BY ADAM ROGAN
After anchoring Drake Men’s Soccer’s defense for the past four years and scoring a crucial goal in the Bulldogs’ NCAA Tournament victory in 2015, Alec Bartlett has moved on to the next level of competitive soccer.
A 2015 Drake graduate and four-year starting center-back defender, Bartlett signed a professional contract with Charlotte Independence in the early months of 2016.
Although his playing time with the Independence may have been limited thus far, appearing in three of his new team’s first four games, Bartlett is already encountering and adjusting to the heightened expectations as a professional, while still remembering the lessons he learned as a Bulldog.
How he got there
“It’s definitely a much faster game (compared to college),” Bartlett said. “You have to be mentally prepared to think ahead, to try and see plays before they happen. Sometimes in college you can get away with just being a bigger, faster, stronger kid.”
That physicality is something Bartlett has been able to rely on in college. Standing at an imposing 6-foot-4 and weighing in around 200 pounds, he was a force to be reckoned with by opposing attackers because of his ability to close down on breaking opponents quickly and force them off the ball — not to mention his presence on free balls played into the air.
After spending a year as a redshirt at Creighton, Bartlett transferred to Drake and found consistent playing time immediately. He started 19 games in 2012 and was named to the conference All-Freshman team. Since then, he added another 59 starts in the three seasons that followed, more than any other Bulldog over that span. He’s been named to first-team all-conference twice and was team captain his senior year.
“When he first joined the (Drake men’s soccer) program you could see he had some innate leadership qualities,” said Gareth Smith, Drake Men’s Soccer head coach. “He just wasn’t too sure how to utilize those.”
One of the ways Bartlett grew into a leader was through coaching the backline, to James Grunert in particular.
As a leader
When Bartlett began playing at Drake as a sophomore, Grunert was on the sidelines as a redshirted freshman. The two developed a friendship on and off the field over the years that followed and have stayed in touch, despite the 1,050 miles that now separate the former teammates. Their relationship began with Bartlett’s mentoring of Grunert as fellow center backs, simultaneously learning the same lessons in college soccer.
“He was always kind of at that position that was right above me; he’s one year older than I am, he’s a little bit bigger,” Grunert said. “I really look up to him. He kind of took me under his wing and everything that he’s done so far, he’s taught me along the way. I really appreciate everything he’s done in that aspect.”
Grunert lauded not only Bartlett’s ability to lead and excel at soccer, but also his extensive steadfastness, from faith to family to friendships, while also planning to attend medical school someday.
“He’s so open-minded and so committed to all of those things,” Grunert said, “I think that that is just another stepping stone for him.”
Bartlett’s presence was especially felt down the stretch in Drake’s 2015 Missouri Valley Conference Championship run and NCAA Tournament win. The Drake defense didn’t give up any goals in the MVC Tournament and only allowed the Kentucky Wildcats, a team that had been ranked 17th in the nation entering the match, to score once in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
He also scored an early goal against Kentucky, utilizing his superior size by battling for a free ball on a corner kick played into the box. That initial shot was saved, but Bartlett collected his own rebound to put the ball in the back of the net and gave Drake a 1-0 lead in a game that would end 2-1.
“Last year’s success puts us in the national limelight,” Smith said. “When he showed that he was capable of winning and competing at that level, it gives his ability a little more credibility.”
That work ethic is what helped Bartlett improve both his own skills and his team over the past four years. That progression played a large role in Bartlett’s advancement to the professional level, as did the support of those around him.
“Drake taught me so many great lessons,” Bartlett said. “Coach Smith and his staff were always good about mentoring me. A lot of this wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for my coaches, my teammates and my family.”
That support seems to be well placed, as Bartlett continues to exceed expectations and acheive his goals.
“He has a lot of natural ability, but he’s a very driven young man who when he sets his ambitions high he usually ends up with high achievements as well,” Smith said. “He spent a lot of time trying to understand how to manage the collective unit as opposed to just being a good individual performer. Over the last year, he’s been able to work on how he influences his backline and how he manages his backline in relation to the team. I think he’s matured a lot in that sense.”
In addition to his effort, Drake’s soccer program — built up by the connections that Smith and the other assistant coaches have in the soccer community — has worked in helping him find an entryway onto professional clubs.
“As a program,” Smith said. “We’ve been more intentional in reaching out to those professional programs and exposing our players to that level.”
Changes in Charlotte
The Independence are a member of the United Soccer League (USL), a minor league affiliate of the Colorado Rapids in the Major League Soccer’s (MLS), America’s highest level of professional soccer.
As the Charlott’s fifth-youngest player and sixth defender, Bartlett is still fighting to get more playing time.
In the hopes of being tabbed to play more and have a chance of moving up to the MLS, Bartlett will need to improve a couple pieces of his game. Primarily, he’s working on improving his off-ball positioning and “refining the fundamentals.”
“I’ve adjusted well, but there are some things I need to pick up in my game,” he said. “Being able to multitask, being able to organize my team, being able to organize the guys in front of me, as well as position myself correctly based on where the ball is and based on where other people are running.”
Besides the speed of the game, the biggest adjustment for Bartlett has been transitioning from his role as team captain and one of the oldest members on his team to one of the youngest and least experienced.
“(The pros) have a very steep learning curve and so he has to take in both the information he’s getting at the level he’s at and try to apply that very quickly on a daily basis, because your cycle to get that opportunity (to play professionally) is short,” Smith said. “At the professional level, sometimes it’s ability, sometimes it’s opportunity. Hopefully they both match up, but he’s definitely got the capability to compete at the next level.”
Bartlett ended up playing in Charlotte partially as a result of his relationship with Independence head coach Mike Jeffries. For the past two summers, Bartlett played for the Des Moines Menace in the Premier Development League (PDL), where Jeffries coached before moving on to Charlotte.
The PDL is an amateur league consisting mainly of college players and professional hopefuls looking to hone their skills and stay in shape during the offseason. In the summer of 2015, Bartlett logged more minutes than anyone else on the Menace, thanks in part to how much he impressed Jeffries.
“(Jeffries) and I have a good understanding and work well together and he’s always been good about pushing me,” Bartlett said. “I’m just excited I got the opportunity to play for him again where the stakes are a little (higher).”
The obstacles that have limited Bartlett’s minutes thus far have also proven to be one of his best assets. Those would be the Independence’s two starting center backs: Bilal Duckett and Henry Kalungi, both of whom have spent time at the highest levels of professional soccer.
Duckett, Charlotte’s team captain, spent several years playing in the MLS and Kalungi captained the Ugandan national team in 2011.
This experience makes Duckett and Kalungi more indispensible on the field — as the duo has a combined 710 minutes of playing time as of April 21 — compared to Bartlett, the newcomer, who has played less than 10 minutes. However, it also gives them added perspective and knowledge that can be used to mentor Bartlett, helping him improve and earn some more playing time.
Not all of Bartlett’s new teammates have such experience, however. Several of them have come from overseas or are post-college players, all pursuing “the dream,” as Bartlett called it, of making a career and name for themselves in the game of soccer.
“You observe them lead and then you adapt your leadership to take in some of their good qualities,” Bartlett said. “It’s definitely a learning experience. As a rookie, you’re there to keep your mouth shut, work hard and learn as much as you can … It’s a very interesting mix of people with all different levels of playing ability. There’s definitely higher competition, but it’s also fun because we’re paid to do what we love. It’s just a good locker room all-around.”
Future pro prospects
“I personally would love to see more of our players (go pro) because I think we have guys who are capable,” Smith said. “We just need to get them in the shop window and expose them.”
One of Smith’s main goals, besides taking the Drake men’s soccer team to its second consecutive conference championship and NCAA Tournament berth, is to help his soon‑to‑be graduates reach their potential, rather than stopping after their Bulldog careers are complete.
“Some players come into the college game and they just want to be a very, very good college player, and they don’t dream too much past the college experience,” Smith said. “We’ve been very intentional in recruiting guys who have ambition beyond college because I think it adds a little different layer beyond your daily drive. Alec won’t be the last … (and) Alec’s not the first. We’ve had several guys play at the highest level and I would anticipate in the next year we have another two or three who will go on and play professionally.”
Grunert was optimistic about several of his teammates’ chances of reaching that “next level,” although he isn’t planning to purue a career in soccer himself.
James Wypych was ranked in the conference’s top five goal scorers and tied the conference-high three game-winning goals in 2015, marking him as a player with potential.
The same goes for Mueng Sunday, a midfielder who became Drake’s most effective distributor. He finished 2015 with the conference’s second most assists (7).
Goalkeeper Darrin MacLeod has started the majority of Drake’s games since his redshirt-freshman year. His best season came in 2015 as well, sporting the third fewest goals against average (1.14), shutouts (7) and the second most saves (83) in the MVC.
Should they move on to the next level, they’ll need to continue performing and succeeding in their senior seasons, making sure shine at the right times if they want any shot at going pro and maybe even playing against Bartlett, or perhaps being reunited as teammates.
Bartlett has spent years devoting much of his life to the game of soccer, and it’s paid off in the form of a professional contract. Only time will tell if he’ll continue moving up the ranks, if his quick feet can remain on display.
“It’s always about that next level,” Grunert said. “For him, the next level is to play professionally and he’s finally got his foot in that door. I shouldn’t say he finally, he got his foot in right away.”