Oct. 3, 2013
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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Not until Jordan Allen arrived at the University of Virginia for preseason practice in early August could men's soccer coach George Gelnovatch finally relax, secure in the knowledge that his team would have the wondrously gifted Allen for at least one season.
A 5-11 midfielder who's been a fixture on U.S. national age-group teams, Allen signed a letter of intent with UVa in February and attended first-year orientation there in early July. "But even that's not a guarantee," Gelnovatch said recently. "You never know, because I've been through this before with Shane O'Neill."
O'Neill, a heralded recruit who was expected to enroll at Virginia last year, instead signed a contract with Major League Soccer's Colorado Rapids in June 2012 and never made it to Charlottesville.
Allen might have followed a similar career path after graduating from Aquinas Institute in his hometown of Rochester, N.Y. Not only did he have a contract offer from the MLS club Real Salt Lake, he traveled to Northern Ireland in late July with the U.S. under-18 team to play in the prestigious Milk Cup tournament. So UVa coaches also worried that a European pro team might pursue Allen this summer.
"You never know," Gelnovatch said, "and you can't blame a kid, because you never know at the midnight hour what kind of contract is put in front of him."
Fortunately for UVa, Allen chose college. He's started every game this season for a team that's 4-0-1 since suffering a one-goal loss at No. 20 Wake Forest on Sept. 13.
When he committed to the Cavaliers as a high school junior in October 2011, Allen recalled, he wasn't sure "exactly what direction I was heading in, so I wanted to make sure that no matter what I had a solid option, and I thought Virginia was the right place for it."
With high school behind him, Real Salt Lake's offer was tempting, Allen said, but "it was already stuck in my parents' mind and my mind that I wanted to at least come here and make the decision once I was here and embedded in the school, so I didn't turn away something that I didn't even know was out there."
The next opportunity for fans to see Allen in action comes Friday night, when UVa (5-3-1, 1-2-1) hosts ACC newcomer Pittsburgh (0-5-2, 0-4) in a 7 o'clock game at Klöckner Stadium. With seven points (on two goals and three assists), Allen is tied with sophomore forward Darius Madison for second on the team in scoring. (Junior midfielder Eric Bird leads the Wahoos with 11 points.)
"I've had some talented first-year guys in here," Gelnovatch said, including Alecko Eskandarian and Will Bates. "I think Jordan fits into that kind of super talent as a first-year guy."
In the Cavaliers' 4-4-2 formation, Allen is usually on the left side, but "he plays narrow and he plays wide," Gelnovatch said. "He drifts in and out of what I call seams and makes it really tough for the other team to figure out where he is. He's not always wide. Sometimes he comes in the middle. Sometimes he's a little higher. Sometimes he comes back for the ball.
"So he's floating in these places where when he gets it in those little gaps and can turn and run at people, it causes all sorts of problems."
What's unique about Allen, Gelnovatch said, "more than anybody that I've ever had, I think, is the young professionalism about him, the way he takes care of his body, his body language and demeanor, his mental toughness. Loves to train. Loves to work hard. Loves getting up early and being [at practice]. Gets in the cold tank. He has all these things that most young guys take time to develop. And when you have the physical talent and tools that he has, and you have this young professional mentality that he has, he's got a pretty good package."
Allen said: "I think that's something that I actually developed when I was in residency with the U17 national team. I was around different players that had the same goals that I did and were at a level that I wasn't at. So I wanted to get to their level, and I've been working on the little things like that to help me get there."
He long ago established himself as one of the nation's most promising young players. Allen has represented the United States at the U14, U15, U17 and U18 levels, sometimes as team captain.
Allen, who turns 19 in April, did not have a typical high school experience. He spent the ninth grade and the first half of his sophomore year at Aquinas. Then he moved to Bradenton, Fla., and attended IMG Academy as part of the residency program for the national U17 team.
After six months in Florida, Allen relocated to Arizona, where he attended school and played in Real Salt Lake's academy. Finally, he returned to Aquinas for his final semester of high school.
Soccer has taken him overseas to such places as Italy, Holland, Portugal, Germany, Romania, Jamaica and, most recently, the United Kingdom. The sport has kept him so busy that the orientation session in July marked Allen's first visit to UVa in nearly two years.
"I was never even actually able to make my official visit here," he said, "because I was having trips to different places every single weekend, to the point where I didn't even have a weekend off to schedule a visit here."
His love of soccer came naturally. His father, Howard Allen, is a native of Jamaica who left that country to play for Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester. The elder Allen later played for the Rochester Rhinos, the local pro team, and remains active in soccer.
"He's been coaching ever since I was born, also, so I'd always go on trips with the teams and be around the sport at all times," said Allen, whose mother, Melissa, is a former swimmer who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y.
The Pitt game will be UVa's seventh match in 22 days. The college schedule, Allen admits, has been a grind for him.
"When I was in Arizona, I was playing six days a week, just like I am here," he said. "But the difference was that it was one game a week, compared to the two here. So that extra game each week is something new that I have to get used to."
He's already made memories that will last a lifetime. Against NC State at Klöckner on Sept. 20, Virginia trailed 2-0 with 16 minutes left in the second half. Then came a stunning comeback that began when Allen assisted Madison on a goal in the 75th minute.
The `Hoos pulled to 2-2, only to give up a goal in the 87th minute. With six seconds left on the clock, however, junior defender Matt Brown scored an improbable goal to make it 3-3, and that's how the game ended after two overtime periods.
"Never have I played in a game like that," Allen said. "I don't think I'll ever play in a game like that again. I don't think I'll ever forget that game, either, because it was crazy, just from start to finish."
As for college life, it's "definitely a different experience than what I'm used to," said Allen, who rooms with Sheldon Sullivan, a freshman defender from Stafford. "Even though I've lived away from home, kind of on my own a little bit, I have a lot more freedom here than I did before. I definitely have to work on staying disciplined. It's challenging me, which I like."
How long he'll remain at UVa is uncertain, but Allen intends to graduate from college, even if it's not a four-year process. Virginia has a degree-completion program to which student-athletes who leave school early can apply. Eskandarian, who starred for the `Hoos in the early 2000s, returned to Charlottesville and finished work on his bachelor's degree in 2011.
Of the players who have started at least five games for the Cavaliers this season, seven are sophomores, and Allen's classmates include forward Riggs Lennon, defender Patrick Foss and midfielder Nicko Corriveau, all of whom figure prominently in Gelnovatch's long-term plans. That UVa is likely to field powerful teams in 2014 and `15 is not lost on Allen.
"With the players we have now, you would think for sure we'll at least get into one Final Four," he said. "So that's something that makes me think about what I want to do, as far as the future. I know that no matter how long I do stay here, I'm still going to be around quality players, playing at a high level."
A passionate Arsenal fan, Allen hopes to play professionally in Europe one day, as well as for the U.S. senior national team. In the meantime, he's determined not to waste any of his time at UVa.
Allen sat down with associate head coach Matt Chulis in August to discuss goals for the 2013 season.
"Right off the bat he was saying that I should be aiming for ACC freshman of the year and All-American, stuff like that," Allen said. "So that's really pushed me to make sure that I'm making the most of every game that I've played this year.
"That's why I was really bothered with myself the other night [after UVa's 4-0 win over Providence], because I didn't feel that I did that. So it's something that's in the back of my mind: keep pushing myself to get better each game and make the most of the experience while I'm here."
His perfectionism extends beyond the soccer pitch. A grade he received on a recent test displeased Allen, and he wanted to ensure it didn't happen again.
"That's why I'm in study hall all day today," Allen said, smiling.