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Ahead of NCAA Tournament, College Players Lean on League Two Experience

By Staff, 11/16/23, 11:30AM EST


Wake Forest coach identifies League Two as a place to mature

With a condensed USL League Two season that lasts only three months, thousands of players have filled out a full year of high-level soccer by playing in both their League Two club season and their college seasons.

Each year, the best of the best play in both competitions. Since 2002, the MAC Hermann Trophy, awarded to the best college player in the country, has gone to a player with League Two experience 12 times.

This season is no different, as the stars from around the country are once again playing at a high level in NCAA competition after starring in the summer. The 2023 season's top scorers, playmakers and goalkeepers have, in large part, come into the season with League Two experience.

"I do think that the experiences that they had this summer kind of shaped who they are and how they approached preseason," Steve Armas, assistant coach at Wake Forest University, said. "You could just tell that those guys, not that they didn't want it before, but there was just another level of just hunger that those guys had."

All in all, Wake Forest has 17 players on their 2023 roster that spent their summer in USL League Two. Familiar names to League Two fans cover the team sheet - Hosei Kijima (Sarasota Paradise), Sidney Paris (AFC Ann Arbor) and Cooper Flax (Manhattan SC) are part of a star-studded midfield core for the Demon Deacons.

Heading into the NCAA Tournament, Wake Forest is the No. 10 seed and will act as a host during the opening stages of the tournament. Their experience and relationship with League Two isn't unique, however - each of the top 16 overall seeds on the bracket feature at least one player to have spent their summer in USL League Two.

"This is the first time I think in a while since since we've all been here, the current staff coaching us, that we've had that many players play in League Two," Armas said. The results are speaking for themselves - it's another strong year for Wake Forest, in which they've only lost twice. That would be their lowest loss total since 2017, and would only be the third time since 2008 they've only lost a pair of matches.

Armas himself sports USL League Two experience - he played with Carolina Dynamo when they had a professional side in 2003, and again for their pre-professional team in 2005. He followed that up by being on the Dynamo coaching staff, before entering the college game full-time.

"I think it was a really good opportunity for me to be able to do that and coach kids at the level that I'm coaching now," Armas said. "It helped me think the game a little bit differently as well and how to approach it.."

This elite production doesn't just lie in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, though. Programs across the country are flush with high-level League Two talent.

In 2022, national champion Syracuse University featured a striker partnership between Ventura County Fusion's Nathan Opoku, now on loan with OH Leuven from Leicester City FC, and Chicago City FC's Levonte Johnson, who is now a professional in his own right.

The production can be found up and down the collegiate ranks. Players with League Two experience were the second top scorer in NCAA Division I and Division II. Montclair State University's Amir Lukovic, who spent the summer with Cedar Stars Rush, was the top scorer in Division III.

Even beyond goalscoring - the national leaders in assists in Division I and Division III played in League Two, and Belmont Abbey's Davis McBee, who played for Charlotte Independence, was second in Division II in that metric.

On Thursday, all of these players will begin their quest for the NCAA Division I College Cup, which will be lifted at Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville, KY on December 11. Of the 48 teams in the single-elimination bracket, 47 feature a 2023 USL League Two player somewhere on the roster.

Just as was the case last year, that leaves a high probability that a player that starred in the summer has the chance to do so again in December.

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