Photo courtesy of West Virginia media relations
By AVI CREDITOR
Remember the name Eric Schoenle. Opposing forwards have a hard time forgetting it.
Like top college centerbacks Tim Ream and A.J. Soares before him, Schoenle (pronounced SHANE-lee), West Virginia's junior centerback, is emerging as a top prospect and has the technical and physical tools that should translate to professional success.
"He's big-time," West Virginia coach Marlon LeBlanc said. "He should've been on the Under-20 World Cup (qualifying) team in my opinion. I think he's the best centerback in college soccer."
Schoenle, who turns 20 in two weeks, is a few rungs down on the depth chart of U.S. Under-20 centerbacks that includes professionals Perry Kitchen, Ethan White, Zarek Valentin and Gale Agbossoumonde along with Duke's Sebastien Ibeagha.
That hasn't stopped him from being highly-regarded by pro scouts who project him as a sure-fire first-round draft pick if he leaves college early. A 6-foot-2, left-footed centerback who is also good in the air, Schoenle is a prime candidate to be offered a Generation adidas contract this winter and projects as a top six pick in the 2012 MLS Draft.
Schoenle appeared with the U-20 national team last December for a week-long training camp in Florida that culminated with two friendlies against Canada, but he was ultimately not included on the roster for World Cup qualifying.
Nevertheless, Schoenle's early-season play for the Mountaineers has drawn rave reviews from teammates and adversaries alike.
Despite West Virginia falling by a 3-1 scoreline to Maryland earlier in the season, Schoenle did his part in containing Maryland's potent strikeforce before the Terrapins adjusted and produced more width in their attack to create more space with which to work in the final third.
"Good, good player, very strong," Maryland forward Patrick Mullins said following their encounter. "He was the best player on the field for them, a leader on the field."
Leadership is the final piece of the Schoenle's game that is rounding into form. Those emerging organizational qualities are more evident during his third year at West Virginia, where he is one of the team's captains along with senior and top right back prospect Raymon Gaddis.
"I'm really working this year on organizing the team and being a leader in the back," said Schoenle, a Yardley, Pa., native. "And making sure everybody knows what they need to do on the ball and off the ball and where people need to be and just getting the team together."
If there's a knock on Schoenle, it's his lack of bulk. While he stands at a healthy 6-foot-2, his wiry-thin, 147-pound frame could leave him susceptible to being beaten by bigger, more physical forwards in the professional ranks. That's hardly to say that isn't a fixable problem.
"I think he could get stronger, but what he brings to our centerback position — and hopefully it gets recognized — at the senior level we don't have centerbacks that can have the ball at their feet," LeBlanc said. "It's more of a physical, speed attribute. Eric is winning tackles, reading angles and when he gets his foot on the ball, you can play out of the back with him."
Schoenle's calmness on the ball and accuracy when distributing are both very Ream-esque, and they've contributed to the Mountaineers playing a more fluid brand of soccer while maintaining a consistent place in national polls.
"He's very composed on the ball for a centerback," Gaddis said. "Every year I'm more and more impressed with his composure. Him being able to hit a long ball over distance, not every centerback in the country can hit an accurate diagonal or long ball as he can."
Schoenle is a threat in the air on either end of the field, as well. He has six career goals, all of which are headers off corner kicks, according to a West Virginia media official.
"I think Schoenle's a great player," Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski said. "He's unbelievable in the air, he positions himself very well. He is as advertised. He's one of the best centerbacks in the country."
His latest goal came in a season-opening victory against Virginia, when he switched his run off a corner kick to the far post, connected on a diving header for the game's only goal and smacked his head into the post in the process. A bruise the size of an egg developed on the side of his head and forced him out of the match at halftime.
"I kind of blacked out for a bit, but I saw the ball go in the net so the pain wasn't really a factor. I was just happy I scored," Schoenle said.
The future remains bright for Schoenle. He possesses the technical attributes that U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann seeks in a central defender, and with greater experience and exposure, his name could be one that registers on the international radar a few years down the line.
"For him it's probably just being exposed to more games, more competition and more national-team camps," LeBlanc said. "When he gets an opportunity to compete at a higher level, he's somebody that probably should be looked at a very closely."