Former Columbus Crew goalkeeper and 2008 MLS Cup champion Will Hesmer dropped in to speak exclusively with the Crew SC Academy goalkeepers and discuss his career path as a midfielder-turned-'keeper who went through the college soccer landscape en route to Major League Soccer.
"I was an all-state center midfielder all the way through high school," Hesmer said in a Zoom call with Academy players and technical staff. "It wasn't until I went to Wake Forest that I really started drilling in on becoming a goalkeeper."
Hesmer, who was recruited to Wake Forest University as a goalkeeper in the late 90s, mentioned how he only played in goal with his club team for regional and national tournaments prior to attending college, and that the instructional development that current Academy players receive puts them well ahead of where he stood as a young player with professional aspirations.
"My development as a soccer player didn't really start until age 19. You guys are getting that at age 10, 11, 12, to be around that type of professional environment," he said.
In retrospect, Hesmer said he is part envious of what the Crew's Academy now offers, but also somewhat content, in the sense that everyone has to forge their own path. For him, that path led him to Division I soccer in the Atlantic Coast Conference -- the first of two massive jumps, career-wise, with the second being the shift from collegiate to professional soccer.
As a freshman at Wake Forest, Hesmer touched on the abrupt wake-up call he received and walked through the different challenges he encountered, starting with the idea of committing to the craft.
"My path was not without a ton of adversity, a ton of adversity. I went into Wake Forest and I was soft. I thought I was tough, I thought I worked hard. I thought I had seen adversity. I hadn't," Hesmer said.
After earning the chance to start in the final game of the regular season as a freshman, Hesmer went on to have a standout performance in the ACC Tournament, as the Demon Deacons defeated top-ranked Clemson University to then fall to second-ranked University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in a shootout, but not before earning the attention of MLS scouts.
"So my path at that point was, 'Okay, I could be a pro now, and that's my path.' And I put my head down and I worked my (tail) off," he explained.
Hesmer upped his log time in the gym and on the training grounds, and had a chance to go pro after his junior year, but took advantage of attaining a four-year degree and going for an NCAA championship as a senior.
In his last game as a college athlete, Hesmer tore his PCL and was diagnosed with Compartment Syndrome in his right quadriceps. Multiple doctors said his playing career was over, which he frankly refused to accept.
Hesmer did go onto recover and was later drafted 17th overall by the Kansas City Wizards in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft, which led to, in his words, one of the most difficult periods of his professional career.
He was not going to outperform Kansas City's then-starting goalkeeper and U.S. Men's National Team player Tony Meola, Hesmer said with candor. As a result, he didn't start a game for nearly three years as he filled the third slot on the depth chart.
The belief in himself was what kept him grinding with the end goal of being one of 10 starting goalkeepers in MLS.
As Crew supporters know, he got that chance.
With just three starts to his name while in Kansas City, the 'keeper arrived in Columbus via Toronto FC in the 2006 MLS Expansion Draft and immediately became a 20-game starter.
"At 25, I was arrogant enough and confident enough that I could play in this league, and that I could be a starter in this league," he said. "Thank goodness I got a chance. And as you guys know in your position, you better be ready when your chance comes, because if you're not, it's over potentially."
Injuries and overcoming depth chart obstacles led to valuable growing experiences, and by not backing down, the lessons learned and his self-belief are what fueled him throughout the various stages of his career, he explained.
"You're going to have tons of setbacks, you're going to have tons of times where you lost your job, for whatever reason, whether it was your fault or not your fault. That's why it's incredibly important that you learn mental toughness right now," Hesmer said. "You can only gather that mental toughness ... [by] going through these crisis moments."
A key piece of Hesmer's development, he explained, was being adamant about playing in the field. Hesmer recalled how he used to play rightback in training sessions while at Kansas City, which in his mind, helped him to be at the forefront of the trend of being good with his feet.
"Everybody can make saves," Hesmer exclaimed. "Can you differentiate yourself with your leadership? Can you differentiate yourself with your decision-making? Your game management? And, oh by the way, can you be a difference-maker with your feet? Because if you have a goalkeeper now who is very good with their feet and you can trust with their feet, it allows your team to play in so many different ways."
As important as soccer was for Hesmer in the grand scheme of things, the nine-year pro made sure he was prepared for the next phase of life by developing close relationships with people on and off the field, as he addressed a final question about advice he'd give to aspiring pros.