CHESTER >> In the wistful hindsight that afflicts many high schoolers at this juncture of their senior years, Matt Freese has to take a beat to process it all.
Last summer, he was a promising high school goalkeeper at Episcopal Academy with a stable college destination selected and an under-the-radar reputation on the club circuit.
He enters this summer with minutes in the offing in a professional environment at Bethlehem Steel. He’s been selected for camps with the United States Under-19 team. And he has a memorable spring break to look back on, a training stint with English mega-club Manchester United.
Not a bad senior year, all-in-all.
“In November, I was playing against Malvern Prep and then I went to playing for the Steel in March,” Freese said last week in the shadow of Talen Energy Stadium, a venue it increasingly appears he could call home in the not-too-distant future. “It’s so crazy to do that, the progression just happened so quickly, I couldn’t really believe it happened so fast. I guess it’s kind of a testament to how well they train everyone here.”
The firsts have seemed to avalanche for Freese, the 2016 Daily Times Boys Soccer Player of the Year. Once, achievements in the high school realm — like his dalliance with the center forward role at EA, or his dark-horse, 300-meter hurdles triumph at the Delaware County Track and Field Championships two weeks ago — would’ve ranked. But those are relegated to secondary import.
The signing of former Union Academy goalkeeper CJ Dos Santos by a club in Portugal paved the way for Freese to assume a larger role while splitting time with EA in the fall. He became a regular trainee with Steel and an occasional participant in Union training.
Freese is a regular reserve with Steel and could debut in USL this summer. He added an Under-19 U.S. camp nod in February after coach and legendary goalie Brad Friedel was so impressed with Freese’s warmup before a Union Under-18 game that he had to see more — a bit of serendipity that has helped broadcast Freese’s evolving talent.
“It’s a meteoric rise, you would say,” Union Academy director Tommy Wilson said. “… He’s gone so quickly to the youth national team and being involved with Steel and training with our first team, it’s really incredible what’s happened. But he’s a talented boy, and goalkeepers mature a little bit later, so we just have to see what the future holds.”
The latest stamp on his passport may be the most impressive — a week training with the Manchester United reserves. Freese played alongside youngsters like Scott McTominay, who recently debuted for the Red Devils in the Premier League, and Matthew Olosunde, a 19-year-old Trenton native reared by the New York Red Bulls Academy.
Getting to meet Frenchman Paul Pogba, the most expensive transfer in world soccer history — “he has a huge personality, he’s really funny,” Freese offered — and eat lunch in the same cafeteria as notoriously irascible manager Jose Mourinho were unforgettable experiences.
“It went well,” Freese said. “I really enjoyed the experience and I learned a lot when I was over there. I’ve already kind of brought some things back in the way I’m training.”
Manchester United showed preliminary interest in offering a contract, but the discussion didn’t go very far, with Freese reasserting his desire to continue his education at Harvard. The same held for interest by the Union to secure his future by exploring a senior-team deal.
“There was a little bit of talk between us about that type of stuff, but I kind of shot it down right away,” Freese said of Man U. “If I want to go pro, it’s going to be here in Philly. But also definitely, I want to go to college. So I didn’t consider it that much. College is definitely important for me.”
Freese’s commitment to Harvard hasn’t wavered, even in the face of the program’s postponement of the 2016 season after the revelation of sexually explicit and demeaning commentary toward members of the women’s team over a number of years.
Freese follows in the footsteps of his father, Andy, and two older brothers, Tim and Jack, in matriculating to Cambridge, a lure that proved too potent to resist.
Plenty of ink has been spilled lamenting the shortcomings of college soccer, which limits player development to a three-month season, as opposed to the 10-month pro environment Freese is currently imbibing. Wilson says the difference in Freese’s growth at Harvard for up to four years is incalculably different than it would be with Manchester United or the Union.
But Wilson concedes that it comes down to the right fit for all sides of the individual, even if the academic considerations aren’t what the Scotsman is accustomed to contending with.
And with Freese choosing between Harvard and an organization with similarly renown in its field and worldwide notoriety, there didn’t seem to be an objectively wrong decision.
“I know so many people up there (at Harvard),” Freese said. “I feel at home there.”
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