Lake Central grad Eric Gehrig comfortable in the MLS
By Michael Osipoff 648-3137 or email@example.com June 23, 2012 10:48PM
Columbus Crew's Eric Gehrig, left, and New England Revolution's Blake Brettschneider try to get a head on the ball in the second half of an MLS soccer game in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, June 16, 2012. The teams tied 0-0. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Updated: July 25, 2012 6:56AM
BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — When he was growing up, Eric Gehrig and his family were Chicago Fire season-ticket holders.
He played for the organization’s PDL and Super-20 teams.
On Saturday night, the 2006 Lake Central graduate suited up against the Fire, wearing the black and gold No. 16 of the Columbus Crew.
“It’s just crazy coming in as the away team,” said the second-year center back, who didn’t play in the Crew’s 2-1 loss at Toyota Park. “I certainly had this game circled on my calendar. I couldn’t wait. It’s special, that’s for sure.”
Gehrig — an all-state first-team selection who led the Indians to their first state semifinals appearance as a senior in 2005, and went on to a three-time All-Horizon League first-team career at Loyola that included the Ramblers’ first two NCAA Tournament berths — had a massive contingent of supporters at this game, in the neighborhood of 100 strong. Family members, including his parents, Lothar and Debbie, and twin brother, Greg, also a former Lake Central star who went on to a standout career at St. Joseph’s. Indians coach Jereme Rainwater, and numerous current and former players. Former college teammates and coaches. Youngsters he has coached. Friends from high school and college.
Yes, even though the previously injured Julius James started in central defense in his season debut, it still was a triumphant homecoming for Gehrig, especially after the disappointment of last season’s Crew-Fire game in Chicagoland, on Oct. 22, 2011 in the regular-season finale. He didn’t travel with the team for that game, though he did decide to fly on his own in support, and to visit family and friends.
“I hadn’t traveled most of the second half of the season — the game before that one I did, and then the playoffs — but I was pretty bummed,” the 24-year-old Schererville native said. “That’s the difficulty of being a young player in MLS — there are 30 players fighting for 18 spots. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the 18. I’m just happy to be part of the trip this year. I worked hard, things have gone my way, and I’ve played.”
Indeed, Gehrig has progressed considerably in his second season with the Crew (5-5-4), who had been unbeaten in their last six games (3-0-3) since a 1-0 loss to Vancouver on April 28, including a 2-1 win over the Eastern Conference rival Fire (7-5-3) in Columbus on May 26. As a rookie, he played in eight games, including four starts. This season, he already has played in eight games, including six starts. Gehrig was the Man of the Match in the Crew’s 1-0 win at Toronto on March 31, learning just hours before kickoff he would start.
On Saturday, Gehrig warmed up with the rest of the bench after halftime, and twice in the first half — both times after midfielder Kevan George was shaken up, the second after Gonzalo Segares was issued a red card in the 29th minute for a challenge on George.
“It’s night and day, for sure,” Gehrig said. “In the preseason last year, I wasn’t even signed. I was nervous. I didn’t know the guys. My mindset is totally different this year. I’ve played in some very, very big games the last two years, against (David) Beckham on the road (at the Los Angeles Galaxy). I know the guys well, they’re good friends. I’m more comfortable with the coaching staff. I feel like a major contributor.
“MLS is a very physical league, and I’ve made strides in that area. I’ve improved with my passing and my technical ability with the ball. It’s just having confidence in yourself. The coaches put their faith in me, my teammates trust me. I can feel it. I’ve just matured as a soccer player, as a pro.”
Gehrig’s pro career didn’t exactly start smoothly, but he persevered.
In January of 2010, following his senior season at Loyola, he attended the Pro Pace Soccer Combine in Omaha, Neb. After a quality performance, he spent a little less than a month in the preseason with the Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City), before getting released. The next day, he was back in class to finish his degree — in business administration, with a focus on sports management, with a minor in communications — graduating that July.
“Obviously, I was very discouraged (to not make the roster),” Gehrig said. “But I thought it was something I could do. I’ve gone through so many ups and downs in my career. I just used it as a learning tool. I was so close, I had to give it a shot.”
So he continued to train. And train. And train.
And in 2011, Columbus, Chicago and, again, Kansas City each invited him to its preseason camp. Gehrig chose Kansas City, based primarily on his familiarity with the situation. But Columbus made a discovery claim, securing his rights, and he left K.C., off to establish himself with the Crew.
“It’s crazy how it all worked out,” said Gehrig, planning to stay in the area until Monday night to spend extra time with his family and friends, with the team departing on Sunday and resuming training on Tuesday. “It was kind of unconventional, but it was always something I believed I could do.
“In this business, nothing is guaranteed. One second you’re in, one second you’re out. I’ve been on both ends — I’ve been turned away, and shown the door; and now I’m having success and prosperity.”