“Welcome to the family; this is the start of something big.”
Those were the words junior forward Stefan Copetti heard from head coach Matt Viggiano seconds after committing to Marist.
College soccer does not have the massive stage that college football and college basketball benefit from, but the ‘beautiful game’ has grown in popularity across America in the last two decades. Marist men’s soccer has expanded their footprint along with the sport.
Going from a 2006 roster that did not have one player from outside New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut, the Red Foxes now have eight international student-athletes.
With players hailing from soccer hotbeds like Brazil and the Netherlands, who have produced some of the best players in the sport’s history — Pelé, Johan Cruyff, Ronaldinho — what makes these athletes decide to play college soccer in Poughkeepsie, NY?
“A lot of the guys who come over here, they’re borderline pros,” said coach Viggiano. “But at the same time, there’s an opportunity to have school paid for and to come to a place like Marist where the facilities are beautiful; the campus is beautiful.”
The collegiate route allows players to pursue their lifelong dream of playing professional soccer while also working towards a degree, an opportunity not often offered to players in other countries.
Brazilian junior midfielder Henrique Cruz echoed the opportunities coming to play in the U.S. afforded him, despite coming from one of the most legendary countries in soccer history. “The opportunities that we got here [in the U.S.] are way better than we got back home.”
But it isn’t just flashy facilities and a valuable degree that attracts the best recruits.
“When I came on my visit here, I fell in love with the campus and the facilities, which are all up to date,” recalled Copetti, a Canadian international. “But the biggest thing that I got from it was the sense of family and unity within the team.”
Marist soccer has built a family in their program. A tight-knit group and strong connections has helped them bring in some of the most talented prospects available. These connections allowed the Red Foxes to bring in two highly touted Brazilian players.
Cruz didn’t have as straightforward of a path to Poughkeepsie, but he always relied on the people he trusted to help him make his next move. The Brazilian spent his first two years of collegiate soccer at the University of Akron, a top program in the men’s game and the runner-up in the NCAA tournament the year before.
Cruz played in 21 games for Akron, but it wasn’t the right fit. Cruz needed two surgeries there, not allowing him to stay fully in form, and an intense style for practice, games, and academics led Cruz to decide to transfer last summer.
“It was a great opportunity there,” said Cruz. “But I couldn’t play my best soccer.”
Cruz went to the same high school as former Red Foxes Allen Gavilanes and Juan Parada; St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey. Both Gavilanes and Parada signed professional contracts after their time at Marist.
Cruz said his previous relationship with Gavilanes, as well as knowing that assistant coach Ricky Cusano had seen him play in high school, made him feel very comfortable committing to Marist. Gavilanes similarly helped in the recruitment of the Dutch defender and captain, graduate student Huib Achterkamp and all-star senior goalkeeper Samuel Ilin.
Word of mouth has been the most helpful recruiting tool for the Red Foxes.
Copetti first heard about Marist from one of his closest friends, Christian Curti, a former Red Fox defender now playing for Syracuse University.
“When I started going to showcases in the U.S. and when college coaches would come to Canada, Marist would always be there watching,” said Copetti. Having a best friend on the team made Marist an attractive destination for the forward. Getting the inside scoop from Curti eventually led to Copetti committing to the Red Foxes.
Once he began talking with the coaches, Copetti felt a level of trust and respect they were giving him.
“Before I even got to the school, coach Rob asked me if I wanted to wear the number nine and I said ‘of course,’” said Copetti. “He said ‘no pressure, but that means there’s going to be a lot of goals that come with that number,’ and I was ready for the challenge. It was big for me to get that kind of message from my coach.”
That confidence was warranted and is now paying off. Since coming to Poughkeepsie, both Copetti and Cruz are finding success.
Copetti is enjoying a collegiate-best season with eight goals and three assists through 16 games, including a ten-game points streak. In his first year at Marist, Cruz has already surpassed his points total from Akron with five.
The family the men’s soccer team has built runs off the pitch too.
“When I first got here, everybody was offering me to go to the market, asking me if I needed a drive; that’s what it feels like being home,” said Cruz.
The pandemic has made things harder for international student-athletes, with border closures, quarantines, and a million other headaches for people living abroad, but Copetti has remained determined on achieving his goals.
“Being so far from my actual family, having guys that I have developed a brotherhood with, that means a lot for sure,” said Copetti. “My family is only a FaceTime or a phone call away. I know they got my back, and I’m just trying to make them proud.”
With playoffs rapidly approaching, Marist sits in first place in the MAAC and looks poised for a deep run.
“I think it’s on us to play our best, win the MAAC, and go to the [NCAA] tournament,” said Cruz. “I know we are capable of making history here.”
“We talked about it in the beginning of the year; we want to bring a championship to Poughkeepsie,” said Viggiano.
Viggiano speaks very highly of this year’s team, acknowledging they’ve built something special.
“If you want a nationally competitive program, you have to recruit the best kids in the country, and then internationally,” said Viggiano. “I think you can tell by our roster that we feel like we’re doing that.”
Edited by Ricardo Martinez and Mackenzie Meaney
Photo by Bridget Reilly