On a Badger soccer team that lived and died on its defensive performances last fall, every defender’s ability to do his job on the field will be critical to the team’s success this season. This is especially true of junior defender Paul Yonga.
As one of the returning starters on a back line that managed to earn seven shutouts last year, the team will need Yonga to anchor their defense this year if they are to match their 2011 second place finish in a very competitive Big Ten Conference.
Yonga, who two years ago was just another young player trying to adjust to the college game, comes into this season as one of the most experienced players on the field for UW after serving as a regular contributor on the team for the last two years.
“You can’t give guys experience like that,” head coach John Trask said. “He has seen a lot now in his two years.
“[Yonga] has been through two Big Ten seasons, two Big Ten tournaments, games in California and games in Florida. That experience makes it easier for us as coaches because he has seen it all before.”
And, as if that wasn’t enough experience to consider him a seasoned veteran for the Badgers this year, Yonga spent his summer playing for a soccer team called Bridges FC. Based out of Chicago, they traveled across Europe scheduling matches against some of the most talented professional reserve teams in Denmark and the Netherlands.
Even though Bridges FC generally fields soccer players who have already graduated college and are now looking to earn a trial or a contract with a European team, both Yonga and UW teammate Nick Janus were also given the opportunity to test their mettle against top European opponents. Just two years out of high school, the Brooklyn Park, Minn., native comes back to Madison this fall with his foot already in the door to a future of playing professional soccer in Europe after college.
“It was a great experience, and playing professionally has always been a dream of mine,” Yonga said. “I definitely hope to go back after I am done with my college career, and hopefully I can maybe get a trial with a big club team in either Denmark or the Netherlands in the future.”
An opportunity that only a select few players will ever get, it’s experiences like these that have helped the talented defender gain the respect of his teammates, especially the younger players, who look to Yonga as an example of what they need to do to be successful as they move forward in their own college careers.
“He is always someone you can go and talk to,” freshman defender Adam Lauko said. “On the field, he is always telling you where to be, which can be really helpful in the transition from the academy game to the college level. He is someone for us younger guys to look up to.”
As a result, it was no surprise when it came to naming team captains in the lead up to this fall, Yonga was immediately singled out by his teammates with fellow junior Chris Prince and senior Kyle McCrudden.
“He is a junior captain,” Trask said. “We’ve got two of them this year, and I think that that speaks volumes about him as a person.”
“He’s not a yeller and a screamer,” Trask said. “He leads by example, but I also think [Yonga] is just such a great personality. When things happen within the team and players need to be talked to and things like that, he doesn’t shy away from that either. He knows how to communicate with the guys.”
At 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, he certainly looks the part of a strong defender, but Yonga credits his soccer IQ after years on the field for allowing him to gain a competitive advantage on his opponents.
“I am not necessarily the quickest,” Yonga said, “But I am strong, and I use my soccer smarts to get me in the best position to be successful in games, and hopefully get the team in a position to win.”
Still, despite all of the things that Yonga has going for him as an individual heading into this season, it is the team goals that Yonga is most eager to cross off the list.
“We want to get a Big Ten conference championship. We haven’t done that yet; we only came in second last year,” Yonga said. “Then also we really want to qualify for the NCAA tournament. We came pretty close last year as a bubble team, so hopefully we can finally make it and have a good run in the NCAA tournament.”
If Yonga continues to shine in the defense this season, those goals might just be possible.