Friday’s match between the University of Akron and the University of Michigan was a lot of things: a continued rivalry between Ohio and Michigan, a test for the Wolverines facing the #2 program in the country, and most importantly, a showcase for NPSL talent.
The two teams featured loads of current NPSL players, 17 players to be exact. 12 players from Michigan and five players from Akron spent the summer in the NPSL.
Two of UM’s best players, defender Lars Eckenrode and midfielder Brett Nason, actually stayed in Michigan to star for AFC Ann Arbor and Detroit City FC respectively.
“It’s definitely a great league,” Eckenrode commented. “There was a high level in training. The competition was great. I would absolutely recommend the NPSL.”
Eckenrode, a Springfield, Virginia native, really enjoyed playing for the Mighty Oak.
“The support system and ownership group were really great. They took good care of us. It was a really cool experience. It was a lot of fun to play with a really great group of guys.”
The center back also built great relationships with two of the co-owners, Cameron Knox and Bilal Saeed. He called them “amazing people and great friends” and also added that Knox, a former MLS player, has been helping him get to the next level.
Making it to the professional level would help Eckenrode carry on a family tradition as his brother is currently a pro in Iceland.
“It’s always been my dream to play professionally. By all means I want to play at the next level, whether it is domestically or overseas.”
The NPSL allowed Eckenrode and Nason to play in front of huge crowds, something they don’t see often in the college game.
Nason saw it every home game playing for Detroit City, a team that is consistently in the very top tier of NPSL teams when it comes to attendance. The team is believed to have beaten the league’s regular season attendance record on May 20th when 7,410 showed up for DCFC’s first game at Keyworth Stadium.
“The Detroit fans were great,” Nason added. “They supported us win or lose. And I never played in front of that many people before.”
Like Eckenrode, Nason is hoping to become a professional player.
“I want to play at the next level, hopefully get drafted into MLS. It’s been my dream to play professionally since I was three years old.”
Playing in the NPSL helps make that dream a real possibility as the league has become known as a pipeline to the pros. Nason would join former UM and DCFC teammate Tyler Arnone, who was drafted into MLS and currently stars for the Real Monarchs.
“I learned a lot from Tyler,” Nason concluded. “He was a leader on and off the field.”
Playing in the NPSL is something that Nason, a Melville, New York native, would definitely recommend.
“It is a great way to stay in shape. You get to play good soccer. I really enjoyed it. It was the perfect experience.”
While the duo is excited about their future, they are completely focused on the more immediate concern of the fall college season. Michigan has risen to the elite of the Big 10 when it comes to the beautiful, always in the running for a conference title and postseason play.
Nason sees every game on the fall season as important, but you know that games with UCF, Maryland, Ohio State, and Michigan State are ones that fans are looking forward to. While it is debatable as to which rivalry is the biggest, Nason sees the match against the Buckeyes as one that should be marked down on the calendar.
“Ohio State beat us to win the Big Ten last season so we’re gunning for them this time around.”
Eckenrode and Nason may have lead the way for UM players in the summer, but they certainly weren’t alone. Others played for teams like New York Athletic Club, Indy Eleven NPSL, Grand Rapids FC, and Lansing United with several joining their teammates at AFC Ann Arbor and Detroit City FC.
The Akron players all played with AFC Cleveland, helping lead the Royals to their first national title. Skye Harter would make the most headlines, being named the Mitre National Player of the Week after scoring a hat trick against the Erie Commodores on June 19th.
Harter also praised the NPSL as a great opportunity to get ready for the college season.
“It definitely helps me get ready, especially the last couple of games in the playoffs. The pace has definitely picked up and the level has increased. It definitely will help me as I get ready to go back.”
Harter, a Copley, Ohio native, was a force in Cleveland’s attack all season long. He was joined on the Royals’ roster by goalkeeper Jeremy Pollard, defender Shane Wiedt, and midfielders Tyler Sanda and Jackson Crawford.
It’s great to see so many talented NPSL players have such an impact so early this fall. This is sure to be one of many positive stories this college season.