Toronto FC II announced the signing of former AFC Ann Arbor defender, Lars Eckenrode, late last week. The United Soccer Leagues (USL) side is the reserve squad and affiliate team of Major League Soccer’s (MLS) Toronto FC, which selected Eckenrode in the fourth round of the 2017 Superdraft.
“Lars has a great mentality and he’s demonstrated an eagerness to grow as a professional footballer,” said Toronto FC II Head Coach Jason Bent. “He is a player that has been very consistent throughout training and matches thus far and we are pleased to finalize this deal and have him at TFC II.”
Eckenrode fulfills a childhood dream of becoming a professional soccer player, but as far as he’s concerned the journey has just begun.
“My immediate goal with TFC is to take things one step at a time...come prepared and ready for training everyday and play the best soccer I can,” added the rookie defender.
“Playing with such a talented team in TFC II, progress and improvement is almost guaranteed when training everyday. I just have to make sure I give everything I can each session,” he added.
Adjusting to training in a professional environment might take some time, but playing with older more experienced players is a setting Eckenrode thrives in. Being the youngest of three boys, Lars always had two older soccer players, brothers Kai and Jannik, pushing him on the pitch and teaching him off. Surrounded by talent that will continue to push him, Eckenrode could flourish in an such an environment elevating him to an even higher level of play.
“Having two older brothers who were also incredible soccer players definitely helped me develop as a player. They taught me humility at a very young age, I may have thought I was a decent player when I was with my own team but whenever I played with them it was a stark indicator that I had work to do. Whether it was working on my weak foot, headers, or finishing, my brothers we always there helping push me to improve,” said Eckenrode.
According to the NCAA, only 1.4% of draft-eligible NCAA men’s soccer student-athletes will hear their name called in the MLS Superdraft. Eckenrode proved to be elite enough to have earned that honor, which eventually lead to him fulfilling his childhood dream of signing a professional contract.
When asked to describe the feeling when he put the pen to paper he said, “The feeling was truly indescribable. As I was signing each page I was thinking to myself about how long I had waited for this day. It was a lifelong goal of mine and to finally achieve it was an amazing feeling, I was finally a pro. I will never forget it.”
One can’t help but appreciate the excitement and joy of someone who actually fulfilled a childhood dream, a feat that very few people have reached in the world of professional sports. Eckenrode has great advice for aspiring professionals stating, “Train everyday! It doesn't have to be intense everyday but make sure you are touching a ball at least everyday - your technique will thank you for it when you're older.”
Eckenrode not only spent two summers with The Mighty Oak but also anchored the University of Michigan’s defense for four seasons, captaining the team in 2016 (his senior season).
For the complete TFC II schedule click here.
Catch more of our interview with Lars below.
AFC: Growing up in a soccer family, were you able to play/enjoy any other sports? Or was it all soccer all the time.
Lars: Growing up I definitely had an interest for other sports. My brothers and I were always outside doing something. Whether it was football after school with friends, make shift tennis on the street, or just knocking a ball back and forth, we were always playing something! My brothers and I never got into any other sports competitively, it was always soccer. We focused almost all of our time and effort into the sport. Constantly watching it on TV and going to local fields to play for hours on end. Although it was 100% soccer we still were able to gain an interest and develop a serious respect for all other sports through friendships we made growing up.
AFC: What did it mean to you to have role models within your family?
Lars: I was extremely lucky to have grown up with Kai and Jannik. I have them to thank for much of the reason why I am where I am today. Having two older brothers who were also incredible soccer players definitely helped me develop as a player. They taught me humility at a very young age, I may have thought I was a decent player when I was with my own team but whenever I played with them it was a stark indicator that I had work to do. Whether it was working on my weak foot, headers, or finishing, my brothers we always there helping push me to improve.
AFC: Describe the feeling you had when you put that pen to paper and signed your first pro contract.
Lars: The feeling was truly indescribable. As I was signing each page I was thinking to myself about how long I had waited for this day. It was a lifelong goal of mine and to finally achieve it was an amazing feeling, I was finally a pro. I will never forget it.
AFC: What are your immediate goals with TFCii?
Lars: My immediate goal with TFC is to take things one step at a time. Come prepared and ready for training everyday and play the best soccer I can. I will let my performances do my talking. Playing with such a talented team in TFCii, progress and improvement will is almost guaranteed when training everyday. I just have to make sure I give everything I can each session, am open to feedback and I take care of my body throughout the long season.
AFC: Take us through a typical training day...what is it like? Have you got used to it yet?
Lars: We train everyday at 8:30 or 9am. I try to arrive to the facility as early as I can. I drive with a teammate and we get there about 70 minutes before training. They serve breakfast for us in the cafeteria upstairs starting 45 min before training. Before training I am getting my body right for the day's session. Training intensity varies throughout the week but sessions typically last between anywhere between 70-140 min. Afterward I get treatment in the training room if I need, otherwise I take my time to stretch and cool down. We also lift two times a week, those days vary dependent on when we have a game. I am big into working out I tend to spend time in the gym before or after training for 3 or 4 days out of the week. After all that we are served lunch by an incredible group of cooks in the cafeteria, the food is always amazing. After that we head back to the apartments around 12:30 or 1 and the rest of the day is yours to do with as you please! It took me a little while to get used to the free time after training. I spent the first few days napping quite heavily. Now I try to use my time for things like reading, listening to podcasts, working on mobility or cooking - as I am constantly eating!
AFC: It might not be far from Michigan, but it's far from home and still another country. What has your experience in Ontario been like so far (besides people being too nice)?
Lars: Ontario and Toronto has been great so far. Yes! The people are extremely nice. Having gone to school in Michigan the cold weather doesn't really bother me at all. There is a big sense of pride of being from Toronto which is really cool, Im happy to be a part of it and represent such an amazing city.
AFC: You spent some time your senior year coaching with Saline FC. What was that experience like for you helping shape some future players? Is coaching young kids something you could see yourself doing down the road?
Lars: It was an awesome experience. Saline FC is a great club with an amazing coaching staff. I loved working with kids who are excited about soccer and eager to improve everyday, that makes things so easy. I could see myself coaching down the road for sure, I had a great time with Saline and it’s something that I genuinely enjoy doing.
AFC: Where can we expect to see you in 5 years?
Lars: In 5 years I plan on wrapping up my professional career and I will be training and getting ready for Officer Candidate School in the United States Marine Corps. Pro soccer has been my dream since I was little but I know I am meant for something more and I have an extremely strong desire to serve in the military. The max age for OCS is 28 and I need to give myself adequate time to prepare physically and mentally and also to sort out all the required paperwork/testing for OCS.
About AFC Ann Arbor
AFC Ann Arbor completed a very successful inaugural campaign in the Midwest Region of the National Premier Soccer League finishing 2nd in the conference while earning the club’s first playoff berth. The club’s third season kicks off in May as The Mighty Oak look to continue their winning ways under Head Coach Eric Rudland. Youth, General and Premium Memberships for Season Tree can be purchased here.