Watkins Featured in Columbus (Ga) Ledger-Enquirer

Watkins Featured in Columbus (Ga) Ledger-Enquirer

Former Shaw soccer player working on game

By Troy Johnson, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

Even though he's surrounded on the field by other college soccer players, Clay Watkins quickly developed the sense that he had graduated to another level when he signed on this summer to play for the Panama City Pirates of the Premier Development League.

The amateur league serves as a proving ground for players 23-and-under and a recruiting pool for the United Soccer Leagues, which features professional teams in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. A few minutes into his first practice, Watkins, a former All-Bi-City player at Shaw High School, realized that he wasn't playing in a glorified summer recreational league.

"The style of play is probably 10 times faster than it is in college," said Watkins, a midfielder. "Everything from doing the little things to doing the difficult things is a lot easier for these players. Passing the ball around is just easy for them. They don't struggle to trap a ball or knock a ball from one side of the field to the other."

Watkins, who can trace his soccer beginnings back to Bibb Field as an under-6 player, knows where the game could take him if he continues to sharpen his skills. One of the players he encountered on the fields at the Woodruff Soccer Complex happened to be Marshall Leonard, who parlayed his talents into a career with the New England Revolution of Major League Soccer.

"I've played with him a few times," said Watkins, who will begin his senior season at Georgia Southwestern State in Americus in August. "It's never been farfetched to look at him on TV and say, 'Why can't I be there?' "

Watkins, who earned All-America and All-Region honors at Darton College in Albany before transferring to Georgia Southwestern State, has found an abundance of inspiration while playing for the Pirates this summer. One of his former teammates at Georgia Southwestern is busy carving out a pro career in Sweden's first division.

In the PDL, which sells itself as a place for amateur players to compete in a "professionalized setting while maintaining their collegiate eligibility," there's the possibility of playing in front of scouts from the USL or abroad. The league features 67 teams spread across four conferences.

The Pirates' 16-game regular season comes to a close Sunday, but Watkins said the experience has been worthwhile.

Even though the Pirates have played their home games at a local high school, Watkins said the interest in the team has been surprising. He said the typical home crowds of 400 dwarf what he saw during his last college season.

The most enjoyable component for Watkins, however, has been the regular opportunity to challenge himself against players from major college soccer factories like Duke, Virginia and Clemson. It's a rare experience for an athlete from a small college, akin to a Division II basketball player going up against counterparts from Kansas and UCLA.

"Everybody you play against is a top-notch player still in college," said Watkins, a 5-foot-8, 150-pounder. "Some of the guys that are here could easily go play in the MLS right now and they're 19 or 20 years old."

While Watkins will return to Georgia Southwestern to finish out his college career and a degree in business management, he understands the value of the visibility offered by the PDL. GSW, a Division II program, went 0-18 last season. Professional scouts tend to flock to programs in the Atlantic Coast Conference or Pac-10.

"If you have Duke or UNC written on your back, you could have played 25 minutes there (in your career) and you have yourself a good ticket," Watkins said. "You have your shot here. It's better than sitting at home and not doing anything all summer. I think you'll get a better look here than you would just coming out of college. Just getting a shot is the hard part.

"It's been an experience I wouldn't trade for anything."