University of Maryland senior defender Brett St. Martin sat with his family in Baltimore last week waiting anxiously for his name to appear on the 2022 Major League Soccer SuperDraft tracker. Five hundred miles away in Indianapolis, Loyola’s Justin Ingram hadn’t seen his name appear either.
St. Martin had watched his Maryland teammate Ben Bender, a sophomore midfielder, get picked No. 1 overall by the expansion club Charlotte FC. A few picks later, another Maryland-based soccer player came off the board when Naval Academy defender Matt Nocita went No. 7 overall to the New York Red Bulls.
All of a sudden, about halfway into the second round, the draft tracker stopped updating. St. Martin and Ingram waited anxiously for 15 or 20 minutes with no word of whether their dream of becoming professional soccer players had come true.
Finally, Ingram, a two-time Patriot League Midfielder of the Year, got a text from his agent telling him he’d been selected at No. 48 by Inter Miami. St. Martin read on Twitter that he’d been selected two picks later at No. 50 by Sporting Kansas City. But he didn’t want to celebrate until he knew for sure.
Ingram, a graduate transfer from Virginia who spent three years at Loyola, let out a sigh of relief when he found out his landing spot. Since his college career ended in November, Ingram has been recovering from a bone bruise he had been dealing with for the last few weeks of the season. He was finally able to start ramping up his training about a week or two before the draft.
“[On draft night], I couldn’t believe it for most of the night. I think I texted my brother like, ‘Is this even real life?'” Ingram said. “You know, it just didn’t feel real because you’ve been working for it for so long.”
“I have to remember this is just the beginning,” he added.
St. Martin was the fourth player from a Maryland university to be picked in the three-round draft.
“It was kind of crazy. I didn’t believe it at first,” said St. Martin, a Mount Saint Joe’s product who recently graduated from Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in communication. “Then it finally came up on the tracker and I was so relieved and so excited all the emotions came in.”
Bender didn’t have to wait long to hear his name called.
There had been speculation by soccer pundits leading up to the draft that the 2020 Calvert Hall graduate would go No. 1. Bender said he had heard rumblings last month that Charlotte might be his landing spot but wasn’t certain until a few days before the draft. After a stressful predraft process that began with Maryland getting knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round, Bender was finally able to celebrate with his family.
He joins Leo Cullen and Maurice Edu as the third Maryland player to be taken first overall. Both were picked by expansion teams: Cullen by the Miami Fusion in 1998 and Edu by Toronto FC in 2007.
“An expansion team is something exciting,” Bender said. “It’s a really good opportunity for someone like me coming out of college to fight for minutes right away. And that’s something that I wanted to be a part of.”
Bender has a family connection to the Charlotte area. His brother Jacob, an NCAA Division III Player of the Year at Messiah University, played for the USL’s Charlotte Independence in 2017.
The seven- or eight-hour drive from Baltimore is also a bonus because his family can come to watch him play, he said.
Before they were college teammates, St. Martin and Bender were high school rivals in the MIAA. During their high school soccer battles, Bender said he dreaded marking St. Martin on corners because the defender could jump higher than him. This season they might be once again marking each other on an MLS pitch.
“I’m really proud of him. He was our captain at Maryland. He was a good leader and always worked hard,” Bender said of St. Martin. “And it’s paying off for him now. It’s just so awesome that he gets to go to Sporting Kansas City. I know they’re a really good MLS side and I think I think he’s going to do well.”
St. Martin said he had a sense that Bender would go first after he signed a Generation adidas contract to become draft-eligible.
“He’s just such a great kid and he works so hard at soccer. He lives and breathes it,” St. Martin said. “I think he will be amazing at the next level.”
The newly minted professionals will have little time to celebrate their dreams coming true.
St. Martin, Bender and Ingram all said they caught flights the weekend of Jan. 15-16 to their new cities to get settled in and prepare for preseason training. The 2022 MLS season kicks off Feb. 26.
While Bender will have a chance to establish a new legacy with a brand new team, St. Martin will be following in the footsteps of Maryland royalty Graham Zusi at Sporting KC. Zusi recently re-signed for his 14th season with the club that drafted him in 2009.
Ahead of the draft, Kansas City wasn’t on his radar of teams that might pick him, St. Martin said, but that didn’t make him any less happy to join the 2013 MLS champions.
“I have heard great things about the club, good things about the program, their facilities and the fans, so I couldn’t be more excited,” he said, adding that he was thrilled to potentially learn the right-back position from Zusi.
“He is a guy that’s so versatile and plays everywhere and he did play right-back for them. That’s a position where I have played in the past and could play for them.”
About a week before the draft, Ingram interviewed with Miami and felt confident the team was one of three that might pick him. But when they passed over him with their first two picks at Nos. 9 and No. 37, he thought he might be headed elsewhere.
After he was picked, Ingram got a call from Miami’s leadership who asked if he was excited to play in the Sunshine State.
Of course, he said. It was 6 degrees in Indianapolis.
“I can’t wait to get out of the freezing cold and get down there,” he said, “and get to work in some decent weather.”
Photo Credits: Zach Bland/Maryland Athletics and Larry French