FOX Soccer Exclusive
Familiar foes meet for bigger stakes
Their friendship isn’t likely to keep the pair from trying to make each other look bad when they do battle as professionals for the first time on Saturday when Schilawski’s New England Revolution take on Opara’s San Jose Earthquakes.
Zack Schilawski celebrates last weekend's hat trick against Toronto with teammates.
Jim Rogash / Getty Images
The two MLS first-round picks are coming off unforgettable matches, and must now face each other as they try to build on two of the most impressive rookie performances of the season.
Schilawski became only the third rookie in MLS history to score a hat-trick when he dropped three on Toronto FC in a 4-1 win last week in just his third professional match. Opara delivered his own stellar showing for the Earthquakes, playing strong defense and scoring the game-winning goal to help the Quakes upset the Chicago Fire at Toyota Park.
Opara, the No. 3 overall pick in the MLS Draft, and Schilawski, the No. 9 overall pick, are no strangers to playing against each other, having done so in training at Wake Forest for years. Their familiarity should make for a great matchup when New England visits Buck Shaw Stadium to take on a San Jose team trying to build off its surprising win vs. Chicago.
“He knows my tendencies, and I know his, but he’s very smart and he knows how to get away from defenders and find goal-scoring spots,” Opara said of Schilawski. “He’s not the biggest, he’s not the fastest, but he’s one of the smartest and one of the most hard-working players who I’ve played with.”
“The thing that’s frustrating for me is that he’s extremely athletic,” Schilawski said of Opara. “You think you have a half step on him and you have an opening to take a shot, then next thing you know his legs are coming out and poking the ball away or deflecting the shot.
“It’s not all just athletic ability,” Schilawski said. “He’s intelligent, he knows what’s going through your mind and tries to set you up to take shots and passes that he can stop.”
The last time the former teammates faced off was on the final day of the MLS Combine in January. It was a day cut short for Opara by a hard challenge by none other than Schilawski, who Opara acknowledges is a pain for defenders to play against.
MLS: June 23-25
|Thursday, June 23|
|Saturday, June 25|
|San Jose||0-0||LA Galaxy||Recap|
|Real Salt Lake||3-1||Toronto||Recap|
|Sunday, June 26|
|MLS Scores | Table | Fixtures|
“If I wasn’t on his team I probably would have hated him on college,“ Opara said. “He’s one of those forwards you don’t like playing against. He never stops moving and he won’t mind kicking you either.”
The two rookies have stepped onto teams where they have been needed to play immediately and both have impressed right away. Opara’s freakish athleticism has helped him make a smooth transition to the pro game, while Schilawski’s penchant for smart runs and clinical finishing ability have helped him slide in and give the Revolution the goal-scoring threat the team has needed in the absence of injured star striker Taylor Twellman.
The rookie experience has been eventful and memorable for both Opara and Schilawski since they were both selected in the first round of January’s MLS Draft (they were two of four Wake Forest players selected in the first round). Opara’s run with San Jose has been made even more taxing due to the fact that he is still attending classes at Wake Forest, and making the cross-country commute to San Jose every week.
Opara informed MLS teams before the draft that he intended to finish school, but San Jose has worked around that commitment, flying Opara back-and-forth.
“I definitely wouldn’t have imagined I would be doing this,” Opara said about what must be the longest commute in MLS.
“It’s a great group of guys and they’ve been great with me. I’ve tried to take a real business-like approach to this whole thing because this is the pros, it’s not college anymore.
“The experience is one that not many people get to go through and for me, I think I’ve done well and I’m enjoying it.”
Schilawski’s rookie season has been a bit easier to deal with, though it did get off to a rough start. On draft day, Schilawski made the mistake of thanking the wrong team for drafting him (He thanked the Columbus Crew, which had the pick before New England‘s).
“It was embarrassing at the time, for sure, but as far as people giving me grief about it I think it actually hasn’t been such a bad thing,” Schilawski said.
“It’s been a bit of an icebreaker. The guys gave me a hard time for it and had a laugh, including the coaching staff, so nobody took it too seriously.
“I guess I was so excited and so happy just to have a team to play on that maybe it wasn’t important at that point what team it was,” Schilawski said. “My mind went blank and the first thing that came to mind was the pick before that.
“As soon as it came out of my mouth I knew it was wrong so I tried to correct myself as soon as possible.”
Schilawski more than made up for that blooper last weekend, when he sent Revs fans home happy with a hat-trick and a 4-1 victory. For a goal scorer like Schilawski, that first goal of his pro career was not just special, but a weight off his shoulders.
“For the past three or four weeks leading up to it that was on my mind all the time, getting that first professional goal,” Schilawski. “It was a relief to get that first one but after that it was exciting because it was a game we needed to win.”
The hat trick led to plenty of congratulatory phone calls and text messages, including one text from Opara, who wasted no time pointing out that Schilawski wouldn’t be scoring a hat trick this week in San Jose.
Whether it is Opara or Schilawski who gets the better of their battle this weekend, it is clear that the match-up will be a fun one to watch between two of the brightest young talents in MLS.
Ives Galarcep is FoxSoccer.com's newest senior writer who will be covering U.S. Soccer and MLS.