Born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey, Atakan Ozturk knows how to navigate the streets of a city that is known as the gateway between Europe and Asia and boasts a population of more than 15 million people.
As a graduate student forward for the Mount St. Mary’s men’s soccer team, Ozturk lives in Emmitsburg. Population: 2,770.
Still, it’s a refreshing change of pace for Ozturk.
“It’s like heaven to me,” he said. “I love the location of the school. We’re in the middle of the forest, and the only thing you can focus on is soccer, which is your job. So I love it.”
Ozturk is one of five international players who comprise half of a 10-member class that is new to the program this season. And all five international players are graduate students who hail from Europe.
In addition to Ozturk, midfielder Lans Bovenberg, forward Ruben Kiers and goalkeeper Roman Woodall are from the Netherlands and midfielder Ondrej Soukup grew up in the Czech Republic. Several of those players have made immediate contributions. Kiers leads the team in goals with three and ranks second in points with seven, Soukup has added one goal and one assist, and Ozturk has one assist. That trio and Bovenberg have combined to make 16 starts.
The international players have helped the Mountaineers enjoy a 4-3 start, already exceeding last year’s three-win total and tying last year’s 11-goal total. Last week, the team edged UMBC, 1-0, for the program’s first victory in the series since Oct. 8, 1997, ending a 16-game drought against the Retrievers while handing them their first loss after a 4-0-1 start.
Coach Bryan Cunningham said the group of international players has set an example for their younger Mount St. Mary’s teammates.
“Because they are very smart kids both academically and soccer-wise, they picked up on our phases of play that we do in training, and they just kind of bought in right away,” he said. “One of the things we talked to them during the recruiting process was, ‘Hey, this is how we’re going to play, and the faster you buy in, the more of an impact you’re going to have on the field,’ and to be fair, that’s what’s good about 22- and 23-year-olds. They leave their egos at the door, they come in, and they buy into what we’re doing.”
Many of the players found their way to the Mountaineers through recruiting companies or prominent coaches in the soccer community. Due to travel restrictions, Cunningham said he never attended games involving the five players, settling instead for watching them play live via stream.
Cunningham said he and assistant coaches Daniel O’Rourke and Tommy Sidleck sought to get familiar with each of the five international players during the recruiting process.
“Before we talked scholarships or anything like that, we really spent a full month just having phone conversations with them just trying to make sure they were a fit for our culture and that they really understood what playing in our program is all about,” he said. “We were very fortunate.”
Leaving family, friends and home would seem difficult, but many of the players said they had no reservations about crossing the Atlantic Ocean to play at a small Roman Catholic university.
“I was pretty excited about a new experience,” said Soukup, who hails from Mníšek pod Brdy in the Czech Republic. “So I wasn’t nervous or anything like that.”
Many of the players said they haven’t gotten homesick because they talk to their family frequently and because their schedules are packed with coursework from the master of business administration program, soccer practices and games and campus life. Ozturk had another reason for not giving into the pangs of home.
“I’m here for a purpose, and I’m focused on it,” he said. “I don’t let emotions put me down.”
As universal as soccer is, the international players acknowledged that there are differences between the sport in Europe and America.
“There’s a lot more running, and it’s more physical,” Kiers said of the American version. “But I think it has its advantages for me as a European player to experience both. It’s an advantage to grow up in Europe to experience the more technical side of football, but it’s also good to experience the more physical side. It makes you a better player.”
In some ways, soccer has been the easiest aspect of this chapter in their lives. Speaking English daily and finding authentic native dishes in Frederick County can be draining. Even buying groceries and getting to and from practice was a chore until graduate student defender Ammit Bhogal offered them rides around campus.
“I help them as much as I can off the field because on the field, their quality is unbelievable,” Bhogal said. “But I think it’s off the field where they’re adjusting to their new lives because everyone is away from home and some of the guys may even be homesick. I just want to help them in any way that I can — whether that’s taking them out for groceries or teaching them American slang or trying different foods”
Ozturk said one difference he and the other international players have embraced is the encouragement they have received from their American teammates.
“In Europe, people don’t have patience. When you make one or two mistakes, you’re done,” he said. “Here, they know your value, and they support you when you’re down because no one can be at his or her best all the time. You have ups and downs. In Europe, they don’t support you that much when you’re down. But here, I can say that in a positive way, you feel that support all the time, and it’s a good thing.”
Cunningham said he thinks the players’ adaptation might have been more difficult if they were freshmen and sophomores.
“They’re just mature,” he said. “They were all recruited for a purpose, and they just know how to come in and do their jobs. They’re all very disciplined, and they take care of their bodies, eat right, sleep right. … I think they’re really helping the younger players by showing how much of a calm presence they have on the field and in the locker room and in training every day.”
While the gains on the field are nice, Soukup said the objective is to capture the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title, which would be the program’s first at the Division I level.
“That’s a good start to the season, but we have to keep working because to be honest, we were kind of lucky in some games,” he said. “In some games, we were outplayed by our opponent, but our goalkeeper made some saves, or maybe thanks to some luck, we won. So we have to keep working, and we have to improve in some areas because we want to be good in the conference.”
MOUNT ST. MARY’S@FAIRFIELD
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