Abravanel gets fresh start in Denver
Leon Abravanel saw his dream of playing professional soccer slipping away. He didn’t see eye to eye with his coach. His playing time at the University of San Diego had become almost nonexistent.
Other than his college friends and the city-by-the-beach lifestyle there wasn’t anything else keeping the former South Tahoe High in San Diego. With two years of eligibility remaining, the 21-year-old Abravanel decided to depart for a program that could further his soccer career.
Abravanel’s search took him to the University of Denver, where energetic Bobby Muuss captivated him with his ambition and network of pro connections. It was time for Abravanel to return to life at a mile above sea level.
“It’s a second chance … that’s the beauty of the whole thing,” Abravanel said. “My dream is to play pro soccer, wherever that takes me. If I had stuck at USD, I don’t think my career would have ended up where I wanted to be.”
After leading STHS to an unbeaten season and its first state championship in 2003, the center midfielder became an instant contributor for the Toreros. He earned a starting spot in 11 of the team’s 15 matches, but his playing time dropped off substantially during his sophomore season. He played in only three matches, despite being injury-free.
“It was combination of things,” Abravanel said. “The No. 1 reason, not to make excuses, was we had a bad season my freshman year and I was the only freshman starting. The coach seemed to put a lot of blame on the younger players. That’s not the way to look at it; it’s a team sport. I thought I played well.”
Abravanel also wasn’t pleased with the school’s “soft” approach to the sport.
“I didn’t feel like my game was progressing,” Abravanel siad. “It was very laid back, not the nose-to-grinder program like Denver is. That’s the kind of player I am. I like to do extra work, give everything I have ever single practice.”
Abravanel said he considered transferring following his freshman season but delayed his decision until taking a redshirt year in 2006.
“I knew it was time to leave,” he said. “We were in two different universes about where we saw my career going. I want to be a pro player, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get there.”
At Denver, Abravanel will battle for playing time with three or four center midfielders who played for Muuss in the spring.
“I don’t know much about Leon as a player, only from talking to the coach before he left and (a coach) at San Diego,” Muuss said. “Everybody has a different opinion about players. Everybody is coming out like it’s their first year out; everybody has to prove themselves.”
To stay sharp Abravanel spent last year supplementing practices at USD by playing for semi-pro and men’s league teams in San Diego.
“I actually got in more playing time than I would have at USD,” Abravanel said.
His time at home this summer has made him game ready because he joined many of the players who contributed to the 2003 state title in the Tahoe Soccer League.
“It’s been an awesome experience, playing with my high school buddies. That’s their league. It’s always cool to play against players who you won a state championship with and had all those great memories with,” Abravanel said.
Abravanel also had an opportunity to catch up with STHS coach Chris Deleon, whom he credits for much of his success.
“He’s been there throughout my career; one of the reasons I am where I am,” Abravanel said.
Deleon has helped Abravanel train for the past two months, working on skills he’ll need for the college game as well as his aerobics and mental approach.
“Since I met Leon his freshman year and getting to know his parents, all he’s talked about is turning pro and representing the U.S.,” Deleon said. “His drive and love of the sport (set him apart).”
Denver plays in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation and finished second last year on its way to an 11-5-2 record. After compiling a 7-0 record in the spring, Muuss is cautiously optimistic about the Pioneers’ chances in the fall.
“I’m just trying to build a program now. We want to have the best season possible,” said Muuss, who spent a combined 10 years as an assistant at Connecticut and Wake Forest prior to taking over the Denver program. “I also want to build a program that gets national recognition and that’s not going to happen overnight.”
Deleon said the mountain region’s style of play suits Abravanel.
“They play to East Coast strengths and West Coast finesse and flair. Leon’s pretty set in his ways and style. He should fit in pretty well with his smartness, style and vision he has on the field,” Deleon said.
Denver opens its season Aug. 31 against Marquette. The Pioneers’ schedule will bring Abravanel close to home as they will play Stanford, Cal, Sacramento State and San Jose State.
“I’m ready to get started. I don’t think I’ve been so focused both mentally and physically. Everything is to the tee right now and it feels good,” Abravanel said.