Minium: The secret of ODU's men's soccer success has been coach Alan Dawson's recruiting pipeline to Germany
By ODU Athletics
By Harry Minium
Niko Klosterhalfen studied English in grade school, but when he met Old Dominion men’s soccer coach Alan Dawson four years ago in Cologne, Germany, they were barely able to communicate.
“We met face to face, not that we understood much,” said Dawson, the Belfast, Northern Ireland native who is in his 22nd season as ODU’s coach. “Niko didn’t speak a lot of English.”
But Klosterhalfen says he could tell right away that Dawson was a good guy, and somebody he’d like to play for. Although North Carolina and other big-time soccer schools offered him scholarships, Klosterhalfen signed with ODU.
“UNC just talked to me over the internet and emailed me,” Klosterhalfen said. “I didn’t really have a chance to talk to them.
“When you’re going to give up your life for four years, everything you’ve known, all of your friends and family, you want to have a personal connection.”
That personal connection has continued, as someone from Dawson’s staff has gone to Cologne every year since to attend a showcase tournament. And it has paid off in a big way for ODU.
ODU soccer players Deniz Dogan, Mertan Akar, Tom Wüstenberg, Nik Klosterhalfen and Max Wischrey are all from Germany.
The Monarchs have five players from Deutschland – as many players as they have from Virginia – and, as Dawson says, the Germans “are the backbone of the team.”
Klosterhalfen, a senior who was the first of the five Germans to come to ODU, scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory over Charlotte in last season’s Conference USA championship game, which sent the Monarchs on to the NCAA tournament.
Max Wilschrey, also a senior, led the team in scoring last season, and with ten goals and five assists leads ODU again in scoring this season. He has twice been named the C-USA Offensive Player of the Week. Klosterhalfen is second with six goals and seven assists.
Goalie Mertcan Akar has a goals against average of 1.26 and 33 saves. He was named C-USA Defensive Player of the Week earlier this week.
Sophomore midfielders Deniz Dogan (two goals, three assists this season) and Tom Wüstenberg (two goals in two seasons) also start for ODU.
All five are from North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state in Germany. Four grew up in the Cologne area. Wilschrey is the exception – he is from Bielefeld, about 90 minutes northeast of Cologne.
Dogan and Wüstenberg have known each other since they were in grade school and all five played against each other, or heard of each other long before they came to ODU.
All five players live together, or with other German athletes, in townhouses a corner kick away from ODU’s soccer complex.
“It makes it easier that we’re here with other Germans, to have someone to speak the language with, to talk to when you have problems,” Wüstenberg said.
Dawson said in spite of language differences none are having academic problems, and that was apparent when he and I gathered with his Germans at the ODU soccer complex, where we did a group interview for about half an hour.
Coach Alan Dawson got a Gatorade bath from Max Wischrey after last season's Conference USA tournament championship.
“They’re all very good soccer players, but the other piece is academics,” Dawson said. “They’re all very good students.”
Dawson asked them to rattle off their grade-point-averages, and suffice it to say, it’s a composite average of nearly 3.7. Klosterhalfen, who has a GPA of 3.9 in psychology, will graduate in December, after just 3 ½ years at ODU, and plans to enter law school in Germany.
All five said they weren’t quite good enough to play pro soccer in their homeland, and because there is no equivalent of college soccer in Germany, they all looked to America.
“It’s almost impossible to play at a high level and study at the same time in Germany,” Wilschrey said.
“We obviously watched all of the movies about America when we were younger. To me, it was always a dream to experience that. I wanted to study abroad.”
Akar was unhappy after attending Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., for a semester. He said he transferred to ODU in part “because I wanted to transfer to a school where there were other Germans.”
After we got to know each other a bit, I told them my wife and I spent three weeks in Germany this past summer and that we were blown away by the beauty of their country and its people.
Germans are friendly and eager to help you when they know you’re a foreigner.
But it’s a much different place than America, with different food, what may seem like strange customs and a language, though closely related to German, that nonetheless is difficult to speak.
Although they have all been immersed in the language in America, at times they still speak German on the field.
Coach Alan Dawson says ODU's five German players "are the backbone of our team."
“Sometimes, you don’t know the right words to say,” Dogan said. “You’re yelling it in English and it comes out wrong.”
They cook German food and speak German at home, but have made a conscious effort to not separate themselves from their teammates.
“Chemistry on a team is very important,” Dawson said. “And having five Germans could be an issue with our chemistry.
“But it’s not. They’re all very good teammates. They could be cliquish and separate themselves from the rest of their teammates. And that’s not what they do.
“They reach out to the others. That’s an important part of why we’ve been successful.”
Germany is much more diverse than you might think. There are more than 3 million Germans of Turkish descent, a result of immigration in the 1950s and 1960s when, because of the country’s booming economy, and the loss of life during World War II, Germany recruited immigrants.
That diversity is represented at ODU – Akar and Dogan are half Turkish. Akar is fluent in Turkish and has visited relatives in Turkey.
“There are places in Cologne where there are nothing but Turkish restaurants,” Dogan said.
ODU (9-3-2) has its Senior Day Sunday when the Monarchs host Florida International at 7. After a road game next weekend at Kentucky, the Monarchs head for the C-USA tournament in Charlotte, where they hope to again earn a bid to the NCAA tournament.
The Monarchs lose Klosterhalfen and Wischrey to graduation, but I would expect other Germans will make the trek to ODU to replace them.
“These boys have been such good players, good teammates and good students,” Dawson said.
“We’ll be going back to Germany again. We’ll be attending the showcase in Cologne every year.
“Whether we’ll find the right player or not, we don’t know. But we know, from experience, there are a lot of great players in Germany."
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