County soccer alumni Chiles, Gnatiko, Vranis make pro debuts close to home
The numbers won't show you why, but Kevin Gnatiko, Neil Vranis and Billy Chiles are elated to be where they are.
All three graduates of Montgomery County schools now play for Crystal Palace Baltimore F.C. of the United Soccer Leagues-Second Division. On paper, they have not had much of an impact.
Gnatiko (Watkins Mill 2005), after a decorated four years at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, is still waiting for his first professional point. In 16 games, Chiles (Springbrook '04) and Vranis (Churchill '08), have combined to play just 102 minutes.
They also know this is just the beginning.
"This is the perfect place for me to start," said Gnatiko, who has one semester left at UMBC. "As soon as I finished playing soccer in college, I went to try out for them."
Gnatiko gets to play his home games in the same stadium where he played for the last four years. The 2004 All-Gazette first-teamer starred immediately with the Retrievers, scoring 13 goals through his first three years and earning second-team All-America East honors as a junior.
After his senior season ended, UMBC head coach Pete Caringi received an e-mail from a Palace Baltimore scout, asking Gnatiko to try out at the USL combine. Gnatiko said several USL-First Division teams wanted his services afterward, and the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer asked him to work out with the team.
When Palace Baltimore got word of this, it offered Gnatiko a contract. And while he has not yet scored, "'Tiko" has averaged over 30 minutes player per game this season.
"That's why I signed with them, to get exposure," he said. "I'm trying to play with MLS sometime in my career, and this is a great opportunity to showcase what I can do."
Chiles actually was drafted by an MLS club. After transferring from Rutgers following his sophomore season, the 6-foot-3 goalkeeper went on to a historic campaign at Towson, leading the Tigers to a surprising NCAA Tournament appearance as a junior. He one-upped himself as a senior, earning second-team All-America honors from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.
Chiles was drafted by the Crew with the sixth pick of the 2008 MLS Supplemental Draft. But he never signed, because of injuries and school obligations. In his words: "No hard feelings, though. It was just bad timing."
Fortuitously, Palace Baltimore is co-managed by former Towson coaches Pete Medd and Jim Cherneski. While learning behind the top statistical goalkeeper in the league, Brian Rowland, Chiles knows his future extends beyond this year.
Medd describes Chiles as having "all the upside in the world," and "the body of an English Premier League 'keeper" on the team's official Web site.
"I could see myself playing at that level," said Chiles. "Seeing the English Crystal Palace Team [in a June 13 friendly], I could see playing there or anywhere overseas. Playing in Europe has definitely always been a dream of mine."
Unlike Gnatiko and Chiles, Vranis' college resume is blank. An All-Gazette first-teamer in 2006 and '07, he was injured prior to signing his National Letter of Intent at Johns Hopkins, a school he chose "more for the education program than soccer."
According to Vranis, NCAA rules stated that Blue Jay trainers could not treat him because he was injured before inking his scholarship, and he took a redshirt year.
Then fate intervened. Palace Baltimore asked Vranis to practice with the team, then asked if he could join them in London for January scrimmages. Because they occurred during Hopkins' winter break, he agreed.
"And after being out a couple months, I was craving the ball," he said. "So initially I'm just practicing with the team. Then the trip gets canceled, and they were like, Why don't you sign with us? It was out of nowhere; if you were telling someone else they'd say you're making this story up."
It was not an easy decision, as he would forego his eligibility to play college soccer. He will take a full 17-credit course load in the fall semester, and room with Gnatiko in a Baltimore apartment.
But as the youngest member of Crystal Palace Baltimore, at just 18 years old, he is well ahead of the learning curve, practicing against some players nearly twice his age.
"I love challenging myself," he said. "And this is definitely a challenge."