Former Maryland, Calvert Hall Soccer Star Ben Bender Settling In With Charlotte FC

In Ben Bender’s second week of preseason training with the Major League Soccer expansion club Charlotte FC, he got a wake-up call he’d rarely experienced at any other level of soccer.

Bender was a month removed from being selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft out of the University of Maryland in January. During a small-sided drill, he received the ball and was immediately tackled by Austrian left-back Christian Fuchs. The 36-year-old Fuchs sent the rookie flying with what might have been a welcome-to-the-MLS challenge.

Fuchs’ demonstration of physicality and the crisp passing, elite athleticism and clean touches shown by Bender’s other Charlotte teammates was a sign the midfielder needed to up his game.

“I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, like this never happened to me in college,'” Bender said. “I was usually aware of my surroundings but he just came in so fast and so strong, and that was kind of like a wake-up call for me.”

Despite those early bumps, Bender, a Baltimore native and Calvert Hall graduate, has thrived through the opening months of his professional career in North Carolina, aided by a close-knit family who visits him often, a tight group of young players who are all finding their way together and a healthy dose of playing time that has accelerated his development.

“As an expansion team, it’s always tough to win right away, but I think we’ve gotten some good wins, and we’re trying to build on those wins and learn from our mistakes,” Bender said. “I’m enjoying adapting to a new level and just looking forward to keep getting better.”

Adapting to the MLS game is difficult for any rookie. That includes a No. 1 draft pick, according to Richard Zinkand, Bender’s former coach at Calvert Hall.

“At that level, I think it’s a transition for anybody. You’re talking about a 21-year-old kid playing with guys who are 28, 30 years old, seasoned vets,” Zinkand said. “But again, his style of play, his energy, his attitude, I think it’s kind of contagious. And I just assumed those guys down there saw that right away.”

Family Is Everything

Bender earned All-Big Ten honors during each of his two seasons at Maryland and was the unanimous Big Ten Midfielder of the Year in 2021. In 18 games as a sophomore, the 6-foot, 165-pound Bender tallied seven goals and five assists, catching the eye of draft experts, some of whom placed him at the top of their mock drafts.

Bender opted to sign a Generation adidas contract with MLS in early January rather than return for his junior season. Soon after, he heard his name called in the three-round draft and caught a flight to North Carolina for preseason training.

Mark and Mindy Bender committed to traveling south from Baltimore to help their son establish a life in a new city. They crisscrossed Charlotte in search of the right living arrangement as Ben participated in his first pro training camp. They rented a full house in the lively neighborhood of South End.

After living in the college dorms at Maryland for two years, Bender was ready for some more space and to ensure his family and friends could stay with him when they were in town. His parents come down for every home game, and his brothers, Josh and Jacob, join when they can.

“It was important for us to try to say, ‘Well, how can we help him manage the parts of life so that he can spend time focusing on soccer,’ because the pro level is so demanding of your mind and your body,” Mark Bender said.

The family was already familiar with the city after Jacob Bender, an NCAA Division III Player of the Year at Messiah University, played for the USL’s Charlotte Independence in 2017.

“We love to go because we can spend time with him,” Mark Bender said. “It’s important. He’s still young and we try to encourage him and provide that support system.”

When the Benders are together, they try to break up their talks with topics other than soccer, to focus on Bender’s other interests like hiking, fishing and snowboarding. During a break in the rigorous MLS schedule in early June, the family went on a fishing trip to Cape Lookout on the coast of North Carolina.

But invariably the conversation returns to the sport Mark Bender has coached Ben in since he was a youngster. They discuss in detail the areas of his game he’s excelling at that made him a top college player and a budding professional. Entering play June 11, his 81% pass completion percentage was seventh best on the team among players who had played in at least 10 games. He was third on the team with 21 total shots and six shots on target.

“The on-the-field stuff is just really super exciting for us so it’s hard not to talk about,” Mark Bender said. “We talk about his decision-making and his passing and his skill, which we feel is developing well. We also know the MLS is such a physical league that it’s really important that he works as hard as he can on his speed and his strength.”

“I Gotta Help My Team Win”

Charlotte kicked off its inaugural season Feb. 26 against D.C. United at Audi Field in Washington, D.C. In attendance were Bender’s family and Zinkand along with 60 other people, including friends, family, former coaches and teammates.

When Bender was introduced in the 78th minute, a small crowd of people in the 20,000-seat stadium burst into cheers, confusing the surrounding home fans. After the 3-0 defeat, Bender met up with his dad and Zinkand.

“First thing he says to me is, ‘Coach, I gotta help my team win. I gotta score goals,'” Zinkand said. “… It’s the first professional game and he’s worried about helping his team win and scoring goals. I said, ‘Just enjoy the moment.'”

It didn’t take long for Bender’s declaration to Zinkand to bear fruit. Bender got his first career start on the road against Atlanta FC March 13, playing the full 90 minutes. When the team returned home for a game against the New England Revolution March 19, Bender cracked the starting lineup again.

Mark Bender watched as his son notched his second career assist on a 57th-minute goal by Karol Swiderski. Seven minutes later, Bender found himself on the receiving end of a Jordy Alcivar cross on a breakaway and rocketed the ball into the net from 12 yards out.

The goal put the game firmly in Charlotte’s favor, 3-1. Bender wheeled away with his arms spread wide, sprinting toward the corner flag and karate kicking it with the signature celebration he’s used since college. The area Bender happened to run to was close to where his father was seated. As the goal went in, complete strangers showered Mark Bender with hugs and high fives.

“I never expected to score that early on — and scoring is super hard, you know. When you get around the box at this level everyone gives an extra effort,” Ben Bender said. “So to have the opportunity with that much space, I just had to put that one in and once it went in it was just an amazing feeling.”

In a late May match against the Seattle Sounders, Bender notched his second goal of the season. He led Charlotte with three assists through 14 games.

On off days, Bender blows off steam by meeting up with the other young players on the team like midfielder Chris Hegardt, goalkeeper George Marks and defender Laukoa Santos to play Fortnite or eat at one of the innumerable sushi and burger joints throughout the city.

Bender doesn’t go for the raw fish but will gladly tackle any burger Charlotte has to offer, he said.

As the season progresses into the meat of the schedule, Bender is focused on taking care of his body to ensure he finishes strong. The eight-month MLS season is by far the longest Bender has ever played. It is nearly three times the length of an NCAA season.

At 21 years old, Bender has a long career ahead of him, and while focusing on the success of his professional team is top of mind, Bender also hopes to get an invite to a national team camp at some point.

During family meals in South End, the Benders have talked about those aspirations and the work it will take to one day don the red, white and blue. Needless to say, Bender’s family will be in the stands cheering him on when he does.

Photo Credit: Taylor Banner/Charlotte FC

Issue 275: June/July 2022

Brooks DuBose

See all posts by Brooks DuBose. Follow Brooks DuBose on Twitter at @b3dubose