Chris Mikus had not played a game in a War Eagles uniform in three years, but on Feb. 4, in front of a packed congregation in the South Forsyth High School auditorium, he signed his national letter of intent to play Division I soccer at the University of Memphis.
It was the culmination of a life-long dream, hours of tough work on and off the pitch required to turn that dream into reality.
His next goal: dominate in college, and become a middle forward for a Major League Soccer team, or beyond.
So, where was Mikus over the last three years? How did he go from a South defect to a scholarship athlete?
After his freshman season, Mikus’ club team played a game against one of the United States Soccer Developmental Academy (USSDA) teams. Mikus stood out to the opponent’s coach, so much so that they exchanged words after the contest. In an instant, Mikus was a wanted prospect.
“Later on during the season I went on and practiced with them, and when I went there I fell in love with it,” Mikus said. “It was so intense, and really hard and competitive.”
Mikus joined the Georgia United, that same team that recruited him from his regular club. But, joining the USSDA has tight restrictions. Unlike other club teams, which run seasons through the summer and fall, outside of Georgia’s spring soccer schedule, those who play on a USSDA team sign a binding contract that prevents them from playing on their varsity soccer teams.
Instead, they commit to a 10-month program that features top-level training, competition and a strict, professional environment set up to emulate the reality of playing for a collegiate or professional soccer team.
The USSDA was created in 2007 to develop youth soccer faster. It’s the official developmental arm of the United States Soccer Federation, and many of the 80 USSDA teams around the country are run by Major League Soccer clubs.
Only two teams exist in Georgia—the Georgia United and Concorde Fire. Mikus is one of three South students on the United team, the others being sophomores Trevor Byrne and Niko Tzevelekos. They’re the only players in Forsyth County who have chosen a USSDA commitment over the opportunity to split time between a standard club team and varsity team.
For Mikus, making the decision to join the academy was a difficult one to make.
“It was a hard decision because in the ninth grade I played for South and we were really good,” Mikus said. “I had a bunch of friends on the team. It kind of sucked I had to leave them, but I knew it was a better place for me to get to where I wanted to be.”
Mikus figured it out pretty early: college coaches were swarming academy games. If he was going to get noticed, he needed to be part of the trend.
“I got a call on the first day they’re even allowed to contact players,” Mikus said. “At home games there’s five to ten watching each game. They have a showcase in December and the sidelines will pack with coaches. Last December we were playing against one of the MLS academy teams and there were maybe 70 coaches. So, it puts pressure on you, and stuff, but that’s kind of the environment it is.”
Mikus’ time with the Georgia United team is soon over with, and he’ll begin his collegiate playing career once he graduates from high school.
But for Byrne, with two years left to go, and Tzevelekos, a new challenge is on the horizon. That’s because the Georgia United’s U18 team will soon be absorbed by the Atlanta United, Atlanta’s new MLS franchise set to begin play in 2017.
Byrne and Tzevelekos will have to try out for the team in May. Nobody is guaranteed a spot, but the current Georgia United players will surely have a leg up in the process because of their experience.
Byrne has played for the U16 team for one season. He spent his freshman year on South’s team so he could play a year with his brother, Noah, who is now a senior. Unlike Mikus, he’s just now getting used to the program. So is his father, Russell.
“It was a big jump because in high school you’re just kind of having fun with your buddies,” Trevor said. “The academy is strictly business. I feel like I’ve gotten in the groove of going to practice every day, playing so many games, and I really like the kids on my team now.”
The United will play anywhere between 30-35 games a year, most of them between September and December and then between January and June. There’s little time for break. Trevor and his father were just enjoying some time on the lake during a brief break this past week.
When it’s time to go to work, they commute to Norcross for practices. Russell has to be hands off.
“As a parent, the crazy part is that you have to relinquish control. The academy doesn’t put up with any type of parental involvement,” Russell said. “We’re not allowed to travel with the team or anything. I’ll follow him to games in other cities, get my own hotel room and go watch, but it’s all on him to be responsible.”
“I think I’ve developed more and matured faster than I would had I not joined the academy,” Trevor said. “Hopefully it takes me to a high collegiate level, or maybe even the MLS.”