AJ Marcucci: “I think a lot of kids have to realize that soccer is only going to be a third of your life. Maybe go where in the best education as well for you.” (Photo courtesy of Connecticut College)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

When he attends Red Bulls training camp, AJ Marcucci won’t be trying to prove himself but also for Division III soccer as well.

Marcucci was a standout goalkeeper at Connecticut College in New London, Conn. and became a member of a small club of athletes from the third level of college athletics who gotten interest of Major League Soccer teams.

The West Chester, Pa. resident was the 67th overall pick in Thursday’s MLS SuperDraft, taken in the third round by the team.

He called it “surreal. It was unreal. It was amazing.”

In a recent phone interview, Marcucci said he hoped that being drafted “sets an example.”

“I hope that other teams see that there is talent in Division III and I hope that people in Division III feel that they can do it,” he added. “It’s not going to be easy; I’ll tell you that.

“I really have worked tremendously hard throughout my 3 1/2 years in college. I do hope that this pushes people in Division III, because it is a great division. Some of the teams there can compete against Division I teams like mid to high, above average teams in Division I. I truly believe that based off of what I’ve seen when I come home in the summer and play with Division players I.

“A lot of kids coming out of high school just want to Division I, Division I, Division I. Division I. Three is a great spot for a kid that’s debating whether he wants to sit two years maybe at Division I or and play almost all years at Division III. That’s something I chose, and I think I’ve chosen correctly, based off of the path right now. It doesn’t matter where you come from. If you’re good enough, you’ll get there. And if you work hard, you’ll get there and I think that’s something I’m trying to do and trying to show people with this.”

Marcucci wasn’t quite finished.

“You go to college and if you’re not a top, top player, you go to the college that is the best fit for you,” he said. “You get an education first, something my family has stressed. I’m so happy that they stressed that. You go and get your education. Connecticut College being in NESCAC, being a part of the small Ivy’s was just the perfect fit for myself. I think a lot of kids have to realize that soccer is only going to be a third of your life. Maybe go where in the best education as well for you.”

Few Division III players have been drafted or played in MLS.

One-time Williams College All-America defender Dan Calichman, a Huntington, N.Y. native who played with the New York Centaurs in the A-League LA Galaxy, New England Revolution and Chivas USA in MLS, is one of the most notable D-3 players.

Marcucci was the first Division III player to be drafted since midfielder Marshall Hollingsworth of Wheaton (Ill.) heard his name called with the 41st pick by Columbus Crew SC in 2016. He also was the third New England Small College Athletic Conference player selected. Former Williams College standouts Alex Blake and Khari Stephenson were taken by Colorado Rapids and Chicago Fire in 2003 and 2004, respectively.

Connecticut College head coach Reuben Burk admitted that “D-3 “sometimes gets looked down upon not having the greatest players.”

“How people are reacting is awesome because it’s opening their eyes and making them realize that there are there are good players in D-3, and there still is the pathway out there to go from D-3 to to professional soccer.

“I would be absolutely lying to you if I didn’t say AJ was a unique kid.  AJ went above and beyond. If you’re going to go from D3 to professional soccer, you have to stand out amongst your peers in some ways. You have to be a big fish in a small pond. AJ for multiple summers has played USL League Two. He’s always done extra work.”

Burk added that if a talented D-3 player wanted to make that giant jump to the pros soccer, “You have to have just a really unique mindset, never taking a day off your dream, never wavering from your dream because I think the dream dies early on in college if you’re at Division III. You look at the draft every year and it’s all high-profile Division I schools.”

The 6-3 Marcucci said started playing soccer when he was six or seven and didn’t play in the nets until he was 12.

“I wasn’t in good enough shape to play in the field. Let’s say that,” he said with a laugh.

He played with about 10 players who were slated to attend Division I schools, winning nine State Cups in Pennsylvania with Penn Fusion Academy and West Chester United.

The competition always was stiff.

“We always competed nationally against top teams,” Marcucci said. “So, I always had the mindset of being trying to be at the top with through high school and a club. But as soon as I got to college, I really didn’t think that this [pro soccer] would be an opportunity. But I love soccer and I love playing sports. I trained. I worked.”

Pete Carli, an American who played with the West Ham reserves and has been the goalkeeper coach at Connecticut College, influenced Marcucci.

“We knew the program. He was telling me I could do it,” he said.

Marcucci also is friends with Philadelphia Union backup goalkeeper Matt Freese, with whom he was a teammate at Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square, Pa. Freese was named to the U.S. men’s national team roster for Sunday’s game against Trinidad & Tobago in Orlando.

“He just really created a great bond and he’ s in my corner rooting for me,” Marcucci said. “He’s very happy and just telling me that I can do it, each and every time I talk to him. It’s just really important to me and it motivated me someone I look up to, goalkeeper-wise.”

At Connecticut College, Marcucci rose to the top.

From 2017-19, he started 54 of the side’s 55 matches en route to a 35-10-9 mark. He finished with a school-record 25 clean sheets and a 0.50 goals-against average.

He was named an NCAA Division All-America first team as the nation’s top Division III goalkeeper twice by the United Soccer Coaches in 2018 and 2019. He also was named the 2017 NESCAC rookie of the year and the 2018 conference player of the year.

Beyond the numbers, Burk remembered how well Marcucci performed in vital matches. That included when he stood on his head against national champion Tuft’s University to a tie and when Camel played No. 3 ranked Amherst College in 2019. Marcucci made several key saves in another draw.

“That was the first time the team had gone on the road to a top five team in the country and gotten a result, largely due to CJ,” Burk said.

Marcucci also backstopped the school to NCAA tournament victories over Catholic University, Johns Hopkins University and Swarthmore College in 2019. “He made the difference,” Burk said.

“For Division III, it’s very, very hard to recruit and develop an all-around polished goalkeeper,” he added, “a goalkeeper who can dominate his box and the air, a goalkeeper has the leg strength to drive the ball to the wings, the goalkeeper who knows when to come off this line and close down very quickly, a goalkeeper who can receive back passes and help facilitate building out of the pack. A goalkeeper that is highly proficient at everything is very uncommon at D-3.”

Burk said Marcucci’s “ability to do everything” stood out the most about the keeper.

“He made my life very easy as a young head coach because when teams tried to be very direct against us he could protect the box,” he said. “When teams tried break us down, he could help organize and help coach the defense. He was not afraid to speak up and voice his opinion on how the team should make adjustments. His athleticism stood out, his distribution. His feet stood out. His ability to win 90, 99 percent of crosses stood out. His consistency stood out. There’s only one or two times where AJ didn’t play exceptionally well. And I think that that’s remarkable.”

Marcucci, a math major with a concentration in statistics graduated from Connecticut College in December. So, he is ready to join the Red Bulls preseason training, whenever that begins.

His goals are simple.

“First and foremost, just make the team,” he said. “Second, just trying to get better every day. I don’t know where I’m going to be, or what’s going to happen but try and get better each and every day and seize the opportunity as it comes.”

Getting that unique and rare opportunity is a good start.

Front Row Soccer editor Michael Lewis has covered 13 World Cups (eight men, five women), seven Olympics and 25 MLS Cups. He has written about New York City FC, New York Cosmos, the New York Red Bulls and both U.S. national teams for Newsday and has penned a soccer history column for the Guardian.com. Lewis, who has been honored by the Press Club of Long Island and National Soccer Coaches Association of America, is the former editor of BigAppleSoccer.com. He has written seven books about the beautiful game and has published ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers. It is available at Amazon.com.