Regular-season collegiate soccer may only last three months, but that didn’t stop some members of Penn men’s soccer from partaking in a rigorous and action-packed offseason. The highest-level players know that they need to maintain their fitness to be ready for games in September, and there’s no better way to prepare than by competing in competitive, full-length games.
Junior defender Leo Burney, junior midfielder Charlie Gaffney, and junior forward Stas Korzeniowski teamed up in the United Soccer League and helped secure a National Championship for Ballard FC this past summer. Rebranded in 2019, USL League Two is now considered one of the premier semi-professional developmental soccer leagues in the United States. The season takes place exclusively during the summer and has age restrictions, making it attractive for college athletes who are eager to play while maintaining their eligibility.
“This was my second season playing with [Ballard FC],” Burney said. “The first season I played with Ballard was actually their first year in existence. After I heard that a USL [League] Two team was coming to Seattle, I came in contact with their head coach, Jason Farrell. Charlie and I are actually from Seattle, and we joined Ballard during the same year. Stas joined the team this past summer. Stas and I are very close so I said to him, ‘why don't you come live in my house for the summer?,’ which he was really excited about. I don't want to speak for my teammates, but I think we'd all like to continue playing after college, and USL Two is really good for giving you repetitions and good competition in a different setting. I think it worked out really well for all three of us.”
From May to July, teams compete across 18 divisions and four conferences fight for a place in the playoffs. Ballard FC, based in Seattle, Washington, dominated the Northwest Division during the regular season and ended with a goal differential of +28. The team went on an electric run in the playoffs and earned a spot in the final against Lionsbridge FC.
In that final, it didn’t take long for Korzeniowski to get on the scoresheet. The 6-foot-4 forward turned his defender near the left edge of the penalty box, cut inside on his stronger right foot, and blasted the ball over the keeper near the far post to give Ballard the early lead in the 23rd minute.
After a very physical — yet scoreless — stretch of the game, which saw Burney making big defensive plays on the backline and Gaffney having multiple timed runs from midfield toward the opponent's goal, Lionsbridge ultimately equalized in the 80th minute. Just when extra time seemed on the horizon, Ballard managed to score the winning goal in the dying minutes of regular time, sending Starfire Stadium into a frenzy.
After the free kick set piece winning goal, Burney was seen joyously running alongside his teammates towards the exuberant pitchside Ballard fans. When the final whistle blew, the team erupted in celebration before ceremoniously lifting the USL League Two Championship trophy.
“It was one of the greatest sporting experiences I've ever been a part of,” Burney said. “There were around 5,000 people at the game, which is the most people I've ever played in front of. A lot of family and friends were there since the final wasn’t far from my hometown, and it was great that they could come and watch me play.
"The crowd was so into it throughout the whole game. I think the fans have created a very supportive community around the team even though [Ballard] has only been in existence for two years. The roar from the crowd after the winning goal and the celebrations after the game were great. I got to rekindle relationships with a lot of people from my youth soccer days in Washington, and being able to play and win with them again was an amazing feeling.”
The Penn players’ performances against other top prospects throughout the competition may leave some Quaker fans hopeful for another strong season of men’s soccer. Korzeniowski finished as Ballard’s top goalscorer, with 19 goals and 24 total goal contributions across both regular season and playoff games. Gaffney collected his fair share of offensive contributions and was a consistent creator for Ballard’s attack. Burney, Penn’s stalwart center back, joined Korzeniowski in the MAC Hermann Trophy Watch List Players of the Season list. He was a constant set-piece goalscoring threat and showcased his leadership and consistency in difficult moments.
“It’s important for me as a center back to be physically ready to play pretty much 90 minutes every game,” Burney said. “It was really good to get a lot of minutes before coming back to Penn and I feel super fresh and ready to keep going into the college season.”
After losing a few graduating players who were instrumental to their Ivy League title-winning success last season, the Quakers will need to rely more heavily on the growth of rising upperclassmen and their further development. If this summer showed anything, it is that Penn players are hungry to compete and should start the season in high gear. Despite the season-opening loss to Fordham, Korzeniowski was quick to open his 2023 scoring tally, continuing where he left off.
Penn will now look to build momentum after a dominant 3-0 away win at No.14 Penn State. With a scoreless draw Tuesday night at Rider ending a four-match opening away streak, a return to Penn Park against Albany this Saturday could help galvanize the Quakers ahead of upcoming Ivy League Conference play.