Small school produces big for Crew rookie

Columbus staff happy with under-the-radar draft pick

OBETZ, Ohio — At a time when most Americans were
fixated on Winter Olympic gold medalists Lindsey Vonn and Shaun White,
the Crew brass was more interested in Lindsey Wilson and Shaun Francis.

Lindsey Wilson College is a four-year liberal arts school of about
1,900 undergraduates nestled on a hilltop in south central Kentucky. It
is also an NAIA power in men’s soccer and the breeding ground for four
current Major League Soccer players, including Shaun Francis.

He
is the latest to come out of the Columbia, Ky., program after the Crew
made him the 63rd pick (of 64) in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft. Francis
captained the Blue Raiders to their eighth national championship in
December.

A left-footed defender from Jamaica, Francis was the
first of the Crew’s five draftees to be offered a supplemental contract
in March.

“He’s a smart kid,” Crew coach Robert Warzycha said.
“He’s good on the ball. He’s technically good. He’s a left footer and
has a good cross and he has a lot of speed. Obviously, he needs some
experience.”

Unfortunately, Francis won’t get any soon after
severely spraining his left ankle in a preseason game against FC Dallas
on March 21. He could be out another month.

Francis is not the
only injured defender: Jed Zayner (knee) and Eric Brunner (concussion)
will not dress for Saturday’s game at FC Dallas, but Chad Marshall
(hamstring) and Frankie Hejduk (hamstring) are expected to start.

“I always look at the positive,” Francis said. “It’s hard to be out,
but at the same time I can learn a lot from the guys playing. I’ve seen a
couple of games and have learned what is expected of me so when I start
playing I should know what I’m doing. When we practice and the coaches
go through certain things you can learn from that.”

His bright
outlook and eagerness to get better helped him land a scholarship at
Lindsey Wilson, where he played three seasons and had seven goals and
nine assists in 61 games.

Blue Raiders’ coach Ray Wells was on a
recruiting trip to Jamaica to watch two other players on Francis’ club
team when Francis performed well enough in a practice game to be offered
a scholarship to the multi-national program, which last season included
five Jamaicans and four Americans among the 11 countries represented.

After a successful college career, he hoped that SuperDraft day
would be the next step toward him being the 10th Jamaican in MLS this
season.

“Anything was possible, but I wasn’t expecting it,”
Francis said of being drafted. “I just did my job—played soccer and did
my schoolwork.”

Crew president Mark McCullers credits team
technical director Brian Bliss for tracking Francis. The fact that
forward Steven Lenhart, who came from NAIA school Azusa Pacific, has
done well in his first two Crew seasons has helped the cause of players
outside the NCAA.

“It goes to show if you do your homework there
are players throughout the collegiate system,” McCullers said. “It’s
not only D-I schools that you find the talent to fit your needs.”

The Crew was looking for depth behind left back Gino Padula, but
Warzycha said Francis would have made the squad even if he wasn’t the
left-footed defender the organization desperately wanted.

“He
has a lot of composure on the ball and he connects the passes—all the
things you want a good player on the field to do,” Warzycha said.

Though Lindsey Wilson isn’t a traditional big-name program, Francis
joins fellow Blue Raiders Kheli Dube of New England, Thabiso “Boyzzz”
Khumalo of D.C. United’s and Tyrone Marshall of Seattle on an MLS
roster. The trio played two seasons at Lindsey Wilson.

Francis,
23, didn’t come to the league awestruck. In early March he was asked if
he felt stress trying to earn a contract.

“It’s not really
pressure but you know you come here to do a job and you’re job is to
make the first team,” he said. “That’s the only pressure that’s there.”