Last year’s University of Wisconsin men’s soccer team had among the best seasons in the program’s history. The team hadn’t won a Big Ten Championship or advanced this far in the NCAA Tournament since Jim Launder won both the conference and NCAA titles in 1995.
After the season the MLS took notice of the talent on Wisconsin’s roster. Chris Mueller, Mark Segbers, Tom Barlow and Mike Catalano were all taken within the first three rounds of the MLS SuperDraft in January. Mueller was taken by Orlando City, Segbers by New England, Barlow by New York and Catalano by Philadelphia.
The Badger Herald sat down with each of the former Badgers to see how their professional careers have been progressing after Wisconsin:
Selected No. 6 overall by Orlando City SC, Mueller is the only one of the four Badgers drafted to get MLS playing time yet, while his former teammates have had to begin their careers with USL affiliates. This is out of the ordinary for first-year players as only about half of this year’s first-round picks have gotten MLS experience.
“I think that I’ve made my own luck just by doing the right things most of the time,” Mueller said. “In that sense, it’s really valuable being on the field but being the competitive sort of guy that I am it never seems like enough.”
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Mueller started off the year hot with three goals in his first seven games, placing the forward squarely in the rookie of the year conversation.
Since then his scoring production has leveled off but Mueller does not feel that this completely shows how his season has progressed. Though he has not scored since the first week, the forward has six assists on the year and notes that there are probably a few more that he should have been credited for.
“I’m just trying to focus individually every day on getting better and trusting the process,” Mueller said. “Going through every training with the mentality that I’m going to do something every day and get myself a little better than I was yesterday.”
This is not to say Mueller hasn’t had his share of challenges since he’s arrived on the professional scene.
After a slew of free agent signings, Orlando City was expected to emerge as a solid team this year. Unfortunately, as the early season losses piled up, those expectations eroded, and the team had to replace their head coach.
“When you’re winning things are great, when you’re losing things are tough,” said Mueller. “It’s definitely been a little bit more challenging just because of how the recent string of results has turned out.”
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But the forward hasn’t forgotten where he came from and credited many of the nutritional and exercise habits he learned back in college for his professional opportunities.
Mueller still follows the Wisconsin soccer team back home and even got to visit Madison and the team in August, where he received a warm welcome. He also views last year’s success as a strong foundation for players to know the work ethic needed to win in college soccer.
“I got a really good reception which I wasn’t expecting,” Mueller said. “But it was really cool to see and go back to your roots and it’s always a good reminder to get back there. They’re off to a better start than we were off to [coming in as freshmen]. Something that changed that was really important for us as a group was to change the culture of the program and how everyone approached what a winning program should be like.”
Also a high pick at No. 9 to the New England Revolution, Segbers has taken a different path than his teammate Mueller. After getting drafted by the Revolution, Segbers was put on loan to the USL team Orange County FC in part because of New England’s logjam up front.
Though he has yet to play in the MLS Segbers sees his time with Orange County as a strong asset in his development.
“Getting on the score sheet, getting goals, getting assists boosts your confidence,” Segbers said. “Definitely after being in the USL for a good stint you want to see how you stack up against guys on the next level and see if you’ve progressed like you’ve been planning to. It’s definitely been a positive experience so far.”
In the MLS Combine, Coach John Trask made it a point to highlight Segbers’ defensive potential, but the athlete has spent most of his time at attacking positions with Orange County.
Segbers isn’t sure what position he’ll be at the next level but is willing to play wherever suits the needs of the team.
“I played wing mid coming up through college these last few years and [coming out of the draft] I was more than ready to transition into a wing back,” Segbers said. “But now that I’m with the Revs it’s wherever they need me and wherever I can help the team get better.”
Despite spending much of his time on the west coast Segbers still makes time to follow his old teammates at Wisconsin.
Segbers noted that despite a mixed start to Wisconsin’s season, the team is young and on the right track for future success.
“You learn from all the losses and turn them into positives,” Segbers said. “That’s how [in 2017] we ended up with a pretty damn good team by the end of our senior year.”
A later selection in the draft, Barlow went No. 39 in the second round to the New York Red Bulls. After his selection, Barlow was designated to play with the team’s USL affiliate the New York Red Bulls II.
Barlow has racked up an impressive season in the USL thus far, scoring six goals and two assists in his 19 games with the Red Bulls II. During what was probably his most impressive game this year, Barlow closed a three-goal deficit by himself with a phenomenal second-half hat-trick. The performance earned the striker USL Player of the Week honors for the week of August 20.
But Barlow is happier with the team’s success of late rather than his individual accolades.
“[The awards] remind me to keep working hard and good things will happen,” Barlow said. “We’re still right on the line for playoffs right now so that’s the most important thing.”
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For Barlow, the vertical integration of the Red Bulls and their affiliate Red Bulls II has been an enormous help in his transition.
With both teams practicing in Florham Park, New Jersey, Barlow has access to a lot more facilities and resources than players on clubs with more distant affiliates would.
“You get to train with [the MLS team] sometimes. The facilities are fantastic, the fields are great,” Barlow said. “It’s been a huge help seeing some of the first team guys and how they go about their business.”
Despite the distance from Madison, Barlow is still grateful for the opportunities he received building up the Wisconsin men’s soccer program and still regularly follows the team.
Barlow also mentioned his excitement to play former teammate Mike Catalano whenever the Red Bulls II matchup with the Bethlehem Steel.
“We’ve seen [Catalano] a few times, [the Steel] are pretty close to us,” Barlow said. “It was kind of weird being on a different team, but it was good, it was fun.”
Catalano has likewise enjoyed the games he’s played versus former teammate Tom Barlow but still tries to keep a competitive mindset in their matchups.
A third-round selection by the Philadelphia Union at No. 54, Catalano has begun his career with the nearby affiliate Bethlehem Steel.
Catalano credits his former coach Trask as well as the Wisconsin program for helping him learn to be a professional.
“Coach Trask and the coaches are the biggest part of that,” Catalano said. “They never let you be content, never let you be settled. They just prepare you to be a pro from the day you walked in as a freshman.”
For Catalano, who led Wisconsin with 10 goals in 2017, the adjustment has been admittedly difficult as he has yet to score this season on just three shot attempts.
But the attacking midfielder has been adjusting his game and is looking to get on the field more by playing a multitude of positions.
“They’ve kind of thrown me at all positions. Center back, right back, right winger, obviously central midfielder. I’ve told the coaching staff I want to get on the field,” Catalano said. “That’s something I can bring to the table is that versatility.”
Catalano looks back with pride at his time with the Badgers and views the team’s success as a culmination of four years of hard work.
The midfielder also concurs with his former teammates that Wisconsin’s early season losses are growing pains for a group that has similar potential to what the 2017 team accomplished.
“It means a lot to us what we did there,” Catalano said. “It wasn’t easy, but now we have respect for Wisconsin soccer. It’s up to the coming classes to maintain that respect, so hopefully, they can do that.”
While the transition into the pros has differed so far for each of these former Badgers, we hope their experiences in Madison will set them up for success in the coming years and beyond.