Ben Bender and Brett St. Martin started as rivals during their high school soccer days in Baltimore before becoming teammates at Maryland the past two years.
On Tuesday, Bender, a 2020 Calvert Hall graduate, and St. Martin, a 2018 Mount Saint Joseph grad, enjoyed the biggest moments of their careers to date.
Bender was the No. 1 overall pick by expansion Charlotte FC in the 2022 Major League Soccer SuperDraft, while Martin was taken in the second round, No. 50 overall, by Sporting Kansas City.
“It’s pretty special. Brett has been an awesome teammate of mine, a great captain,” said Bender, who signed a Generation Adidas contract Thursday to become eligible for the draft. “When I played against him at Mount Saint Joe, it was always difficult going there. I actually had to mark Brett on corners every time I played against him and he can jump through the roof, so that was tough.
“So we were able to sharpen one another before Maryland and then when we got there, it was pretty cool. Getting to know him, he’s a really good guy, down to earth and pretty funny, too. It’s just really special that me and one of my teammates gets to share this moment together.”
In reaching their ultimate goal of becoming professional soccer players, the two standouts had similar journeys. Ben’s father, Mark, was his first youth coach, and Brett’s father, Mike, was his high school coach at Mount Saint Joseph. Both were four-year starters in high school, with each becoming two-time All-Metro picks. And both will say the starting point for their success was the hard work they put in — triggered by their love for the game.
“Soccer is a team game and you often rely on others to make plays for you. But, at the same time, I always said I’m going to focus on myself and control what I can control and let everything fall into place,” said St. Martin, who recently graduated from Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in communication. “Just going out to the field by myself, going out to street and kicking the ball against the curb and developing my technical skills. You start to see the good things happen and the hard work paying off.”
In turning the Maryland men’s soccer program into a national power, coach Sasho Cirovski enjoyed a steady pipeline of Baltimore-area players help the Terps capture four national championships in 29 seasons. He said there are two things you can bank on from Baltimore players: They all receive quality developmental coaching at the club and high school levels, and they all come to Maryland with fierce competitive spirit.
Drew Yates (Archbishop Curley) was the first Baltimore-area Terp to get drafted in the MLS, becoming a second-round pick of the Chicago Fire in 2010. On Tuesday, Bender became the third Terp — joining Maurice Edu (2007) and Leo Cullen (1998) — and the first Baltimore-area player to be selected No. 1 overall in the 23 years of the MLS SuperDraft.
“It’s a dream come true,” Bender said surrounded by his friends and family at his Baltimore home during a live broadcast of the draft. “I just can’t wait to get started. I know that the football down there is a good brand, and I just want to be a part of that.”
Cirovski watched St. Martin, who made seven starts as a freshman for the Terps’ most recent national championship team in 2018, consistently improve in each of his four seasons. The veteran coach describes Bender as a “soccer junkie” whose unique two-way midfield skills made him one of the top players in the country last season.
“There’s something in the DNA of Baltimore soccer that has become part of the DNA at the University of Maryland soccer and that’s this competitive grit and toughness,” he said. “We’re a program that has been known to recruit white-collar talent, but has always maintained our blue collar work ethic and I think guys like Brett and Ben fit into that category. I’m exited to see them play at the next level.”
For St. Martin, who always played center back in high school, successfully adjusting to a new position at right back as a freshman provided a confidence boost before he moved back to his more familiar role in the middle.
He’s excited at the opportunity to prove himself at the professional level. Pundits project St. Martin playing at right back in the MLS.
“I think I’ve always brought a real competitive edge to every team regardless of where I’m playing on the field. I’m always giving my all and I don’t want to lose any battle let alone any game,” he said. “I take every little thing seriously. We always say at Maryland the small details mean a lot and they add up to the bigger picture.”
With seven goals and five assists in his sophomore season, Bender blossomed into a star to help the Terps finish 12-4-2 and reach their 21st straight NCAA tournament. With his smart positioning and vision, Bender scored and distributed the ball with flair while maintaining discipline defensively.
“I’ve practiced trying to be effective in all levels of the game whether that’s defensively or getting in the attack,” he said. “I love making late runs from the midfield to help the guys up front finish plays off and I also like to put the work in on defense. That’s something I learned at Maryland, to hate to not have the ball, so I want to win the ball back as fast as I can.”
In his senior year at Calvert Hall in 2019, Bender had 14 goals and four assists to lead the Cardinals (9-7-1) to the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference semifinals. A two-time first-team All-State selection, he participated in the High School All-American Game and was named the Gatorade Maryland Boys Soccer Player of the Year.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” Bender said. “I’ve had the benefit to play with so many good players over the years and be coached by so many great coaches and to get to this point now it’s just been a blessing. The last two years at Maryland have been great. The coaching staff there – Sasho, Miles [Vaughn] and Jake [Pace] – they’ve been awesome and they’ve really helped me get to the next level and they’ve given me so many good opportunities to play my game on the field. I just couldn’t be more thankful.”
Another pair of prospects with local ties also got picked Tuesday. Navy defender Matt Nocita, a three-time Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year, was taken No. 7 overall by the New York Red Bulls, while Loyola Maryland’s Justin Ingram, a two-time Patriot League Midfielder of the Year, was selected in the second round with the 48th overall pick by Inter Miami.
A transfer from Virginia who spent three years at Loyola, Ingram finished with seven goals and 10 assists in leading the Greyhounds to the Patriot League title and a berth in the NCAA tournament.
As a senior, Nocita anchored a Navy back line at center back that allowed just 20 goals and finished with a league-best 10 shutouts.