Few observers could have foreseen Dalgety Bay’s Michael Scott being the sole remaining Scotsman in college soccer’s NCAA Tournament when the season-ending nationwide competition kicked off on Nov. 20.
Scott’s University of Maryland, Baltimore County side qualified for the 48-team tournament after clinching its third straight America East Conference championship last month. The Retrievers, however, ranked 50th out of 205 Division I level schools according to a ratings percentage index based on team results and strength of schedule.
Three consecutive away wins at Wake Forest, No. 4 seed Maryland and No. 13 seed Louisville have advanced Scott and UMBC to the quarter-final stage while more notable Scottish figures like Bobby and Jamie Clark have exited the tournament.
TSO spoke to the former Livingston forward by telephone before UMBC flies out to Omaha, Nebraska for Friday’s showdown with No. 12 seed Creighton.
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It’s been a remarkable run that UMBC has been on to become the first America East school to reach the quarter-finals in 18 years. What has clicked for the team this year?
Not many people have heard of us. That’s one of our advantages, I guess. But we’ve won three America East championships in the three years I’ve been here. We lost in second-round penalty shootouts in the NCAA Tournament in the past two years. We’ve only lost three starters each year since I’ve been here, so we’ve kept a solid base and we’ve always had people that could step up.
We’re smaller in height and more technical this year. We had a barren run of five games earlier in the season when we were struggling. Ever since then it’s seemed to click together and we’re firing on all cylinders. The coaches have always said it’s not what you’re doing at the start of the year, in August and September. It’s whoever is turning hot in November and December that really matters. It’s happening now for us and hopefully it’s going to continue.
UMBC is the lowest ranked team remaining. I guess that doesn’t bother you having already gone to Wake Forest, Maryland and Louisville and not conceded a goal?
The tournament is very tight at this stage. There are no bad teams around and nobody is a clear favorite. Everyone has lost at least three or four games this year, so anyone can win it.
We don’t fear anybody. You can go through our team player by player and see that everyone has a great resume. We’ve all played at a high level. We’re just playing our game. It’s 11 against 11 on the field. It doesn’t matter who we play, what they’re wearing, how much money they’ve got behind them. If we win our one-on-one battles and 50-50 balls then the chances are the game will go our way. We’ve focused on doing that in every game.
How was the experience of knocking out in-state rival and perennial powerhouse Maryland in front of almost 4,000 rowdy fans?
It was good fun to shut them up. They were getting on our back. It’s hard to hear instructions from the sidelines and from teammates about when to pass players on. It’s tough with a lot of background noise and they’re so close to the field there as well. You’ve just got to ignore the taunts and distractions because that’s what they’re trying to do, get you off your game.
But it’s what you dream about. I played one first-team game when I was at Livingston, away to Morton, and there were fewer than 2,000 people there. It’s a professional level, but a lot of teams in Scotland’s lower leagues don’t seem to get much of a following nowadays. Over here it’s getting bigger, so it’s really enjoyable. We played at Maryland in our third game of the season too and there were over 7,000 fans there. Rowdy crowds are what you dream of. Playing in front of thousands of people, showing off your skills and your talent.
As you mentioned, you played a game for Livingston in Scotland’s second tier when you were 18. Why did you choose to join the college game instead?
My family was a big part of it. My grandfather always wanted me to come across here. He was quite an idol for me. I really looked up to him and took on board what he had to say. He wanted me to come to America to get an education and broaden my opportunities. It’s the Land of Opportunity, as they say. He passed away in the March of 2012 before I moved across that August.
When I played in Livingston’s first-team I did think, “Do I really want to go to America?” It means a lot getting that first appearance under my belt, being able to fulfill that dream of becoming a professional footballer of sorts. But I just looked at the long term. Livingston offered me a one-year deal as a 19-year-old. There’s nothing guaranteed. You’re playing for your place week in, week out. Playing for a job. Playing for a livelihood. America gives you the opportunity where you can potentially go back and play full-time while also getting a degree and having something to fall back on if it doesn’t work out.
How did the move to UMBC arise?
Brian Welsh and his son, Daniel, deserve the credit. They definitely got me across here with their contacts and Daniel playing at UMBC previously.
I had just left East Fife after playing U-17s a few years ago and I got into the Scottish Schoolboys squad. One of the trials was in Dalgety Bay, where I’m from and where Brian is too actually. One of the Livingston scouts, Jim McArthur, came up to me and said, “Here, phone this number, you won’t be disappointed.” So I called it wondering who would answer. It was Brian Welsh.
[TSO Note – Former Dundee United defender Welsh was employed as Livingston’s head of youth development at the time before moving to the United States to become the director of coaching at Braddock Road Youth Club in Virginia].
We struck up a conversation and he said he wanted me to come along to Livingston for a few training sessions. I signed a part-time contract because I was still in my final year at high school, and then I signed the full-time youth contract. He knew I was considering moving over to the States and he put me in touch with Anthony Adams, the associate head coach at UMBC. Daniel had been here for his first two years at college and Brian said he could put in some good words and help me out. That’s where it all started and I never looked back. I didn’t really talk to any other college.
What did you learn from your time at Livingston?
Brian was a very good coach. We romped the leagues when I was there for the two years. It was fun to be a part of. I learned a lot about being in a professional environment and he really helped me with my touch, technique and generally learning the game.
Robbie Winters was helping to coach the Under-17s when I first signed. There were some nights that I couldn’t train with the U-19s because I was still at school, so I would train with the U-17s on Tuesday and Thursday nights. I was a striker when I first signed, so I learned all about movement, reading the game, where you need to be, making the correct runs and saving your energy. That was good for me as well even though I wasn’t training with the U-19 team that I played for on the Sunday.
You only made three starts during your first two years at the college level. How did you cope with that after previously being offered a professional contract at Livingston?
It was definitely a transition. The different substitution rules were a big part of it. You only have three subs in Scotland. You’re constantly calculating moments during games when you think you need to make runs, when you need to stay, when you need to track back. College has rolling substitutes where you can enter the game three times. You kill yourself. You go all out, up and down for 20 minutes at a time. It took me a while to adapt to that, especially with the heat as well. It was about 100 degrees when I arrived and I was dying in the initial fitness tests.
This team is definitely a tight unit. That’s got a lot to do with everything. You know you’re going to contribute. Even the guys that aren’t playing are helping us all the time on the practice field so everyone is getting better. There’s 25 or 26 of us in this squad that could easily interchange. We’ve got good depth.
When I was talking to the coaches at the start they were saying I was going to come over and start, but then you’ve got to see how you fit in with the squad. Coach Caringi gave me a chance in the pre-season games and the first two games of my first year and then I hit a wall. Obviously it was disappointing to start with, but when you see what’s happening and the guys are playing well and winning games, you don’t change a winning formula. It’s understandable. So it took time. It’s all come together now.
How is life in Baltimore?
We’re about a 15-minute drive from the center. All the guys live together on campus in groups of four. We try to sort it so we all have apartments beside each other. We don’t have much time to venture out with games, training and schoolwork, so it’s good when we do occasionally go and visit the city. My family has been over a few times and I’ve shown them the sights, but I’ve not had too much tourist time to myself. There’s a lot of studying to be done.
What do you miss about home or than family and friends?
My mum’s cooking. The campus food here could be better.
Who’s your team?
They’re not Scottish!
Well, my local team would be Dunfermline Athletic. I follow the teams that I played for as a kid in Scotland – Dunfermline, Hearts, Cowdenbeath, East Fife and Livingston. I follow their scores more than others.
My dad always brought me up supporting good football and good players. He never forced me to follow a team. I never went to games as a youngster because my dad was always working, doing what he had to do to put bread on the table. He would sit down with me at night and watch football when it was on TV. Manchester United winning the Champions League in 1999 is the memory that sticks in my head from when I was a kid.
He used to travel a lot with his work. He was a lighting engineer back then installing lighting strips at new buildings like the Manchester Arena and the O2 in London. He was down in Manchester for a while and he came back with a United shirt for me. He went to Barcelona for a few weeks and brought home a Barcelona shirt. So that’s more how I started supporting teams, because my dad had been there.
You’ve got one more season here before graduation. What happens after that?
I’ve not contemplated a life without football. It’s been in my life since I was four or five years old. I’ve been playing every day. I’d love to continue playing whether it’s here, back home or somewhere in Europe. It doesn’t matter where you are if you’re getting paid for what you love to do.
I’d probably like to stay here past my college career. I’ve really enjoyed it in America. It’s really grown on me and I’ve grown to it and the guys here. I’ve made a lot of friends.
What about your friends back home? Have they been following UMBC’s run?
They send me texts and messages on Facebook. They fully support what I’m doing and they’ll be watching the next round late on Friday night. That’s really nice to hear. I’m going back to Scotland for Christmas and we’ll all catch up then.
How’s the mood on campus going into Friday’s game?
There’s a lot of excitement. It sounds like we’re doing a tour of the best stadiums in college soccer. Wake Forest isn’t too shabby. Maryland obviously has a great place with thousands of fans. Then we went to Louisville’s brand new stadium, and now this one in Creighton doesn’t sound too bad. Hopefully we can keep the tour going a little bit longer.
Nov. 20, 2014 — Mixed Fortunes As Men’s NCAA Tournament Begins