By Jonathan Okanes
Cal Bear Blog
The evidence that Cal’s men’s soccer is among the nation’s elite continued to mount Thursday when the program dominated the first day of the Major League Soccer SuperDraft in Philadelphia.
The Bears had three players selected in the first round – including the No. 2 and No. 3 pick – and another in the second round. With defender Steve Birnbaum going second and fellow defender Christian Dean getting chosen third, Cal became just the third program ever to have teammates come off the board within the top three picks of the draft.
Birnbaum was taken by D.C. United while Dean went to Vancouver Whitecaps FC. Defender/midfielder Ryan Neil was selected by Real Salt Lake with the 18th pick and midfielder Alec Sundly was chosen in the second round by the New England Revolution at No. 31.
It was a historic day for Cal soccer, one that figures to have long-term positive effects for the program.
“It means a lot to the current players that are here,” Cal coach Kevin Grimes said. “It means a lot to the future players that are coming in during the fall of 2014 and certainly the players that come beyond them. It is something that helps us on every level of our program, be it alumni relations, community support, fundraising, or the most obvious – recruiting. I think a player looks at the opportunity to get one of the best educations that you can get on planet Earth here at Cal and also have the chance to pursue your dreams as an athlete to become a professional soccer player.”
It’s been a memorable five months for Grimes and the Bears. Cal earned its first No. 1 national ranking in school history and stayed at that perch for over a month. The Bears reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament for the third time in school history and never had to leave Berkeley during its postseason run.
Considering the Bears’ success in 2013, Thursday’s draft shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise. Still, to have two players considered among the top three professional prospects in the land can’t help but make a significant impact.
“Certainly, it shows that each one of those young men was able to come into the University of California as an 18-year old and have great potential, but that great potential needed to manifest them into great players,” Grimes said. “Those guys obviously had a lot of accolades coming out of their club soccer days, but to be able to continue to develop in college, propelling them to have the opportunity to be a first-round draft pick is a credit to them, our coaching staff and our overall team culture.”
It was a kick for Birnbaum and Dean, teammates who play the same position and had their names called consecutively on one of the biggest days of their lives. Even though they came out of college together, Birnbaum is two years ahead of Dean after redshirting one season with an injury. Dean left Cal after his junior season but plans on earning his degree.
“It’s amazing,” Dean said. “I see myself as Steve’s understudy since he is so great at center back. He pretty much taught me everything, so it’s crazy to me that he taught me well enough that I could go right behind him in the draft.”
It seems only natural that college prospects will take notice of the impact Cal had on the draft. With four returning players that earned All-Pac-12 honors last season and a future trending upward, it appears the Bears are among the elite to stay.
“With four players from the University of California selected, it says a lot about the program as well as the players and coaches,” Dean said. “The job the coaching staff did with us this year was amazing. You can’t really ask for better coaches. Next year, I think we will see something similar in terms of draft prospects from Cal.”