Photo by University of South Florida
By FRANCO PANIZO
When goalkeeper Chris Blais' 2010 season came to a close, it did so a game earlier than he wanted. Blais had helped guide Michigan to an impressive run in the NCAA Championship tournament, one that ended with a semifinals loss to eventual champion Akron.
As surprising as that run may have been to some fans across the nation, it compared little to what Blais did next.
This past June, Blais made the unique decision of leaving the only program he had ever played for by transferring as a senior to the University of South Florida. He was saying goodbye to the place he had called home the previous four years and his starting spot to begin a new chapter in his career with a team that had been knocked out of the 2010 NCAA tournament in the first round.
"There was a lot of stuff that happened, to be honest," the 6-foot-4, 195-pound Blais said of his decision to transfer. "One of the big things that brought me here was the goalkeeper coach, Bryheem Hancock. With his experience playing pro and (being) an All-American (who) won a national championship at UConn, he was a major, major reason for me making the move."
But that wasn't the only factor in Blais' departure from Michigan.
"There was a lot of turnover with players and coaches," said Blais. "The coach that recruited me at Michigan took a head coaching job somewhere else, the goalie coach took a head coaching job somewhere else, and Soony (Saad) and Justin (Meram) leaving to go pro, and then our two best recruits coming in ended up going pro, so it just didn't seem like the right situation. I was there the whole spring and after everything that had happened with all the turnover, it just didn't seem like the right place for me anymore."
Blais, who initiated contact by emailing Bulls head coach George Kiefer via email, also chose the Bulls due to their reputation for being a good goalkeeper factory, having produced top college players like Jeff Attinella and Diego Restrepo at the position in the past.
After Kiefer decided to bring Blais in, the experienced goalkeeper knew things were about to change quickly. Blais also realized he'd have to adapt fast to his new surroundings if he wanted to win the starting spot and enjoy a successful final year in college soccer.
The Seattle, Wash., native did just that, beating out sophomore Eric Osswald and freshman Dallas Jaye while also jelling with his new teammates on and off the field.
"He's got a great personality," said Kiefer. "He fits in excellent with the guys. The guys call him grandpa. He's a fifth year guy. I think with any good team, once they recognize you have talent they figure out a way to fit you in.
Blais' time with USF has been brief, but he is already seeing the similarities and differences that his new home has compared to his old one.
One of the biggest things he has already noticed is how much attention the University of South Florida pays to its soccer program, a welcomed dissimilarity for Blais.
"I think soccer is one of the bigger sports here and at Michigan it's not," said Blais. "It's still big (there), but it's not one of the main sports. Like football and hockey and basketball really dominate everything there, and it's kind of been cool experiencing that because I always kind of felt that we were like second best, like a team that flew under the radar at Michigan and here I feel like soccer is really in the forefront. So being a college soccer player, that's something that's a good thing to have."
Another difference that Blais was going to have to get accustomed to was not being a captain anymore. With the Wolverines, Blais was known as one of the defacto leaders. But with the Bulls, he was the new guy in town.
That still didn't stop Kiefer and his coaching staff from wanting Blais to take a leadership role on the team, albeit slowly but surely.
"If he came in right away and tried to lead, I don't think the group would have accepted him," said Kiefer. "But now that he's got some games under his belt; he's been masterful at that, actually. He's been very good at figuriing out at when to push and when to slow down."
Blais' leadership roles and abilities were put to the test against a talented opponent in Wake Forest in the season opener on Aug. 27, a game that came little over two months after Blais had announced his transfer from Michigan.
Blais had a good performance that day, making seven saves en route to helping the Bulls win 2-0. That outing was good enough to also earn him the Big East Goalkeeper of the Week award.
He followed his impressive debut by recording another shutout days later in a 1-0 victory over Georgia State.
"Shutouts are really an expectation here more than just something that happens," said Blais.
Blais adds that he was not surprised that he and the team could put together such performances so quickly, and he partially attributes that to the ease of his transition to USF.
"It takes time to build your back line, but I think me and my back line have gotten along really well and guys are starting to get used to how I play and get used to the kind of person I am," said Blais. "But like I said, it's went better than I thought it was going to be, but it's not perfect.
With his size and skills, Blais is already a pro prospect and Kiefer says MLS scouts from three or four teams have already attended games to keep an eye on the Bulls' starting goalkeeper and his teammates.
Blais has already trained in professional environments, having spent at least a week with the Seattle Sounders for each of the past four summers. He has also trained with the Vancouver Whitecaps and U.S. men's national team goalkeeper Tim Howard.
But he isn't thinking that far ahead, and is rather focusing on his final collegiate season. When pressed on the issue, however, Blais admits he doesn't have a preference between MLS, Europe or elsewhere.
"I feel like wherever the best situation with the best coach (is best) because goalies usually their prime is much later," said Blais. "Obviously I'd love to be in Seattle some day but that's if the stars all align the right way.
"If I get a chance in Europe, I'd love to go do that. If I get a chance at MLS, I'd love to go do that. I just really want it to be the right situation, the right coach and then you work hard and hopefully some day get a shot at the starting job."
Right off the top of my head Tony Taylor (plays professionally in Portugal), Rodrigo Hidalgo (former YNT member) and Diego Restrepo (won it all with Virginia, playing pro in South America).
As a Seattle native and USF Alumnus, I’m very proud to be pulling for Blais. I would love to see the Sounders draft and develop him while acting as a back up. SSFC already passed on Jeff Attinella last year, and Attinella is getting all sorts of honors in USL (NASL?).
Nice to see a player transferring INTO South Florida and not OUT OF. If you took all the guys that have transferred out of Keifer’s program at USF and made a team out of them, you prob would have a National Championship squad.
I believe transfer rules are different for different sports. I don’t think sitting a year is required for baseball or soccer as long as the school they are leaving gives them a release; most do, especially if out of conference.
If you’d read or watched any of the interviews with this kid you’d know he has nothing close to an attitude problem. He spent 3 years building the program at Michigan, and when all of his own coaches and team mates left, and the program looked dismal, why should he have to stay for a mediocre final season and possibly lose his chance to go pro? This kid is smart. Soccer is his business and sounds like he made a good business investment in USF
So he went to UM to help build the program. They got good and everyone else jumped ship for greener pastures. Whats wrong with him doing the same?
If he graduated from UM last year and he switched to grad program at USF that UM does not have, he doesnt have to sit.
Why didn’t he have to sit out a season? Isn’t that the NCAA rule to keep players from just jumping from program to program if they’re not happy where they are?!
In basketball or football for example, you have to sit out a season while transferring. I figured that was an NCAA thing. Why didn’t this guy have to sit out? Am I just wrong?
haha yeah its not like Clint Dempsey, Holden, Edu, Bocanegra, Onyewu, Cherundolo, Subotic, Nielsen or Ibesevic ever played college. Oh wait they did. Fabregas did the same thing as Blais got a proble with that?
but really, who cares, its college soccer
the guy transferred because he lost teammates and coaches? sounds like he has an attitude problem, and is not a team player.
There was a time when “USF” in reference to college soccer meant University San Francisco – unfortunately, those days of national championships are long gone, and don’t appear to be on the horizon anytime soon.