March 17, 2003

Stewart Looks to Build on Solid Rookie Season

March 17, 2003

by Joe Curcurio
Cyber Soccer News

DENVER, Colo - When Colorado Rapids head coach Tim Hankinson went to the 2002 MLS SuperDraft and took North Carolina defender Danny Jackson with the 16th overall pick, it wasn't much of a surprise. Jackson was the defensive anchor of the Tar Heels' college championship team and considered one of the best defenders in the draft.

But when Hankinson drafted Jeff Stewart -- the 19th player taken overall -- from the University of Santa Clara, many Rapids fans reacted and said: "Who?"

Yet Hankinson, who has a reputation for having one of the finest eyes for talent in MLS, was given the benefit of the doubt. When looking at Stewart's college career at Santa Clara, many accolades stood out: 2001 Preseason All-American, WCC Defender of the Year and All-League selection in 2000.

Little did Hankinson and Rapids fans know what they had acquired.

Stewart showed up to training camp, worked hard, and earned a spot on the team that traveled to Europe to play preseason matches against some of best teams in Portugal. And when Jackson had a nightmare couple of games in Portugal, in stepped Stewart to seize his chance to make the Rapid final 18-man roster.

What followed was a starting assignment in the Rapids' 2002 season opener against San Jose, and it continued with 19 more starts in a successful rookie campaign that included three assists. According to Stewart, he never really had a chance to dwell on what he had accomplished.

"It's hard to really know what's going on when you start right away 'cause you're just kind of thrown into everything," he explained. "Because everything goes so fast. You come out of college and you go right to preseason camp, and then we went to Portugal, and then Florida, then came back and the game was right away.

"So I finished off my college career in November, trained with the Quakes a little bit, and then got thrown right into it. So after I played a season and had a break, I was able to reflect on it better."

Just as you would expect from a rookie, Stewart had his ups and downs last season, but his play was solid enough to keep the highly-touted Jackson on the sidelines, where he only saw time in one Rapids match, playing 15 minutes. That said, Stewart knew the transition from college to pro wasn't going to be easy.

"The toughest part is getting to know a new team and getting to know everybody," Stewart said. "College is everyone going out and playing for the sake of a team. On the professional level, people are playing for their livelihood, they're playing for money.

"In college you're going out with your friends and playing a game. It's a different perspective. In MLS, the speed of play is definitely faster, more technical. Where in college you can get by on more athletic ability, you have to definitely be more technical here than in college."

Last season, there were rumors that all was not well in the Rapids camp. The fairly public spat between defender Rick Titus and Hankinson filled most of the headlines. But behind the scenes, accusations of selfishness among the players could be heard, taking a toll on team chemistry. When asked about how the team chemistry is this season, Stewart didn't hesitate: "Everyone is cool with each other."

"Everyone is fairly good friends, we get along," he continued. "There's nobody that really disrupts anything. Everybody's kind of looking out for everyone else, there's nobody on the team that's kind of 'I'm going to do my own thing and I don't care about everybody else, and I'm just in it for me.' Everybody wants to win as a team and do well. We have a sense of team. That's a real benefit to be a championship team."

So far this preseason, the Rapids are off to a great start. They recently finished the Florida leg of their preseason with a 6-1-0 record, including wins over their two biggest Western Conference rivals, L.A. and Dallas. Garnering all the headlines has been the spectacular play of rookie sixth-round draft choice Casey Schmidt, who has scored 10 goals already. But not far behind has been the solid play of Stewart, who has been moved from the right back position to the center of defense.

For Stewart, it's just another transition that he is taking in stride.

"Coach told me towards the end of last year that he was maybe looking at me in the middle," he explained. "I've played in the middle in my four years in college, and I played right back my first year here, so I feel pretty comfortable at both spots.

"For me, it's just getting in at whatever spot you're going to be playing in and getting some good time where you feel comfortable and you can adjust to all the little aspects of playing that particular position. But they're real similar, it's just one spot over. So a right back and center right back is not too different."

Hankinson has been delighted with Stewart's play so far this preseason: "Jeff's been playing great, a real animal back there."

Helping to ease the transition from right back to center back has been the influence of MLS veteran and former MLS Defender of the Year, Robin Fraser. It is something that isn't lost on the second-year defender.

"Robin's a great player," Stewart said. "He's been around for a long time and he knows what the league's about, knows how to play in the league. He's an experienced player and he can organize things in the back and take a leadership position and captaining the team right now."

But Fraser isn't the only player that is having an influence on Stewart, and the Rapids in general. The presence of Pablo Mastroeni and recent signing Gilles Grimandi in the center of midfield is also expected to shore up a defense that let in 48 goals in 2002, second worst in the league.

"It's great playing with Pablo, because you know he's going to work his butt off the whole game," Stewart said. "He's going to win balls in the middle and that helps out the whole team when you have a central player that can win balls and go forward and distribute. It's great playing with a guy that gets into the game like that and commits himself and plays both offense and defense.

"Gilles has a little knock right now and hasn't played much in Florida, but he's going to be a real asset to the team when he's on the field and in his form."

So with the additions of Grimandi and strikers Zizi Roberts and Schmidt, will 2003 be the Rapids' year? Stewart is hopeful.

"Definitely. It's still real early, but you know we're playing well," he said. "Obviously, the team goal would be to get to MLS Cup, and anything can happen there. It's looking good so far."

And what would he like to see out of himself this season?

"Personally, I'd like to be starting and score some goals this year."