When Seneca Valley High School boys' soccer coach Hugo Zapata held preseason tryouts, he expected a similar turnout to previous seasons: a balanced mix of defenders, midfielders and forwards.
But when he addressed the hopeful group in front of him and asked for players to identify themselves by their position, he was surprised at the results.
“When everyone raised their hands and were broken up, I had one striker and 20 midfielders,” Zapata said.
As the soccer season in Montgomery County hits full stride, a number of coaches are seeing diminished returns as far as the number of top-quality strikers playing in the league.
“I definitely have seen in the games that we've played, they don't have one single solid striker that's out there scoring all the goals for the team,” Zapata said.
Of course, that's not to say there aren't plenty of top-quality strikers in Montgomery County, just that the number of elite playmakers up top appears to be a bit down this season.
Well, down everywhere except at Thomas S. Wootton and a handful of other schools, that is. Wootton's duo of Matt Hoy (15 goals) and Jared Nozick (6 goals) is so dynamic, they've forced coach Doug Schuessler to play his third natural striker, Sam Summerlin, at center back. The Patriots are the only team in the county with more than 20 goals scored this season.
“With us, I truthfully am almost embarrassed by the quality that we have up top there,” Schuessler said. “Our guys are both natural strikers.”
Albert Einstein's Marcos Moradel has put 11 in the back of the net, while at Walter Johnson, Nabayee Tesfu has scored seven goals this season. They, along with Landon's Zach Fingerhut and John F. Kennedy's Jean Bangweni, to name a few, are players who seem to have that innate ability to succeed at the position.
Elsewhere, the finishing talent is harder to find.
Whether that's a direct result of the U.S. Soccer Academy rule that prevents Academy players from participating on their high school side remains up for debate, but what is certain is that the United States, at every level, is pressing to develop more capable forwards from a young age.
“I think that one of the areas in our country where we're still another generation or two away from developing is the depth of youth coaching and having that ability to teach players at all positions,” Schuessler said.
Zapata said he has noticed that trend at the youth and club coaching levels as well. The emphasis there, he said, is on possessing the ball. Playing possession-style soccer has become more and more appealing, and the positions that possess the ball most are in the midfield and on defense. So if a young player hopes to become better and play the full 80 minutes, he's going to work at perfecting a midfield or defensive skill set.
“They're almost guaranteed more playing time if they're good in the midfield,” Zapata said. “You see strikers come in and out, [as coaches are] trying to see who can go in there and create an opportunity. That's why [players] are choosing midfield and defense over striker.”
That, however, appears far from the only reason schools haven't been able to develop that above-average goal scorer.
“The problem is, as a striker, you're left to rely on the rest of your team. A lot of things have to happen to get you the ball in the right position,” Winston Churchill coach Arnold Tarzy said. “You could have a great striker, but that doesn't mean he's going to have a great year.
“That's something people search for at every level all over the world.”
Formations in the county lean toward dynamic midfield play as well, with many teams deploying a 4-5-1 or 4-4-2. Very few play a 4-3-3 or apply high pressure throughout the match.
Striker always has been a coveted position in soccer because the skills are so rare. The player must possess numbing speed, a deft touch, knowledge of where and when to make runs, strength to hold the ball, and, of course, the ability to finish. All while frequently facing the opposite way of the other players on the field.
“A quality striker, it's really tough to find them. We had Diego Gomez two years ago and haven't had one since then,” Richard Montgomery coach Chamara Wijeratne said.
It's the finishing quality that truly separates the greats. And it's why, worldwide, strikers tend to garner the most lucrative contracts.
This summer, Ligue 1 club Paris Saint-Germain agreed to acquire striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic from A.C. Milan for a record transfer fee of $25.8 million with an annual three-year contract of roughly $18.1 million. He joins Manchester United's Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo (whose transfer was worth roughly $129 million) on the list of world-class, well-paid strikers.
Within the county, standout talents such as Churchill's Kevin Dansky, Col. Zadok Magruder's Alex Lee and Bullis' Rodney Wallace all dominated the county during their playing careers.
“It's easily the most difficult quality to find in all of sports,” Schuessler said. “You can name any sport you want, but I would defy anyone to find something that's as elusive as consistent finishing ability up top. You don't find a lot of natural strikers and it's hard to develop them late in the game.”