Photo by University of South Florida
By FRANCO PANIZO
When goalkeeper Chris Blais' 2010 season came to a close, it did so a game earlier than he wanted. Blais had helped guide Michigan to an impressive run in the NCAA Championship tournament, one that ended with a semifinals loss to eventual champion Akron.
As surprising as that run may have been to some fans across the nation, it compared little to what Blais did next.
This past June, Blais made the unique decision of leaving the only program he had ever played for by transferring as a senior to the University of South Florida. He was saying goodbye to the place he had called home the previous four years and his starting spot to begin a new chapter in his career with a team that had been knocked out of the 2010 NCAA tournament in the first round.
"There was a lot of stuff that happened, to be honest," the 6-foot-4, 195-pound Blais said of his decision to transfer. "One of the big things that brought me here was the goalkeeper coach, Bryheem Hancock. With his experience playing pro and (being) an All-American (who) won a national championship at UConn, he was a major, major reason for me making the move."
But that wasn't the only factor in Blais' departure from Michigan.
"There was a lot of turnover with players and coaches," said Blais. "The coach that recruited me at Michigan took a head coaching job somewhere else, the goalie coach took a head coaching job somewhere else, and Soony (Saad) and Justin (Meram) leaving to go pro, and then our two best recruits coming in ended up going pro, so it just didn't seem like the right situation. I was there the whole spring and after everything that had happened with all the turnover, it just didn't seem like the right place for me anymore."
Blais, who initiated contact by emailing Bulls head coach George Kiefer via email, also chose the Bulls due to their reputation for being a good goalkeeper factory, having produced top college players like Jeff Attinella and Diego Restrepo at the position in the past.
After Kiefer decided to bring Blais in, the experienced goalkeeper knew things were about to change quickly. Blais also realized he'd have to adapt fast to his new surroundings if he wanted to win the starting spot and enjoy a successful final year in college soccer.
The Seattle, Wash., native did just that, beating out sophomore Eric Osswald and freshman Dallas Jaye while also jelling with his new teammates on and off the field.
"He's got a great personality," said Kiefer. "He fits in excellent with the guys. The guys call him grandpa. He's a fifth year guy. I think with any good team, once they recognize you have talent they figure out a way to fit you in.
Blais' time with USF has been brief, but he is already seeing the similarities and differences that his new home has compared to his old one.
One of the biggest things he has already noticed is how much attention the University of South Florida pays to its soccer program, a welcomed dissimilarity for Blais.
"I think soccer is one of the bigger sports here and at Michigan it's not," said Blais. "It's still big (there), but it's not one of the main sports. Like football and hockey and basketball really dominate everything there, and it's kind of been cool experiencing that because I always kind of felt that we were like second best, like a team that flew under the radar at Michigan and here I feel like soccer is really in the forefront. So being a college soccer player, that's something that's a good thing to have."
Another difference that Blais was going to have to get accustomed to was not being a captain anymore. With the Wolverines, Blais was known as one of the defacto leaders. But with the Bulls, he was the new guy in town.
That still didn't stop Kiefer and his coaching staff from wanting Blais to take a leadership role on the team, albeit slowly but surely.
"If he came in right away and tried to lead, I don't think the group would have accepted him," said Kiefer. "But now that he's got some games under his belt; he's been masterful at that, actually. He's been very good at figuriing out at when to push and when to slow down."
Blais' leadership roles and abilities were put to the test against a talented opponent in Wake Forest in the season opener on Aug. 27, a game that came little over two months after Blais had announced his transfer from Michigan.
Blais had a good performance that day, making seven saves en route to helping the Bulls win 2-0. That outing was good enough to also earn him the Big East Goalkeeper of the Week award.
He followed his impressive debut by recording another shutout days later in a 1-0 victory over Georgia State.
"Shutouts are really an expectation here more than just something that happens," said Blais.
Blais adds that he was not surprised that he and the team could put together such performances so quickly, and he partially attributes that to the ease of his transition to USF.
"It takes time to build your back line, but I think me and my back line have gotten along really well and guys are starting to get used to how I play and get used to the kind of person I am," said Blais. "But like I said, it's went better than I thought it was going to be, but it's not perfect.
With his size and skills, Blais is already a pro prospect and Kiefer says MLS scouts from three or four teams have already attended games to keep an eye on the Bulls' starting goalkeeper and his teammates.
Blais has already trained in professional environments, having spent at least a week with the Seattle Sounders for each of the past four summers. He has also trained with the Vancouver Whitecaps and U.S. men's national team goalkeeper Tim Howard.
But he isn't thinking that far ahead, and is rather focusing on his final collegiate season. When pressed on the issue, however, Blais admits he doesn't have a preference between MLS, Europe or elsewhere.
"I feel like wherever the best situation with the best coach (is best) because goalies usually their prime is much later," said Blais. "Obviously I'd love to be in Seattle some day but that's if the stars all align the right way.
"If I get a chance in Europe, I'd love to go do that. If I get a chance at MLS, I'd love to go do that. I just really want it to be the right situation, the right coach and then you work hard and hopefully some day get a shot at the starting job."