North American Soccer League’s newest club, San Antonio Scorpions FC, will begin play April 7th on the road against the Atlanta Silverbacks.
Minding the net for San Antonio, will be the Alamo City’s own, Craig Hill. He was a 4-year letterman at SA Reagan High and a 3-year starter for the famed soccer program at Southern Methodist University, and was originally drafted by FC Dallas in 2010.
The Ledger caught up with Hill, inquiring about his travels, life as a futballer, and the upcoming NASL season.
The Ledger: Let’s rewind back to 2010. You’re the captain and starting goalkeeper for the fifth-ranked SMU Mustangs. NCAA Quarter-finals. Battling your nemesis North Carolina Tarheels. One game away from the Final Four. The game goes to penalty kicks.
As the goalie, knowing the extraordinary odds a keeper faces during penalty kicks, what was racing through your mind moments before that first kick?
Hill: “He’s going left.” And he did go left, but unfortunately I just didn’t get there in time. That save could have changed the whole thing.
Like you said, as a goalie it is a tough situation, but there’s another goalie standing outside the box who’s in the same situation, and it’s up to me to be better, otherwise we aren’t going through.
The Ledger: The Mustangs seemed destined to win that game against North Carolina, but destiny decided otherwise. What did you take from that loss as a senior playing in his last collegiate game?
Hill: When the game ended it was a very bitter-sweet moment for me. I remember taking it all in and getting lost in the moment. I realized that it was over, but was proud of how well we had done as a team. It was the furthest we had made it during my 4 1/2 years with SMU, including the year we were ranked number one, losing in the second round to the eventual champions UC-Santa Barbara.
The key difference between those two teams?
We as seniors really took ownership of the team and made it our own. We would constantly be in the office 2 or 3 times a week talking to coaches trying to figure out how we can improve, ensuring everyone on the squad felt part of the team regardless of age or playing time. Everyone placed the team above themselves, and that contributed to our team chemistry taking us as far as we did that year.
The Ledger: 25 career shutouts in high school playing for San Antonio Reagan; 14 career shutouts as starting goalkeeper for SMU. Pitching a ‘clean sheet’ for a goalie is equal to a striker scoring a ‘hat trick’. It’s not easy to do.
How do you interpret a shutout from a keeper’s perspective?
Hill: I’ve always considered a clean sheet more than just a great keeper stat. It’s a great stat for the entire team. Although we are credited for it, the shutout itself is more than just the goalie. Even if I play out of my mind and do everything right, without the defense playing their part, getting that ‘clean sheet’ is nearly impossible.
When I think back to most ‘clean sheets’, I had to make 3 or 4 big saves if not less. It was more in part to either my defense not letting them get to me or my offense was absolutely handling the other team. There are times when I would get more touches on the ball with my feet rather than with my hands. Not to say I didn’t play my part in communicating but that’s just part of the job description.
The Ledger: Originally drafted by FC Dallas in the 2011 Supplemental Draft Pick, you later moved on to take over as starting goalie for the United Soccer League’s River Plate in Puerto Rico.
How has playing abroad helped with your skill set, as well as your mental toughness?
Hill: Playing professional soccer for River was exciting for me. I came into a situation where I was going to be the starter right out of the gates. Having said that, the situation at River wasn’t the most glamorous one.
We were having trouble getting in some of our players to the team. Most games we didn’t have any centerbacks, the goalies best friends. Add a small language barrier issue as well. I had tons to do in the back compared to my time at SMU, where I would pass on as much information on the field and it would be received and understood. The ability to communicate to your back line limits opposing team’s chances. I wasn’t able to do this right away and it resulted in the other team getting more chances than usual.
What I improved on the most while playing for River was my ability to come out on crosses from set pieces. Since we didn’t have center backs and we weren’t a very tall team, I was forced to come out much more often to limit dangerous chances in the air.
The Ledger: The expansion San Antonio Scorpions open play in the North American Soccer League (NASL) this April. Can you give The Ledger and inside look at how your initial contact with the organization played out.
Hill: I was invited to come out to the invitational tryout, but due to a logistical error, I wasn’t part of the entire tryout. I was able to attend just the one goalie session. The coaches saw enough from on that day to give me a chance to come in and play for them.
The Ledger: You’ve landed a golden opportunity here Craig. A hometown player playing for his hometown team.
Describe the intensity running through your veins as training camp nears?
Hill: It’s extremely exciting. I’m eager to see how the team looks and find out if we can do some damage in the NASL. We are signing a lot of good players who will have a big impact on this team, and this organization is really taking care of us, especially for a NASL team.
The hardest part is waiting for preseason to get started. It’s going to be a great experience and I’m making sure that I’ll be able to do my part and contribute to the team as much as possible.
The Ledger: S.A. Scorpion management seems to have blended a diverse group of seasoned players with exciting young talent like yourself.
This isn’t going to be your normal ‘expansion’ franchise is it?
Hill: No I don’t think so. This organization is all about doing things the right way. The owner is beyond ecstatic about the direction of the club and is doing all the right things in order to get the job done.
From the owner to the coaches, to the players to the interns, everyone is pulling their weight to make this team successful.
The Ledger: Premiere League, Seria A, La Liga, or Bundesliga?
Hill: This is always a tough call and honestly I think it can vary from year to year. But since my favorite team is Arsenal FC, I’ll say the EPL.
La Liga has the best two team in the world right now in Barcelona and Real Madrid. Over all, the EPL has more quality teams that can compete for titles in any of those leagues. Especially this year with Man City, Man U, Chelsea, Tottenham, and Liverpool.
(Normally I wouldn’t hesitate to add my team to that list, but Arsenal is struggling this year.)
The Ledger: OK, fantasy time! I’ve just given you the manager position of your choice and a blank check. What team would you manage and who would be the first player you signed?
Hill: What team to manage would be the easiest of the two questions. I’d manage Barcelona and just keep winning titles!
Adding a player to the team is difficult. My first thought would be Cristiano Ronaldo, but I’m not sure he would fit so well into that team chemistry. So I’m going to sign Karim Benzema. He’s one of my favorite strikers to watch. Benzema is good in the air as well as on the floor, and has the foot skill to hang with the rest of the team.
The Ledger: The NASL & USL have teams throughout Texas in Austin, Laredo, El Paso, and now San Antonio, not to mention Major League Soccer clubs in Dallas & Houston.
Do you foresee a Promotion/Relegation type system anytime soon?
Hill: I hope so. I think if soccer in the U.S. wants to continue to grow and reach the level as the Premiere League, La Liga, Seria A, or Bundesliga, then it must have that system in place. It all really hinges on how well soccer matures. Also, if the fan support becomes enough to support these clubs, then it will happen. Hopefully we’ll see it within the next 10 years or so.
The Ledger: I’ve stated many times, soccer as a profession can be cruel. The hardships a futballer endures at each level is second to none.
What level does Craig Hill need to achieve for his career to be a success?
Hill: This is very true. Bluntly put, I want to play in the World Cup or the Euro Cup.
Now after saying that, I’ve known it was never going to be an easy road, especially in college when they throw out the daunting static, “only 5% of student athletes will make it to a professional level”. But I’m still here and still going strong.
To me, the sky is the limit, and as long as I don’t sell my self short and understand I’ve given it everything, I’ll consider whatever level I make it to, to be a success.