SAN JOSE, CA. -- The San Jose Earthquakes came to terms with midfielder JJ Koval this week, signing their MLS SuperDraft first round pick to a rookie contract of which terms were not disclosed.
"It's a dream come true," Koval told Center Line Soccer when the news was released. "I've always dreamed about an opportunity like this, and to get it in MLS, especially in San Jose, I am so excited about it."
Koval was a four-year starter in central midfield for Stanford University, and he has made a smooth transition to the professional ranks since joining up with his new Quakes' teammates at the start of preseason camp.
"It's been good, I've really enjoyed it," Koval described life as an MLS rookie. "I've taken some time to adapt and get used to the team, and I feel every day I get more and more comfortable with the team. It's a great group of guys, and they are very welcoming. A lot of the veteran guys have looked out for me, so it has been a good transition and I am really enjoying it."
As a member of the Cardinal, Koval played in a deeper lying role in central midfield than he is expected to play as a member of the Earthquakes. Transitioning into more of a box-to-box midfielder will allow him to partner effectively with incumbent defensive midfielder Sam Cronin, something head coach Mark Watson is confident the rookie can pick up quickly.
"He's got good athleticism, good feet," Watson told Center Line Soccer. "Tactically, he knows the position and does the little things right that you want to see out of a player. He has a great attitude and a great work ethic. We feel he has a bright future ahead of him."
Selected ninth overall in January's draft, Koval was picked ahead of some players that were rated higher by some in the media. However, for Watson and general manager John Doyle, going with Koval was the plan going in, and the decision was never in doubt.
"I first saw him in his second year at Stanford, and I knew then that he had a chance to make it," Watson said. "Stanford was one of the main schools that we followed because it allowed us to watch them and the other schools that they played. Because of that, we had the fortunate situation of seeing him play a lot.
"Ideally, you want to see a player more than 10 times before you make a decision on them. To really know what he is all about, you need to see him against different teams and a variety of situations. We had more than that, so we felt comfortable knowing that he would be a very good professional player."
For Koval, being selected by San Jose was also beneficial in terms of balancing his new career as a soccer player with the daily rigors of life.
"It has been an easy transition for me because this is my home, this is where my life is right now," Koval said. "Stanford is only 15 minutes away, so it is nice to be close to that community. Also, my new family here with the Earthquakes has been very welcoming."
Koval has featured prominently for the Earthquakes in their preseason friendly schedule, often getting a starting assignment in place of Cronin or in place of new signing Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi in central midfield. Though the two veterans are slated to be in Watson's starting eleven at the start of the season, the opportunity Koval has received to impress the Quakes' coaching staff has not gone unnoticed.
"He has impressed so far this preseason," Watson said, "and that's his job to come in and press every day and make our decisions hard. We have some good experienced guys already at his position, so it will be tough for him to get into our lineup, but he is doing all the right things, and we want him to keep doing it and wait for his opportunity. That opportunity may come very quickly or he may have to be patient, we'll just have to wait and see."
Being the third choice selection at central midfield is quite an accomplishment for a rookie, and Koval is not balking at the idea that he can play an important role for the Earthquakes this season.
"I would love to make the biggest impact possible," Koval said. "I want to do whatever is best for the team and they can count on me to work as hard as I can every single day to get on the field because that is what I want to do. Hopefully I can push the other players to do the same."
With less than three weeks until the Earthquakes begin their 2014 campaign, Koval will continue to apply pressure on Cronin and Pierazzi for a spot in the lineup, something that is to the benefit of all involved.