SOCCER AMERICA by Brian Sciaretta

Two years ago, Ben Bender was a regarded player in his native Baltimore, Maryland, but was not on a path taken by traditional top prospects. He was playing as a senior in high school and was not in a professional academy setup. He was also set to attend college, and an MLS Homegrown deal was not available to him – like it is for an increasing number of top young American players.

Finally, he was never once called up to a U.S. youth national team at any level. This is typically where most players get noticed on a national stage. On top of that, Covid essentially removed his opportunity to play games for nearly a year.

Flash forward to April 2022, Bender is off to a flying start in MLS for a Charlotte FC team that is in its inaugural season. Playing predominantly as an attacking midfielder on the left side, Bender has a goal and three assists through the first eight games.

Bender, 21, has become one of the more impressive newcomers in the league and is yet another example that the older development paths of college and even high school are still relevant. Even as recently as the 2020 SuperDraft, Daryl Dike also played high school and college.

“In college soccer, there are tons of good players out there,” Bender said. “I think that the academy path is a really awesome route to the pro level, and I think that's how it how it should be. But I think that college soccer is and should continue to be a way for players to develop academically and in soccer too. It is still super relevant.

“It was a tough decision for me to play in high school instead of academy. Emotionally, it was important. You are with some of your best friends that you grow up with and then you go to high school where you get to play with them. The academy is the better level. So that was that was really hard for me to decide where to play."

Bender spent his U-14 year with Philadelphia Union's academy before returning to the Baltimore area to attend Calvert Hall College High School in Towson, Maryland.

“It ended up working out," he said. "Looking back on the high school years — I have all those relationships and I was a part of a really awesome community. And so that's something that I'll remember for the rest of my life.”

None of this is to say that Bender came completely out of nowhere. He played soccer at the University of Maryland – a program that has produced many national team caliber players (Zack Steffen, Taylor Twellman, Maurice Edu, Omar Gonzalez, Robbie Rogers, Clarence Goodson, Eryk Williamson, Danny Califf and Donovan Pines have all represented the U.S. national team in official competitions). By the time of his sophomore year, Bender was a United Soccer Coaches First Team All-American.

One of the common criticisms of the college game as a developmental path for professionals is the short season. When kids in MLS or European academies have seasons that last most of the year, the college season is three months. In this case, the COVID pandemic actually played in his favor. Most youth and reserve leagues in the country were shut down for almost all of 2020 following the pandemic outbreak.

In 2021, however, Bender found himself loaded with games. The NCAA had a spring season in 2021 to make up for the 2020 season and then had a fall season for 2021. In the summer, he had the chance to play for FC Baltimore Christos of the NPSL. In that regard, he stood out and earned a Generation Adidas contract and was the first overall selection in January’s 2022 draft.

“I didn't know I was coming to Charlotte until a week or two before the draft.” Bender said. “I had to pack up everything and then move to Charlotte real quick. The preseason was super fun, but it was definitely a transition. It was a big step from college. The speed of play was really fast and everyone was super strong. I had to improve in those areas. And yeah, I've just been working really hard trying to get better, and I'm learning every day from the coaches, from the players and veterans on our team.”

Charlotte FC has been competing well in its inaugural season. The team has three wins in its first eight games, including over Atlanta United and New England. In the midweek, Charlotte FC advanced to the U.S. Open Cup fourth round with an overtime win over the Greenville Triumph. On Saturday, Coach Miguel Angel Ramirez and his Charlotte team will visit Colorado.

During the preseason when Charlotte was suffering setbacks putting together its roster, Ramirez infamously said: “Right now, we're screwed.” But while the team doesn’t necessarily look like a threat for the playoffs, it is playing well and exceeding expectations. Bender is a big part of that.

“It's always tough for expansion teams,” Bender said. “We've done pretty well so far and we're hoping for a few more wins. We're always going to compete and we're going to give our best effort every time we step on the field, even when we go through the sufferings and the trials of the year. We will stick with the game model that Miguel provides for us. That can take us a long way.”

Ramirez agrees.

“He’s winning the respect of everybody because — he’s so good,” coach Ramirez said about Bender. “He’s becoming a leader because he’s been important for us and everybody knows.”

There is a lot that drives Bender these days. Expectations are increasing for him to continue to produce for Charlotte FC and push for maybe a surprise push for the playoffs. There is also the international stage, and that also drives Bender because he has never received a national team callup at any level.

The full national team is still a long way off, but Bender might have another avenue. If the U.S. U-20 team succeeds this summer to qualify for the 2024 Olympics, that tournament will then be open to the 2001/02 birth years (Bender was born in 2001). Bender has been made aware of that and certainly hopes that could open a door as well.

“As a personal goal, I want to try and be to make a national team camp,” Bender said. “It would be amazing and an awesome opportunity. Growing up, I thought I had the opportunity, but I never got called in.

“All my time before signing a pro contract, I pretty much put my head down and wanted to work as hard as possible to make it professionally and then hopefully play for the national team.”