his forgettable time at Loyola, Shuttleworth’s confidence is unshakable, his on-field intelligence superb and his command of his defense comprehensive.

“You can even hear him organizing the defense on the telecast,” chuckles Marlette, a budding MLS fan who makes a point to watch Shuttleworth’s matches.

While Bulley isn’t shocked that his former teammate’s name has been mentioned in the same breath as the U.S. men’s national team, Shuttleworth doesn’t have time yet to explore those possibilities. There’s only one thing on his mind, at least until Sunday night. Beat Los Angeles, win MLS Cup.

Although watching from the touchline in Gillette Stadium was unfortunately out of the question for Hoeltke, she’s seen all of Shuttleworth’s starts for New England, and she’ll be in attendance for MLS Cup on Sunday, having arrived in Los Angeles on Friday evening.

Her voice lowers, almost to a whisper, when she discusses what Sunday will bring.

“This is really their chance,” she says, raw emotion obvious in her voice. “I’m so proud of Bobby, [The Revs] have come so far.”

So has her son.

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