Oct. 7, 2002
by Ridge Mahoney
Soccer America Senior Editor
No rookie has logged more minutes in MLS than Colorado defender Jeff Stewart. A relative unknown when drafted out of Santa Clara in the second round, the Rapids rookie defender is a poster child of perseverance.
It's never been harder for a rookie to step into the starting ranks.
Contraction down to 10 teams and the reduction of rosters to 18 players have sharpened competition for spots. Those young men coming out of college have to battle rivals seasoned by international experience and/or stints in the A-League.
One poster child of perseverance in 2002 has been Colorado defender Jeff Stewart.
He's among those few college boys lacking the glittering credentials of an World Youth Championship or A-League honors - as in Rapids teammate Rick Titus - who come out of the blue each season to log a lot of minutes.
''He's a player no one knew a whole lot about,'' says teammate Pablo Mastroeni. ''He has a real determination to succeed, and he had that from the first day he showed up.''
When Stewart showed up after being chosen in the second round of the 2002 SuperDraft, the Rapids coaches had him at central defender, which is the position he played at Santa Clara University.
That's where he labored in preseason until veteran Imad Baba - penciled in at right back - decided to pass up a trip to Portugal to stay in the United States with his expectant wife.
Opportunity had come knocking.
''We had not even considered Jeff as a right back because in college he was a center back, but he did so well, we started the season that way,'' says Rapids coach Tim Hankinson.
Colorado has switched formations, ridden through injuries to several of its top players, beaten the defending champs by three goals and been riddled by the other 2001 finalist by four in a season typical of roller-coaster craziness in the post-contraction era.
MOVING UP. Through it all, or at least most of it, Stewart has toiled in the back. With two games left in the season, he had started 20 of 21 matches played, logging more minutes than any other rookie in MLS.
''I got brought along real well,'' says Stewart. ''I started most of the games we played in Portugal, so that helped a lot. The [pre-draft] combine was a step up from college, then I had some time to adjust in preseason, and went to Portugal, which was another half-step up. That's how I've been successful. I've been able to adjust to each level.''
He's also adjusted to a man-marking system instituted by Hankinson during the season as well as the pace, pressure and punishment of the pro game.
If anyone is doing the punishing, it's probably Stewart.
''Jeff has done all the right things to this point: His professionalism and his concentration for 90 minutes during games,'' says Rapids assistant coach Paul Bravo, a Santa Clara product who keeps close tabs on his alma mater through ex-teammates Cameron Rast and Eric Yamamoto, the current Bronco brain trust. ''Technically, he's clean for a defender, and he's hard as nails. Some of the hits he laid on players are clean as can be, but he lives for that stuff.''
Baba, who eventually retired, was not the sole competition beaten back by Stewart.
Danny Jackson had captained North Carolina to the 2001 NCAA Division I title and been drafted by Colorado three picks ahead of Stewart.
Jackson, an Englishman, started every one of his 76 collegiate appearances and was a first team All-American as a senior. The Rapids also drafted defender Bryn Ritchie (Washington) right after Stewart and in March signed Titus, the 2001 A-League Defender of the Year and a veteran of the minor leagues in the United States and Canada.
At 33, Titus is a first-year MLS player. Stewart turned 22 in June.
Stewart had been West Coast Conference Defender of the Year as a junior in 2000 and had played on Region IV teams with Revs defender Nick Downing while growing up in Bellevue, Wash.
He kept a starting spot when Hankinson changed from a four-man back line to a three-man system in the throes of some bad losses.
''We went through games we were giving up too many goals, so we made the change,'' says Hankinson of an early-season run that included four straight losses in which the Rapids conceded 12 goals. ''That really fits Jeff's game better. He likes to tackle, and he loves contact. In another sport, he'd probably be a linebacker.''
In truth, Stewart played little competitive football. His thirst for mixing it up probably is inherited from his father, Doug Stewart, who played collegiate rugby at UC Santa Barbara and enjoyed roughousing with his only son on the living-room rug.
''Starting when I was 8 or 10, he'd take me down, and we'd wrestle,'' says Jeff Stewart. ''He'd grind his head into my ear and try to give me cauliflower ears. I think I can take him now. I turned the tables after my freshman year of college, when I bulked up from 155 [pounds] to 170 or 175.''
UPS AND DOWNS. Surviving the rigors of a first pro season demands dealing with the mental as well as the physical.
Coaches and players speak of ''The Wall'' into which rookies run at about the time their college seasons would have finished. A four-month campaign peters out before the MLS All-Star break.
''At about that time, he had a muscle injury, so we started going with Stephen Herdsman,'' says Hankinson. ''Jeff kind of found himself on the outside, but it allowed him to recover, and he's back in the picture.''
When Colorado thumped San Jose, 3-0, in late August, Stewart played a solid if not perfect game.
He stuffed Manny Lagos with a shuddering tackle in the penalty area, deflected a goalbound header by Ariel Graziani, and headed away a dangerous far-post cross bound for Dwayne DeRosario.
Stewart also gave away a ball and an instant later Landon Donovan had volleyed just wide on a flighted crossfield pass. Concentration lapse. Oops.
''In college, probably no striker was quicker or more athletic than Jeff,'' says Hankinson. ''But here there are talented, dynamic players that are a big challenge.''
In the next game, Stewart and his mates were toasted by New England, 3-1. The following match against Dallas, Stewart sat out his first MLS suspension. The Rapids won, 3-2.
He'd been through it already. It's all part of the process.
''We beat up on San Jose, but the game before that we got punked [0-4] in L.A.,'' he says. ''I don't dwell on any games, even the ones we win. It's great, but you're looking at the next game. The marking system makes it simple. You have this guy, and if he scores, it's your ass. I don't mind the 1-v-1 battles at all, and if we can get goals playing in that system, it's great.''
Some of the Rapids' inconsistencies can be traced to the absences of offensive catalyst John Spencer and midfield stalwart Mastroeni, as well as the changes around defensive linchpin Robin Fraser.
''Robin is right there in the back helping me, and Spenny is a great captain,'' says Stewart. ''He'll shake his fist at anyone. The older players talk to me straight-up. They don't beat around the bush. All you want is some honest feedback.''
That's all, along with all the minutes a rookie can handle.