Goalkeepers certainly draw plenty, launching their bodies seemingly every which way for acrobatic stops, or perhaps navigating through small clumps of humanity — half of which is ready to pounce on the tiniest slip — before leaping and snaring an incoming corner kick, then booting the ball 60 yards downfield.
But what of the holding defensive center midfielder, who, smartly positioned, quietly reads an attack, breaks toward a charging striker, and slides like baseball’s finest stolen-base artists for a tackle that takes the ball off the opponent’s foot, diffusing the rush and sparking momentum the other way?
“You don’t get the credit you deserve,” G.R. Cannon, longtime boys’ head soccer coach for Saints Peter and Paul High and the Shore FC travel team, said of defensive center midfielders. “But arguably you’re the best player on the field.”
Strikers and attacking midfielders garnish their fair share. Whether receiving passes, slipping defenders, and unleashing 30- and 40-yard rockets that elude lunging keepers before crashing into an upper corner of netting, or making quick dekes that buckle knees enough for an easy tap into the goal, their scoring finishes draw streaks of celebrating teammates and applause from the crowd.
But what of our holding center midfielder, who has gone from defender to playmaker? Having plucked the ball off the striker’s foot, he quickly gets to his feet to begin a seemingly innocent counter attack from 70 yards away. Three defenders approach as he dribbles toward midfield. Suddenly he hits the brakes, creating space enough to send a well-targeted 30-yard pass downfield that his teammate plays off his chest then touches to a wide-open wing, who, with the defense out of shape, buries the ball into the back of the net.
What was that you said again coach Cannon?
“You don’t get the credit you deserve. But arguably you’re the best player on the field.”
For the past two seasons, Austin Rafter has been the best player on the field for Saints Peter and Paul’s boys’ team, and one of the best in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association. But with the exception of coaches and soccer connoisseurs, Rafter’s talents and impact can go largely unnoticed by the average spectator for an entire game, and even a season.
“In a sport like soccer it’s hard to get a lot of recognition for a defensive position, or someone that is tasked with being able to lead from the back,” said Josh Danza, a defensive center midfielder in college and professionally who is now head coach for Annapolis Area Christian, an MIAA B Conference rival of Saints Peter and Paul. “They’re aren’t many stats. Like in football, if you’re a great defensive player, (you have) the interceptions or tackles. But in soccer you can be one of the best players on the team and not score a goal the entire year.
“As a defensive center midfielder, it’s your job to sit right in front of that defense and win a lot of tackles; to be able to clog up the middle of the field,” Danza continued. “Where if a team has a good attacking player, it might be your job to sometimes man mark that player, or look to check back into the midfield to receive the ball, and then like a quarterback, be able to spray that ball around the field and play forward.
“So Austin’s definitely been someone that has been able to set in front of a defense as a defensive holding midfielder,” Danza said. “It’s a position that doesn’t necessarily get as much credit as an an attacking midfielder. I’m sure even if you were to look at his stats, he probably doesn’t lead the team in goals or anything like that. But he’s definitely someone who’s just putting in the work behind the scenes, doing all the dirty work, kind of like the heart of the team. I definitely see him as someone that has been the heart of the team the past few years when we play against him.”
Spain’s national coach and Real Madrid manager Vicente del Bosque has likely never seen Rafter play. But in a video clip on defensive center midfielders, del Bosque said of Barcelona great Sergio Busquets, “If you watch the whole game you won’t see Busquets. But watch Busquets and you’ll see the whole game.”
Neither Cannon nor Danza implies Rafter is ready for the finest professional ranks. But at the high school and club level — and hopefully in a few months at Division I St. Francis Brooklyn (N.Y.) College — Rafter is already there.
“I like that quote; being able to control the game and not necessarily even be seen for it,” Danza said of del Bosque’s commentary. “It’s just funny because in soccer you have 11 people on the field and the only player you might see is the one scoring the goal or the goalkeeper making the saves.”
And that’s fine with Rafter, who isn’t looking for spotlights, but control as to dictate pace toward a winning end result.
“It’s a team game,” Rafter said. “We all got to work together as one. I feel like everybody has one thing or another to do with a goal being scored. Whenever a teammate scores it’s like everyone is important in that role.”
Rafter has played several since he began playing club for Cannon at age 11. The one he’s perhaps performed most beautifully in the beautiful game? Holding center midfielder.
“That’s where I’m most comfortable,” said Rafter, who’s started at the position the past two years for Saints Peter and Paul and Shore FC. “I mean I can play any position. But I feel like center midfield is the best position for me because I’m a person that likes to have full control of everything. That’s pretty much what the center midfield role is. I get to control the whole field. Offense. Defense.”
And though he’s largely played midfield, Cannon has summoned Rafter into the offensive end on more than one occasion during his two years at Saints Peter and Paul — he transferred from Easton after his sophomore year. Whether pushing up or supporting the front line, Rafter has shown his scoring touch when needed, netting six goals this past season for the Sabres and setting up 11 more.
“Six goals for a holding center midfielder?” Cannon asked. “Are you kidding me? That’s crazy.”
And while Cannon argues finishing an attack with a goal remains the game’s most difficult task, he and Danza agree focusing on stats can leave one blind to the skills and influence a player like Rafter can have on a game.
“You see it all the time,” Danza said of the MIAA’s end-of-season meeting where all-conference teams are selected. “Usually each team nominates a bunch of players and then you vote on them. And every coach is talking about stats. ‘Oh, this player had 20-some goals. This player had whatever.’ It’s hard to say, ‘Hey, like this guy doesn’t have any stats, but he’s one of our best players.’ It’s hard to do it almost without showing them film sometimes. Like, breaking it down and analyzing it. ‘This is the reason why, even though he doesn’t get the assist, he wins the ball, finds an outlet pass, and then that player then passes the ball to someone else and scores.’
“It’s funny because as a defensive midfielder, not only are you looking to break up the plays defensively, but also to be able to keep possession of the ball from the other team, work the ball around,” Danza continued. “Because if your team has the ball, the other team can’t score. So offense is a form of defense in soccer.”
Danza gained a deeper appreciation for the position after transitioning from high school forward to defensive center midfielder in the college and pro ranks.
“It was hard for me to wrap my mind around like, ‘Did I have a good game today even though I didn’t score a goal?’” Danza asked rhetorically. “I was so used to scoring as a high schooler and then I got to college and played (defense) at the next level professionally as well. It was difficult to look at my performance in a way compared to other players. Especially to those who didn’t really play soccer. If your parents aren’t at the game, the first question they ask, ‘Hey, did you score a goal today?’ If you’re in a defensive position, it might not be your job to. So I feel Austin is someone who has accepted that role and been like, ‘Hey look, I don’t care if I get the stats or not. I’m going to sit here and do my job.’”
That job isn’t graded so much on statistics as it is measures, like tackles, reading the game, when to move into space and when not to, when to slide, when to hold, not turning the ball over, intercepting passes, and a slew of other impactful nuances undetected by the casual fan.
“A lot of the kids that get credit per se are guys that score goals, create goals,” said Cannon, who played defensive center midfield his final year of college and then in the pros. “And for Austin, he’s a holding midfielder, so essentially he’s the glue of your team. He’s dependable. Relentless. He’s fearless. He’s never been bothered by big moments. The bigger the moment, the better he is individually and the more he brings.
“He was voted the most important player in the league,” Cannon said of the MIAA B Conference, which does not select at MVP. “To clarify that, I think his passing range is very, very good. His IQ within the game is very high. His ability to travel in the right moments out of midfield with the ball … his vision reading the game is some of the best I’ve ever seen. And he’s disciplined.
“And then on top of that, not a lot of guys like playing against him because he’s so tough,” Cannon continued. “He is a hard guy to play against. He’s not a guy that you want to play against if you’re an attacking midfielder or forward per se, where you have to play around, because he’s going to make it be known he’s there. ‘It’s not happening on my watch.’ And he does it with such composure.”
Cannon has seen plenty examples of that from a player who at 5 feet, 11 inches and 160 pounds isn’t necessarily an imposing physical presence, but has burdened many an opponent.
In December 2018, Rafter captained Shore’s FC’s under-19 team that won the IMG Showcase tournament in Florida. In the final, Rafter, then a high school junior, was matched against an FC Tampa Bay player bound for Division I Central Florida.
“He was a very good player and it was a very good game,” Cannon remembered. “In the first six minutes, this guy tries to dribble out of midfield. Austin just destroys him with an all-ball tackle. They came face to face like any competitive players do, and Austin didn’t say a word. And the guy’s pointing at him and Austin goes, ‘You ready for this for 42 more minutes?’
“It was one of those games it was a pleasure to be a part of,” Cannon added. “There was a lot of good players on the field. The other coach was great. We’re just laughing. He and I on the sideline, watching these two go at it. And I mean it was as good as it gets.”
After a scoreless first half, it got better for Rafter and Shore FC. Early in the second half, Rafter gained possession of a ball, slipped it through his opponent’s legs, and played it through two defenders into the offensive end. A Shore forward ran onto the ball, cut inside, then struck a shot that nestled into the top corner for a 1-0 Shore lead.
“They celebrate. Austin acts like it’s no big deal,” Cannon said. “That’s another part of his character, and it’s one of his huge strengths, is that he’s never too high or too low. He’s always very level.”
With about 12 minutes remaining, Rafter, seeing a Tampa Bay player had beaten a Shore outside midfielder, slides over for another sweeping tackle, regains his footing and angles a 50-yard cross-field pass onto teammate Henry Shindler’s chest. Shindler dishes to another teammate, and bang, goal.
Shore goes on to earn a 2-0 victory, and in the process Rafter earns the attention of a number of attending college scouts.
“When we went there, that’s where all this Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Ohio State, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, that’s where they saw it. That game,” Cannon said. “He’s done all of this with that pressure. And I told him, ‘These people are coming to watch you.’ And he was like, ‘All right. Whatever.’ And he put on an absolute show.”
An MIAA B Conference first-team selection this past year, Rafter had always wanted to play Division I, but didn’t want to go too big.
“I just wanted to go to a smaller Division I school because I wanted that connection with the students and the teachers,” Rafter said. “Kind of like it is at a Saints Peter and Paul. Less kids. Teachers have more time to help you one on one. And that’s kind of like what I wanted because I feel that will benefit me in the long run.”
But Rafter thought his chances of playing college ball were in serious jeopardy when he suffered a compound fracture of his right leg during a 3-0 loss at Park School on Oct. 16.
Rafter had pushed up and gained possession of a ball just outside the 18-yard box on the left side of the field. The Sabres’ captain was looking to take a shot but made a touch that got a little ahead of him on the wet turf. Rafter and a Park central midfielder gave chase and arrived at the ball at the same time.
“He was just doing his job, coming to try and get the ball from me,” Rafter said of the defender. “We both went for it as hard as we could. I just planted my foot and he just got the best of me on the play. I knew something was wrong. I couldn’t feel my leg. I knew it was broken. I heard the snap and everything. I pretty much watched it happen. It was like in slow motion.”
The Sabres rebounded from the Park loss to win three of their next four before falling to Friends in the MIAA B semifinals to finish the season 12-5-1.
But Rafter’s season was done. His leg required surgery. He estimated a dozen Division I schools had contacted him about playing, and more than 25 combined Division II and III programs had shown interest. As he recuperated he wondered if everyone would shy away.
“It’s always been a dream of mind to play Division I soccer ever since I was in middle school,” Rafter said. “I started getting real serious about soccer, kind of figured out, this is my sport. This is what I’m good at. I’ve always had that goal to play Division I since then.”
St. Francis head coach Tom Giovatto was aware of Rafter’s injury. He was also aware of his talents and thought a player of Rafter’s caliber would benefit the middle of his defense.
“He’s a strong holding midfielder,” Giovatto said. “He’s good on the tackle. He has great range of passing and he has great vision. That’s a really big spot that we’re looking for. We’re going to need somebody that’s going to give us some quality minutes in there, and we think he can do it. He’s very well coached, and when you play for good coaches you pick up a lot of things.
“He’s coming off an injury and he’s working so hard just to make it to preseason and give us everything he’s got,” Giovatto continued. “And he has the personality and that will to make the squad, to do well. He told me ‘I just want to make you proud.’ A kid like that, you can’t ask enough. I know he’s going to do well for us.”
Cannon believes the same thing, but doesn’t know exactly when that time will come.
While the bone in Rafter’s leg has healed, he continues working his way back into playing shape, going to physical therapy twice a week, and training twice weekly with Cannon. It’s also uncertain whether fall sports seasons at the collegiate level will be played while the coronavirus pandemic continues hovering over the country.
When the time does come, Cannon knows what Giovatto and St. Francis will be getting.
“He’s among the top three players I’ve ever coached all the way around, if not the best,” Cannon said. “It’s not to slight anybody else. I just think he brings so much to the game. He’s a complete player. I can see him playing beyond college. He is a pro-style player. If he gets back to doing what he does, and continues to progress, he could very easily be a pro.
“I think Tom is getting a very, very good player that when he’s ready to go will make a huge impact on that program,” Cannon continued. “He’s just a guy who’s going to do a job. And you can’t do that with everybody.”