Rio Hope-Gund’s path toward this moment began early on, but the multi-sport athlete’s decision to narrow his focus to soccer in middle school was his first big step.
The New York native’s love for the game expanded in high school, following MLS and European leagues closely. And pretty soon, the college offers began rolling in. The center back landed at Georgetown, developed into an integral starter and became a prospect known beyond just his Big East competition.
All that time, the next step in his career fluttered in the back of his mind — turning from optimism to belief.
“That dream and that idea just kept kind of growing,” Hope-Gund said, “and I was like, ‘You know what? This could be a possibility for me.’”
On Thursday, that possibility turned into reality. Orlando City selected Hope-Gund with the 19th overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft, one of several local players chosen by MLS teams in the first round.
His Hoyas teammate, forward Derek Dodson, also went to Orlando with the eighth pick. Virginia Tech standout Daniel Pereira was chosen by Austin FC first overall. Virginia’s Bret Halsey and Irakoze Donasiyano went to Real Salt Lake and Nashville SC, respectively, and Toronto FC selected Maryland’s Matt Di Rosa.
Those players navigated uncertainty to get here, with fall college seasons canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some programs, such as Georgetown, weren’t able to officially practice together on campus. That led Hope-Gund and about 10 of his teammates to hold training sessions in public parks around D.C., with seniors acting as coaches.
“Half the team wasn’t down here during that time,” Hope-Gund said. “But for me, it was definitely effective, because I got good fitness, I got good training, I stayed sharp.”
Ben Di Rosa, who was selected in the second round by New York City FC, and his Maryland teammates had an easier time staying fit. They could train as a team on campus, and while they grew weary of the constant intrasquad scrimmages, it was the best they could do without a season.
And he and three of his teammates had the chance to attend an unofficial MLS scouting combine in November, joining a group of 80 invitees to perform in front of professional scouts.
“We were just super excited to be playing against other players, and just playing in front of people, scouts, coaches,” Di Rosa said. “Under the lights, it felt like you were playing a real, competitive match. And we all wanted that gameday adrenaline back, so that was a super fun experience.”
That event also offered scouts a look at how players developed since the last time they took the pitch for an official game. With the fall 2020 season canceled, Hope-Gund’s last college match came Dec. 15, 2019, when he and the Hoyas topped Virginia to win the national championship.
Young players can improve considerably in a year, but coaches and scouts might not have necessarily seen those strides.
“It’s a weird year, and everything has been slowed down as well, for MLS teams as well,” Hope-Gund said. “College scouting has been pushed back. The start of the league has been pushed back. Obviously, the draft has been pushed back. I do think it’s weird, but — and this has been a common theme throughout all of coronavirus and quarantine and stuff — everybody is kind of going through the same thing.”
After all the uncertainty the canceled fall season presented, there’s more on the horizon for players, even after the draft. There isn’t a firm starting date set for the upcoming MLS season, with the league and players’ association still deliberating.
Plus, college programs will kick off their seasons in February, with the regular season ending in April and the College Cup concluding in May. Players have the option to return to school for the season before joining their MLS squads, or they could turn professional right away.
Those decisions add depth to the draft. But Rio-Gund said whichever way it turns out will be a “win-win.” If he departs Georgetown, he’ll be in top shape because of his preparation for the upcoming college season. If he stays, he gets one more run out with the Hoyas.
Di Rosa is in a similar boat. He’ll lean on advice from his coaches, agent and family. He’ll also see what New York City FC has in mind.
“It definitely added another wrinkle and complication to this whole draft,” Di Rosa said. “And I’m just kind of going with the flow and taking it day-by-day. So, whatever the club wants for me is kind of what I’ll decide.”
But all that took a backseat Thursday, the day childhood dreams were realized when their names were called in the draft.
“It’s such a cool feeling,” Hope-Gund said. “It’s something we’ve all worked literally our whole lives towards, and it’s a dream that a lot of people have, and only a couple people can achieve.”
D.C. United select Clemson’s Smith, Wake Forest’s DeShields
D.C. United selected two players in the first round of Thursday’s MLS SuperDraft, taking Clemson forward Kimarni Smith and Wake Forest defender Michael DeShields with the fourth and fifth picks.
Smith scored eight goals during the Tigers’ coronavirus-altered 2020 season, and DeShields — a Baltimore native — was a key part in the Demon Deacons’ stout defense in 2019, conceding just 0.72 goals per game. United also drafted midfielder Logan Panchot from Stanford.
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