By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 15, 2018) US Soccer Players - Leaving college early or bypassing it altogether to turn pro is today a commonplace decision for elite young soccer players in the United States. It was a bit more of a gamble when Kevin Hartman did it in early 1997, just a few months shy of completing his bachelor’s degree. The LA Galaxy drafted Hartman with the second-to-last pick of that year’s MLS college draft.
This spring, just over 21 years after he left UCLA to sign a professional contract with then-fledgling MLS and kick off one of the longest and most decorated club careers in US soccer history, Hartman will finish up his final requirements for his undergraduate diploma as a history major.
He expects to walk across a stage in Westwood this May. It will mark a key personal and career milestone not only for him, but a message to his two young daughters, and a nod to his two sisters who work as educators in California and Idaho. Perhaps even a bit of inspiration for the players who follow in his footsteps, too.
“I put in so much effort and to have not completed something I really see as a major milestone achievement in my life, I didn’t want to leave that T uncrossed,” Hartman told USSoccerPlayers.com in a wide-ranging interview last week. “Whether you’re a player, whether you’re a lifelong learner, you can always continue to improve.”
As it turned out, Hartman was justified in setting aside his classwork for a while. He carved out a 17-year career highlighted by six USMNT caps, a number that would easily have been bigger had he not been born into a golden age for American goalkeepers. He ranks second all-time among MLS keepers behind only Nick Rimando in a range of statistics including games and minutes played, wins, saves, and shots faced. Hartman won 1999 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year honors as well as two MLS Cups, two Supporters' Shields, and two Open Cup titles.
But stints with four different MLS franchises, followed by a gig as technical director and director of goalkeeping at the IMG Academy, made completing his undergraduate duties more complicated than it is for pros today.
“No matter how hard I tried over the past decade and a half, the final two classes were going to have to be done on campus,” he explained. “Just the way that my work schedule had worked out, between Kansas City and Dallas and New York and then Florida, I didn’t necessarily have an opportunity to be in Los Angeles for a quarter, until just recently. It was something that I really wanted to make that I wrapped up.”
Last year Hartman at last made his way back to SoCal, taking up the hefty task of starting the Galaxy’s brand-new girls youth academy from scratch. Meanwhile, his climb into the coaching profession has made him more conscious than ever of the value of adding those two letters to his resume. So he arranged his work schedule to hit the classroom three mornings a week.
“You start to understand the importance of it a little bit more when you’re filling out resumes and CVs and you’re looking for things that you might do in your post-playing career,” he said.
That fact that it ended up taking this long is actually a quirky compliment to MLS’ unexpected longevity.
“We had seen our older friends not really having legitimate opportunities to play professional soccer unless they went overseas, and so my thought process was that my opportunity would be over either in Europe or south, in Mexico, Central America, South America. I never imagined that there would be a legitimate league in the United States to ply my trade in for 17 years,” Hartman, whose UCLA roommate was current Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney, recalled. “If I would’ve been a little bit more convinced, maybe I would’ve tried to wrap things up a little bit earlier!”
In 1997, the infant league had just ten teams, each of them with only 20 roster spots. Hartman had to pay his own way to participate in its pre-draft goalkeepers combine in Florida. The draft itself took place while his flight home to California was in the air, his family informing him of his selection after he touched down.
He had just a few days to decide to put college on hold and make the necessary arrangements before flying to Mexico for the Galaxy’s preseason. It later took a visionary gamble by then-coach Lothar Osiander just for him to keep his roster spot when Mexican star Jorge Campos returned to LA in the summer after a stint with Atlante.
Today, his Galaxy have their own high school at the StubHub Center, in addition to a full academy and USL reserve team. They recently signed a 15-year-old, phenom Efrain Alvarez, to a senior-team contract. Some MLS players have their education paid for when they leave college early as part of the Generation adidas program. All are extended special deals by the league’s education partner, Southern New Hampshire University.
“Certainly things have changed quite a bit,” said Hartman. “There’s just a real opportunity for young players to continue to try to get their education. For me, it’s proved pretty important.”
Earlier this month many American soccer fans were troubled to read a Washington Post feature story about the early retirements of Steve Neumann and JJ Koval, NCAA stars and top-10 picks in the 2014 MLS draft, after relatively brief pro careers. “The longer you play, the narrower your potential [post-playing] career path gets,” said Neumann.
Hartman’s shot-stopping excellence kept him in the game longer than most. He spent much of the twilight of his career busily preparing for the next chapter. Down the stretch, he amassed his coaching licenses. He worked with both individual and team clients on the side. He spent time around front-office executives searching for insights and connections. He also saw subtle ways of how he would have to recalibrate his mentality.
“One of the things that makes people able to be successful for a long period of time is your ability to morph to situations – moving from one place to another, in a locker room that demands this or that,” he said. “You have to be able to endure the hardships of the game. Moving your family from place to place, absorbing criticism from fans or coaches, you’re constantly being judged. It has a tendency to wear on you, and you can see in some former pros, it might be a little acrimonious sometimes in how they deal with things.”
Now he’s back home, working to build the Galaxy’s girls program, in its first year of Development Academy play, into a powerhouse on the cutthroat SoCal youth scene. He’s worked with LA’s “alliance” youth clubs, hired staff, and helped build curriculums and processes, and will take US Soccer’s Directors Course this summer. And with new rivals LAFC strongly rumored to be moving towards an NWSL team of their own, he might just be building the foundations for a professional side of the future.
“We’ve been around. We’ve treated some of the best players in the world in a manner that they’re appreciative of and I think that we can do the same thing at the youth level, both on the boys and the girls side,” said Hartman. “I’m excited about continuing to empower these girls and it’s been a real pleasure…. And we’ve learned a lot, and we continue to grow and adapt over time.”
More from Charles Boehm:
- 21 years after leaving UCLA for MLS, Kevin Hartman set for diploma walk
- Supporters groups in modern MLS
- Tommy Thompson wants to entertain
- MLS and young domestic players: Will anything change in 2018?
(Photo by John Todd - ISIPhotos.com)