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Maryland’s Mind Bender

By Brian Maurer

Image courtesy of Charlotte FC

Charlotte FC’s first pick in the 2022 SuperDraft was Ben Bender. This pick was a bit of a surprise to many MLS Pundits, and others who follow the MLS. However, Bender arrived on the MLS scene with a bang, nabbing 3 goals and three assists so far this season. Quickly silencing the critics about his potential. Besides the highlight videos, another tell-tale sign of Bender’s potential comes from the fact that he played at the University of Maryland. A factory for quality SuperDraft picks over the years.

Some of the Maryland Terrapin greats who were picked in the SuperDraft include Taylor Twellman, Omar Gonzalez, Graham Zusi, Maurice Edu, and, more recently, Dayne St. Clair. Overall, fifty-one players have been drafted from the University of Maryland. Of those fifty-one, three have been number one picks (Bender in 2022, Edu in 2007, and Cullen in 1998), and twenty-three were first round picks. Many of the players that have come from Maryland have won trophies in the MLS, and in other leagues abroad. The amount of talent that has come out of Maryland has been exceptional, and has been consistently producing since the beginning of the MLS.

Young players interest fans due to the raw potential they possess. Raw potential is the “What could this player become?” question that fans ponder and discuss with each other. One way to look at a player’s potential is where they were developed. Another is interest level. For draft picks this can equate to the higher the draft pick the higher the level of interest. In Bender’s case, since he went first overall, Charlotte FC was more interested in him than any other player. Using trends of SuperDraft interest levels (so former first picks), and development location (former Maryland draft picks), fans can get a better sense of both the floor and ceiling of the potential Bender can provide to Charlotte FC.

Image courtesy of US Soccer

The University of Maryland has produced several players who have played professionally for ten plus years, and who have represented their country’s national team many times. Zusi, Edu, and Twellman are all great examples of midfield players who were drafted out of Maryland and went on to have extremely successful MLS and USMNT careers. These players are examples of what Bender’s raw potential ceiling is; a ten year plus career and competing for an international roster spot. However, the competition at central midfield on the USMNT is deeper than it’s ever been. Another point to keep in mind is while Edu came out of the gates firing by winning rookie of the year, Zusi took a few seasons to develop into the player that led Sporting Kansas City to multiple trophies. While both players ended up having very successful playing careers, they took different developmental tracks to get there. Zusi was also a second round pick. The initial expectations for a first pick in the SuperDraft are definitely higher, and makes it more likely to see more playing time initially.

One of the main stats that stands out amongst the first picks in the SuperDraft is trophies. Many of the first picks have found a way to win trophies in the MLS. Either by sticking with their drafted team, or by transferring to another club. Several of the first pick selections have had extremely successful careers. Andre Blake was the first pick in 2014 and has since won a Goalkeeper of the Year award. Cyle Larin was drafted the year after Blake, and won the Rookie of the Year award that season. Jack Harrison was drafted the year after Larin and has since played a big part in a Leeds United team being promoted to, and staying in, the Premier League. A few of the more recent first picks have taken time to work out their fit as the teams that selected them have had serious expansion team problems. Frankie Amaya and Robbie Robinson are prime examples of this. Daniel Pereira, the 2021 first overall pick, is an example of a player who has meshed really well with his expansion team, Austin FC.

What we can see from looking at draft picks from Maryland, and from all the MLS first picks in the draft, is that there are a lot of talented comparisons for Bender’s ceiling of potential. Edu is probably the best, as he was a midfielder who played at Maryland and was also a first overall pick. Edu’s start in MLS was also 15 years ago, and the league has grown exponentially since then, meaning that Bender duplicating Edu’s results may be close to impossible. For example, with the push for more young talented players transferring to the MLS, and with the increase in designated players, the likelihood of a player joining the MLS from college and succeeding right of the gate goes down dramatically. This is because the level of competition in the MLS has risen. This is why Zusi is also a solid comparison. He too is a midfielder who was drafted out of Maryland. However, as a second round pick he took a couple years longer to develop into the player he became in his prime. A second round pick in the year Zusi was drafted, is probably more similar to how a first round pick transitions into the MLS today. So, there is a solid chance that Bender’s more fully formed potential materializes over the next couple of seasons.

Based on the players from Maryland and from first picks in the SuperDraft, the floor of Bender’s potential looks to be a couple years in the MLS, struggling to find a place in the team and then transitioning out of professional soccer or into the USL. However, most first picks were in the MLS for at least a few seasons. Bender has already risen above this floor in several ways. Probably quicker than most thought. Coming out and scoring and getting assists so quickly after being introduced to the starting eleven showed his high potential immediately. Bender has also found a regular place in the squad rotation to get lots of minutes early in the season, helping him gain early experience which helps raise his floor.

Athletic ability, processing speed, technique. These are all attributes that build up Bender’s raw potential. How that potential flourishes is as much dependent on the external circumstances of his development as it does on his own ability and work ethic. “The coaches there, they do a really good job at winning, and also sending people to the pros. So, once I got the call from them I knew that I had an opportunity, a really good opportunity, to play at a high level, and that was something I wanted to do. Play at the highest level I could, and have the best shot at playing professionally” is what Bender told Charlotte FC in an interview during preseason. Bender set up his development with his potential in mind to be able to flourish at the highest level. Now at Charlotte FC, it is up to, not only Bender, but the coaches, the front office, and everyone involved with the team for Bender’s potential to be reached. A well prepared staff, with clear developmental goals and objectives is what will help create the environment for Bender to thrive in.

Likely, there will be several more highs, similar to how Bender started the season, when he grabbed a goal and three assists in his first three starts. However there will also likely be some intense adjustment periods as well. That is a part of being a young player who is learning to process and adjust to a quicker, more physical league. As this adjustment takes place Bender’s performances will likely become more consistent. As his consistency increases he will become one of the key pieces of Charlotte FC’s midfield. However, this will likely take a couple of years, similar to players like Zusi, and more recently St. Clair. A patient fanbase could be well rewarded. While it has taken a few years to solidify his position as the starting keeper in Minnesota, St. Clair is now having a potential Goalkeeper of the Year type season. A similar patience with Bender could lead to strong individual results, and a celebratory fanbase who will have blissfully forgotten the struggles that Bender will have needed to go through to get there.