One year ago, Mike Novotny was gearing up for the Midwest Pro Soccer Combine for the first time. Flash forward one year and two continents later, and Novotny is doing the same thing, only with a whole lot more experience underneath his belt.
Novotny’s first combine experience came off the heels of an acclaimed career as an Eastern Illinois Panther. A four-year starter for the Summit League conference side, Novotny’s best season was saved for last with a 0.95 GAA and 91 saves (good for seventh in the entire NCAA) in his senior year. He was also named Summit League Goalkeeper of the Year honors. That earned him a shot at the Midwest Pro Combine in 2017. It was a huge opportunity for Novotny, who saw doors open for him as a result. “[The combine] gave me the opportunity to go on trial with Pittsburgh and into preseason with the Portland Timbers.” When his spell with the Timbers 2 side of the USL came to an end, another door opened back in Michigan with AFCAA.
At the combine, head coach Eric Rudland saw things during the two days that The Mighty Oak’s faithful would quickly see throughout the summer. When asked about what he liked about the keeper, Rudland responded, “Mike was technically very good and a great shot stopper. He also displayed a proficient ability to play out of the back on the ground, which I knew would fit our style of play well. Mike also trained really hard and exhibited a mentality that I thought would set him apart from others.”
As it turned out, Novotny became a key piece to the AFCAA puzzle in the 2018 season. He kept six clean sheets over the season and was named the AFCAA Defensive Player of the Year following the conclusion of the season. Following his incredibly successful season in Ann Arbor, he moved on to Sweden and joined Stöde IF in Sweden, where he kept four shutouts over the course of five matches, only allowing one goal in his five appearances.
The stint overseas was a fantastic learning experience for Novotny who said, “The biggest lesson I have learned was the grind of playing soccer for a living.” Coming off the college season with just “a couple months jammed with 15 games” to “having games every week for 7-8 months” is a rapid adjustment that takes a professional to get down pat, especially when operating at a top club in both leagues participating in.
Not only is Novotny wiser in terms of football, but having participated in the combine once already, he knows what to expect. “I know what I need to do to get to that next level,” he said when asked about how previous experience at the combine would help him. Always attempting to push himself to be the best keeper he possibly can be, he has also “set the bar higher this year” to impress the professional scouts in Brighton in what he also described as an “amazing opportunity.”
Having experience at the combine is one thing, but it is another to be able to perform under pressure. Fortunately for Novotny, he has been able to do so regularly throughout 2018. Between his help in leading AFCAA to a Great Lakes conference title, including wins in pressure-packed situations to keep a firm grasp on the lead on top, as well as helping to lead Stöde during a push for a promotion play-off (his side ultimately finished fourth, just two points behind second place and a trip to the play-off). His experiences leading the back lines of his sides is certainly appealing to professional sides, where keepers that make sure to have an eye on organization of their teams in the field is always tantamount for clubs.
When it comes to the question of whether or not Novotny is ready, it goes without saying that he certainly is. After the eventful year of soccer, Rudland said, “He has refined some areas of his game so we are confident that he will draw interest form professional clubs.” The improvement has been key in fine-tuning Novotny as an all-around keeper. Novotny also said, on what he was most looking forward to about the combine, “I am looking forward to seeing some familiar faces and showing the coaches and scouts that are in attendance that I am ready for the next level in the States.” In front of over twenty professional teams, Novotny and the other participants of the combine are not going to get much of a bigger stage right in Ann Arbor’s background.