Keeper keeps his eyes on prize

“Made great effort to hold his box while taking a few kicks to the face.”

What might sound like the testimony of a police officer is, in fact, a description of Bulls’ goalkeeper Troy Perkins’ performance for the Professional Development League’s Cape Cod Crusaders, whom Perkins helped capture the PDL national championship in 2002.

Putting your face where the cleats are flying is only part of the job description for what is arguably the loneliest position in team sports.

From different skills and different training regimes right down to wearing a different jersey than his teammates, there is something about the nature of goalkeeping that sets its practitioners apart. While field players’ mistakes are usually lost within the ebb and flow of the game, goalkeepers walk the tightrope, knowing a single error invariably costs a goal.

Even when his teammates are celebrating a goal 90 yards away from the scene of jubilation, the keeper celebrates alone.It is little wonder that goalkeepers have long been euphemistically characterized as eccentric, something that Perkins accepts as having some truth.

“I know you want to say ‘crazy,'” Perkins said. “You kind of have to be (since) everyone yells at you if you mess up just once.”

So, what was it that enticed an athletically gifted youngster to don the green jersey and take guard between the posts? Perkins, who played as a field player until he was 14, cites an affinity with the independence and self-reliance that the specialist position entails.

“(As a goalkeeper) no one else is responsible except for you,” Perkins said. “I like that. It’s the way I live my life.”

And as his sporting resume attests, Perkins has never been one to duck responsibility.

“All the sports I’ve played, I’ve played that single position. In baseball, I played catcher; in football, I played quarterback,” he said.

That same mental strength manifests itself in his resilience to criticism, something the junior does not always detect in his teammates.

“There are a lot of field players that I’ve played with in many years who, if you yell at them, they’ve completely lost their game,” he said. “I know that I can take it. Coaches say things to me knowing I’m not going to go off the deep end and lose my head.”Bulls’ assistant coach Jim Felix agrees.

“That’s what makes him such a quality goalkeeper – if he does make a mistake, he brushes it off,” Felix said. “Mentally, he’s as solid as it gets.”

To the chagrin of Bulls’ coach George Kiefer, many of his teammates took a sabbatical from soccer over the summer. Perkins instead headed north to play his second season for the Massachusetts-based Cape Cod Crusaders in the PDL.

Organized by Mass Pro Soccer, the PDL is part of the program to develop soccer in the United States. Although amateur, it is regarded as one of the highest-profile leagues in the United States outside of MLS.

Comprised of 37 teams in six regional divisions, the league serves as a testing ground for outstanding young players and consequently attracts scouts from professional leagues around the world.

“We had some representatives from English Premier League teams and the French league. Everywhere you go, there’s always someone watching,” Perkins said.

Perkins’ involvement with the Cape Cod Crusaders came about through Felix’s acquaintance with the Crusaders’ general manager, Joe Bradley, whom Felix coached at Harvard. Felix’s other recommendations from the ranks of the Bulls, Jason Cudjoe, Simba Harris and Aaron Ortega, didn’t stick, but Perkins, after a first season with the Crusaders spent alternating as first choice, returned in 2002, resolved to make the starting position his.

“I went back, and I just thought, ‘I don’t care. I’m taking the position,” said Perkins. “I was named captain after the first game, and all summer long, they showed confidence in me.”

Although he was unaware of it at the time, the Ohio native’s determination spared him the fate of watching his team clinch the national championship from the bench. After finishing second in their division, victories over Raleigh CASL Elite and Williamsburg Legacy gave the Crusaders the Eastern Conference title and qualification for the national semifinals.

Ironically for Perkins, the semifinal brought him back to Florida for a narrow 3-2 victory over the Bradenton Academics. The Crusaders clinched the national championship with a 2-1 overtime win against Boulder Rapids Reserve in a game televised by Fox Sports World.

Perkins has a tape recording of the final, but it is the memories from on the field that are etched in his mind.

“When you win a championship, it seems like that whole season is slowed down. You remember every moment,” he said. “There’s specific saves in each game that teeter-totter how the game was going to end up, and I think about those moments every day. It makes you keep thinking and keep working to do that here.”

Bradley said that Perkins had every right to feel proud of his contribution to the Crusaders’ championship success.

“We saw a great improvement in his game over the course of the last 12 months,” said Bradley. “He was instrumental in our run to the national championships. I remember he made two world-class saves in the final to take the game to overtime.”

Although the PDL is run as a competitive league, in contrast to the results-orientated nature of college soccer, its strong emphasis on enhancing players’ abilities was a breath of fresh air for Perkins.

“Colleges are stressing so much on winning and getting so far and not tactical and technical improvement of players,” said Perkins. “In this league, that’s all you do – develop.”

In addition to the training they receive, PDL players are assisted with accommodation and provided with sports equipment. For Perkins, the experience was a tantalizing glimpse into the life of a professional soccer player, which he aspires to be.

But with MLS’s long-term financial viability in doubt and the European Community only granting work visas to players who have represented their countries at senior level, Perkins is fully aware that the opportunities to further his soccer career are severely limited.

“In the back of your mind it’s like ‘Why am I doing this? It’s not going to get you anywhere,'” Perkins said. “But that dream and that goal are still there. That if you keep going and keep working, you’re going to get there eventually.”

Bradley views Perkins, nicknamed “Trigger” by the Crusaders’ British contingent after a character from the sitcom Only Fools and Horses, as a definite MLS prospect.

“He was captain of the squad and set a tremendous example to the rest of the payers,” he said. “He desires to be professional, and he goes about it in the right way.”

With access to a specialist goalkeeper trainer only one day a week, Perkins is forced to rely on his own judgment and advice from the Bulls’ other goalkeepers, Clayton Spriet and Dane Brenner, to continue honing his skills.

It is a situation on which the Bulls’ first choice harbors mixed emotions.

“It would be great to have a goalkeeper trainer working with you every day technically, tactically, but in America, it’s hard,” he said. “But I’ve actually never had a permanent goalkeeper trainer so it fits the way I’ve always trained.”

Despite this impediment, Felix feels the coaching Perkins has received throughout his career allied with his insatiable work ethic has culminated in an outstanding player with genuine prospects of making the transition to the professional game.

“At this stage there’s just little things that you’ve got to tweak on him to get him to the next level,” said Felix. “There’s no doubt he’ll make the next level.”

When pressed, Perkins, whose work ethic motivated him to come to USF where the weather permits him to train all year, offers a modest appraisal of his abilities, citing shot stopping and communication as his main strengths.

“I want to sit here and say everything is my strength, but I know there are so many weaknesses,” he said. “Adjusting to the game and reading the game a lot better are what I think I really need to work on.”

Whether Perkins will realize his ambitions and make the transition to the professional game remains to be seen, but, amidst all those kicks to the head, the junior has found a way to translate the disappointments that accompany his chosen position into something positive.

“When I was younger it was like every goal was like devastation – you break your heart,” he said. “But as you get older (you realize) it’s a learning situation. Even at a professional level you see goalkeepers making horrible mistakes, but then they learn from that, and they won’t do it again.”