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Soccer

Navy defender Matt Nocita taken seventh overall in MLS SuperDraft by New York Red Bulls

Members of the New York Red Bulls management team knew Matt Nocita faced an uncertain path toward playing Major League Soccer.

That Nocita attends the Naval Academy and has a five-year military commitment pending did not deter the organization one bit.

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New York traded up twice to guarantee the opportunity to select Nocita with the seventh overall pick of the 2022 MLS SuperDraft, held Tuesday afternoon.

The Chicago Fire were set to make the seventh pick when MLS officials announced a timeout in the proceedings. It was then revealed the Red Bulls had acquired that pick from the Fire.

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Denis Hamlett, Sporting Director for New York Red Bulls since 2017, stepped to the microphone and announced the selection of Nocita.

“That caught me by surprise. That’s the best compliment I could have gotten today,” Nocita said of New York trading up to get him. “It’s an unreal feeling. Waking up this morning, I could not have imagined this.”

Nocita was invited to virtually attend the MLS SuperDraft and watched the proceedings from the “Hall of Honor” at the Glenn Warner Soccer Facility on the Naval Academy campus. He was joined by teammate Tyler Fahning and Navy coach Tim O’Donohue along with assistants Andrew Bednarsky, Mark Risbridger and Brooks Wilson.

As soon as the announcement was made, Nocita accepted a Red Bulls hat and scarf from Fahning and put both on before conducting a live interview with MLS SuperDraft headquarters.

“This is an absolute dream come true and to be able to share it with my friends and coaches is amazing,” said Nocita, a four-year starting defender for the Midshipmen.

Notica is just the second player in Navy men’s soccer history to be selected in the MLS SuperDraft. He joins Joseph Greenspan, who was picked in the second round of the 2015 draft by the Colorado Rapids.

Greenspan, a 2015 academy graduate, made four appearances over two seasons (2015, 2016) with the Rapids. The 29-year-old defender retired following the 2020 season after playing for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and San Diego Loyal of the United Soccer League.

“All praise to Joe Greenspan for opening the door on this opportunity. He really paved the way for me in a lot of ways,” Nocita said.

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Nocita, a product of Oaks Christian High in Porter Ranch, California, started all 59 games in which he appeared at center fullback for Navy. The 6-foot-8, 205-pound star was named Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year three times.

Nocita anchored a Navy defense that annually ranked among the conference’s best. This past fall, the Midshipmen recorded 10 shutouts — second-highest single-season total in program history.

Skillfully using his tremendous height and leaping ability on set pieces, Nocita came forward to contribute 14 career points on six goals and two assists.

Nocita’s status as a top professional prospect was solidified when he was one of only 44 players invited to the MLS College Showcase, held Dec. 10-12 on the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill. That event consisted of group training sessions, individual testing, interviews and match play.

“Matt did extremely well with the physical testing at the combine. His numbers in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump and other metrics were top tier among all the players in attendance,” O’Donohue said.

Several MLS executives and coaches reached out to O’Donohue to discuss Nocita, who was also a 2021 CoSIDA first-team Academic All-American. He was named to the Naval Academy Superintendent’s List four times and Commandant’s List four times.

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“Matt interviewed extremely well. He met with seven different teams and every general manager and coach came back to me and said how he impressed they were with Matt as a leader and a person,” O’Donohue said. “I think a lot of teams were excited about his overall profile and potential.”

O’Donohue had spoken to Hamlett on Monday and was aware that the Red Bulls were “very keen on Matt.” When word filtered out that New York had obtained the seventh overall pick from Chicago, the seventh-year coach had a feeling Nocita was the reason.

“I think the Red Bulls really did their homework. They watched a lot of our games and got a good feel for how Matt played,” O’Donohue said. “They were really impressed with his individual defending and how he reads the game.”

Nocita has already begun the process of petitioning the United States Navy for an opportunity to play professional soccer. He hopes to take advantage of a Department of Defense policy that permits service academy graduates to pursue pro sports immediately after graduation.

Nocita, who has received Marine Corps Ground as a service assignment, will remain at the academy for the remainder of the spring semester and is set to graduate in May.

“New York is familiar with my situation. They know what drafting me comes with as far as some of the intricacies and nuances of attending the Naval Academy,” Nocita said. “We’ll have to see how it all shakes out. I really can’t speak on that too much right now. I’m just really excited about the opportunity, and we’ll see how it develops.”

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Athletes approved for the “pro sports option” graduate from their respective service academy but are not commissioned as officers. They must still serve their entire five-year military obligation and are commissioned after retiring or being released as a professional athlete.

Zac McGraw, a 2020 graduate of Army West Point, is entering his third season as a defender for the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer. McGraw was the 68th overall pick of the 2020 MLS SuperDraft.

MLS is set to open its 27th season of play Feb. 26. O’Donohue said all 28 MLS franchises knew Nocita would not be available until June at the earliest, and possibly later.

“Obviously, there’s a process we need to follow. All the paperwork is being filled out and we’re following the various guidelines,” O’Donohue said. “The Red Bulls understand this is a long-term investment and that Matt is different than other college athletes.”

Nocita recently attended an individual combine hosted by the Red Bulls and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. He spent time with Hamlett and coach Gerhard Struber among other staff members.

“I’m really excited the Red Bulls recognized my ability and made me their pick. I really saw myself fitting in well with the organization, so it worked out tremendously that this is the club I’m going to be with,” Nocita said.

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“The Red Bulls play a very high-paced style of soccer and that’s the type of system I feel very comfortable playing in. I love to battle as a center back, and I think my pace and speed will really help me out in their style of play.”


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