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In Birmingham, Alabama, football and baseball reign supreme.

Young boys begin playing on organized teams not long after they start walking, cultivating their talents for a future of high school competition under Friday night lights.

So it is no surprise that men’s soccer recruit Alex Reddy launched his athletic career on the baseball diamond.

“When I was 3 or 4, my parents signed me up for tee ball,” the freshman recalled. “But it was really poorly run. The coaches were just awful, so it pushed me to soccer, and then it took off from there.”

As the only player listed on the Penn roster from the Deep South, Reddy’s high school experience differed somewhat from his teammates, with soccer games in his hometown often overshadowed by other events.

While his entire school regularly turned out for football games, no more than 50 people — mostly friends and family — would come to see the soccer team.

Fortunately for athletes who are passionate about soccer but live in areas where the sport is not as popular, new developments at the national level have helped talented players like Reddy climb to the collegiate ranks.

The U.S. Soccer Federation Development Academy, which has flourished since its creation in 2006, brings the top 80 club teams together for national showcases, making it much easier for coaches to scout top talent across the country.

This is how men’s soccer coach Rudy Fuller found Reddy and many of the other six incoming recruits — all of whom hail from different states, including Oregon, California and Florida.

“Club soccer has grown tremendously in the past 20 years, and you do have soccer being played nationally in every state and in every nook and cranny,” Fuller said. “The challenge for us is getting to all those spots to try and see them.”

“The Development Academy has essentially taken the cream of the crop and then made it much more organized and structured, so it makes it a bit easier for us to see teams from Alabama or Florida or California. In the past, it was even more dispersed.”

With a roster full of players from around the country, Fuller often has to deal with playing styles that differ based on geographic locale.

“You have areas of the country like Florida or California where you can play year round,” he said. “It can also be hotter, so there is not as much running and there is more ball movement and passing, whereas in the cooler climates, it is more industrious and more of a physical style.”

Though Fuller says that the diversity of playing styles on the field can have a negative impact on the macro level — the absence of a national playing style has been an obstacle for the men’s national team as well — Reddy and Fuller both agree that at Penn diversity on the field is not necessarily a bad thing.

“Playing with people from different places is a great learning experience as a soccer player because they definitely have different styles … and I think that I’ve improved a lot because of it.” Reddy said.

“There’s a lot more skilled players that I’m playing with — light passes, knock it around, combination play — whereas before people would be just good athletes down in the South, hit the ball over the top and just run on to it.”

For players like Reddy, who were standouts competing against a limited talent pool, the transition from the high school level to fast-paced Division I soccer is often difficult.

Reddy enters the program with a list of credentials, including a state championship and recognition as a finalist for the Gatorade Alabama Player of the Year award. Yet at Penn, he will most likely have a diminished role on a team that returns the majority of its starters from last season.

When asked what role he expects to play this season, Reddy replied, “Probably coming off the bench, hopefully being an impact player there, offensively just trying to get us started and be a spark.”

With seven other Penn recruits facing similar challenges, senior captain Tobi Olopade noted that upperclassmen leadership on the team is essential to helping the new players get acclimated, no matter where they call home.

“It starts in the locker room. As soon as you feel comfortable in the locker room you’ll feel comfortable on the field,” Olopade said.

Although the players bring different skill sets to the table, they all share a passion for the game. Reddy, Fuller and Olopade all agree that this bond will help return the Ivy title to the team that earned it in 2008.

“We are all here to play soccer and we all love to play soccer, so I think that really translates onto the field as freshman,” Olopade said. “As soon as you feel comfortable in that environment you can play to your full potential.”

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