A breath of freshman air

This is Joris Claessens’ first year playing for the USF men’s soccer team, but the way he’s been playing so far he’s looking more like a senior.

Claessens, 18, has scored three goals through nine games, including a game winner against Big East rival Georgetown.

Claessens was also named to the Soccer America National Team of the Week for the week that ended Sept. 18 and has been the starting defender for USF in every match the team has played this year.

“Joris is interesting because he’s really experienced,” junior goalkeeper Dane Brenner said.

“He’s a freshman, but he doesn’t play like a freshman; he plays with experience. He plays with some knowledge of the game.”

Claessens, born in Herentals, Belgium, came to America when he was 11 years old and had already started playing the sport at an early age.

“I’ve been playing soccer pretty much my whole life,” Claessens said. “I used to play tennis, but soccer is really my true passion.”

Claessens played soccer for Lake Mary High School in Orlando and, as a defender, helped propel his team to the 2002-03 state finals. He also earned three varsity letters while in high school and was named Student of the Year for 2002-03.

Claessens made a trip back to Belgium to play for the OHL Under-18 team, and although he did not play that much due to a torn MCL, he still gained invaluable knowledge about the game and life in general.

“It’s one of my best experiences, you know, just living by yourself – the culture – it was a good experience,” he said.

Claessens comes from a sports-oriented family: Both his parents are physical therapists, one sister, Astrid, was a member of the University of Central Florida cross-country and track team while his other sister Judith plays soccer for the University of North Florida.

Coach George Kiefer knew Claessens was special the moment he laid eyes on him.

“We knew when we recruited him we had someone special,” said Kiefer, who’s in his fourth year as coach of USF. “We watched him for 15 minutes and knew we wanted him. And I’m happy to see that’s panning out to be the right call and that he’s doing well.”

Kiefer claims that not only is Claessens invaluable on defense, he helps out the offense as well.

“He’s very good coming forward,” Kiefer said. “He’s also a threat on our restarts; he’s got some goals off of restarts. If a team allows him to shoot from 35 yards, he’s been proven to hit those as well. He’s good defensively, and he’s scoring goals.”

Claessens said he has learned a lot since joining Kiefer and the Bulls at USF.

“It’s a good level of soccer,” Claessens said. “We push ourselves, play quicker, just like the way we did when I played in Belgium.”

The freshman from overseas hopes that his team can continue its recent success and contend not only for the Big East championship, but also for the NCAA trophy.

“If you’re gonna go for it, go for it,” Claessens said.

Claessens said he would like to continue playing soccer after his collegiate career is over, possibly for a professional team in his home country.

“Anywhere, really; I’m not too picky,” Claessens said. “But I’m shooting for (Belgium).”