Benefield: Rancho Cotate grad Roy Boateng eager to tackle soccer's next level

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Roy Boateng knew it was coming. He was certain. Still, hearing his name called from the podium at the McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago in the first round of the MLS SuperDraft on Jan. 11 was such a heady experience, he lost his bearings momentarily.

“It was definitely overwhelming,” said Boateng, who was the 16th pick overall. “I didn’t even know what side of the podium to walk up to.”

Forgive him. It’s a moment two decades in the making. The 2014 Rancho Cotate graduate who played four standout years for UC Davis was a first-round draft pick, selected by the New York Red Bulls, and he is now a professional soccer player.

What’s more, the Red Bulls, the team with the best defense in the league, moved heaven and earth — or at least draft picks — to get Boateng.

“Center backs are something key for us,” Red Bulls assistant coach C.J. Brown said. “He was one of the guys who was on the list and in the combine, watching him, he showed a lot of the qualities we were looking for.”

The Red Bulls originally had the 22nd pick. But after his showing at the combine, Boateng was the Red Bulls’ top prize on Day 1 of the draft and they were worried another team might snatch him up.

Cincinnati, San Jose and Orlando, the teams with the first, second and third picks, didn’t want to deal, Brown said, so negotiations began from the team with the No. 4 pick, Dallas, and beyond.

“Basically four on down, we were trying to make trades to get our pick and that was Roy,” Brown said. “We actually spent money to get him.”

It was an amazing experience for a kid born in Ghana and who came to Rohnert Park when he was 8.

“Growing up in Ghana, (soccer) is ingrained. It’s part of the culture, the lifestyle, everything,” Boateng said. “As soon as I could cognitively recognize what was soccer was, that was what I wanted to do.

“I knew I wanted to be playing in front of people as soon as I could kick,” he said.

So what is it about Boateng that New York coveted? He’s a defender who matches their aggressive, forward-first style of play that can leave the back line exposed at times, Brown said.

“Athleticism, physical ability to defend (one-on-one), and speed to chase guys down. We love that,” Brown said.

Over and over again, in head-to-head battles, Brown and the Red Bulls staff saw Boateng win.

“Nine times out of 10, he’s going to come out of that, win the ball, and put it back in to play for us,” he said. “He’s strong and fast, he can be physical.”

But what makes this really great — beyond the top 20 pick, beyond going in the first round to the best defense in the MLS — is that Boateng has only been a defender for five years. Back in high school and with club soccer, he was a striker.

But when UC Davis men’s coach Dwayne Shaffer saw Boateng play in high school, he saw something different.

“He was extremely quick and fast,” he said.

And yet, there was a “but” in there.

“Roy has the ability to be a Division I soccer player and (play) as a pro, but not as a striker. He was better suited to defend,” he said.

Boateng didn’t push back, he took to it. He redshirted his freshman year at Davis so he could learn the role under the tutelage of senior Ramon Martin Del Campo, Shaffer said.

“I just let him learn for a year,” he said. “That certainly helped him, to be groomed.”

Let’s just say it worked out pretty well.

Boateng was the Big West Conference Defensive Player of the Year his junior and senior season and an All-Big West Conference player four years running, including making the first team in his junior and senior campaigns. He led an Aggies defense that allowed just 0.85 goals per game and notched eight shutouts last fall.

Boateng said when Shaffer pitched the idea of making himself into a defender, he was all in.

“It was more like, ‘He knows what he’s talking about; let’s give it a shot,’” he said. “I have never really been the type of person to ignore advice. I had a good attitude toward it, which helped me transition to it.”

Plus, he flat-out liked it back there.

“It became very natural for me,” he said. “It turned out I really loved playing center back and loved defender. I was honestly wishing that I had started earlier.”

And that’s what makes Boateng great, Shaffer said.

“There was no doubt he had the physical stature to be a pro,” Shaffer said of Boateng, who is listed as 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds.

Shaffer called it the mentality of a pro. It’s Boateng’s work ethic and ability to learn that sets him apart.

“It doesn’t surprise me that he’s in the position he’s in,” he said. “He has worked hard to be where he is.”

Brown’s already seen it. He called him focused, driven and a quick learner.

“He gets on the field, he looks like a man like the rest of the guys,” he said. “We still have a lot to push on him to see what he can handle.”

And this is where the good news/bad news part of the Red Bulls organization comes into play.

Boateng was picked up by the team that had the stingiest defense in the league last season. The Red Bulls allowed 33 goals last year. The next tightest team in the Eastern Conference, Atlanta United FC, allowed 44.

Two of their starting defenders, Aaron Long and Michael Amir Murillo, were tapped to appear in the MLS All-Star game. They are not hurting on defense. Boateng fills no immediate need.

Or does he?

The entire back line has commitments to various national teams, including the U.S. men’s national team, that make them unavailable for New York at times.

“We need guys we think can plug in for games here and there,” Brown said.

Meantime, Boateng gets to train with, and learn from, the best.

“We have two of the best center backs in the league,” Brown said. That buys Boateng “time, without pressure, to develop into one of those spots. It’s ideal for a young guy.”

Just like the redshirt year back in Davis where Boateng blossomed into one of the best in the business.

“There is no downside. Success? It all trickles down, even to the new guys,” Boateng said. “What better place to learn than from guys who know what it takes to win? I can’t think of a better place. As a student of the game, it’s almost like Christmas getting to play with these guys. I’m just kind of soaking it all in.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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