It was a pleasantly short offseason for former Red Storm goalkeeper Neal Kitson.
As the rest of St. John’s men’s soccer team took a much deserved vacation after the 1-0 overtime loss to Maryland in the College Cup semifinal, Kitson sat down with his girlfriend on Jan. 15 to watch the Major League Soccer SuperDraft.
He anxiously watched his computer screen as it slowly defined what Kitson’s immediate future would hold.
“As we were looking on the computer waiting to see my name, I went out of the room and got a phone call,” Kitson said. “I got a phone call from [St. John’s assistant coach Marc] Reeves and he said, ‘Did you hear?’ Then people were texting me, instant messaging me and calling me.”
The Red Storm’s standout keeper was selected 42nd overall in the third round by the Kansas City Wizards. Kitson was the only St. John’s player to be selected and one of only five keepers taken in the 60-player draft. He was on a plane to Kansas City three days later.
The news not only sent Kitson down the path he desired since he was a child, it also marked a historic day for the St. John’s soccer program. Kitson was the first Red Storm goalkeeper ever selected in the SuperDraft. Former Johnnie goalie Bill Gaudette was picked in the 2005 MLS Supplementary Draft.
Thanks to his time at Belson Stadium in Queens, Kitson believes he will be well prepared to make the transition from college to the pros.
“[St. John’s] coaches really give you a professional outlook on things,” Kitson said. “And this is now a very professional environment and I feel I was prepared. But it’s a business now, people have to perform. But I’m really happy I ended up here.”
Kitson is listed on the Kansas City roster alongside 12-year MLS veteran Kevin Hartman, which ultimately means he won’t be starting too many games in his rookie season. But again, his four seasons at St. John’s under head coach Dave Masur should be plenty preparation for him to succeed at the next level.
The 2008 season marked Kitson’s first full year as a starter after backing up Jason Landers for the previous years. His time as a reserve taught him that practice and training are often just as important as the 90 minutes of game time.
“I’ve learned a lot when I wasn’t starting at St. John’s, but I was training and learning the things I had to do,” Kitson said. “I just had to stick with it. Anywhere you play, it’s an up and down roller coaster ride.”
Kitson also immediately picked up on another major difference between the college and pro game.
“People here are a lot bigger,” he said.
Masur has coached a handful of players that have gone on to compete professionally. He tells each of them the same thing before they move on to the big stage: “It’s not about being spectacular. It’s about being consistent.”
“It’s really an ability to stick with it,” Masur added. “You’re moving up to a whole other level. There’s an experience factor and sometimes it takes time to grow into those adjustments. You have to be able to do everything in a fairly consistent way.”
Kitson put on a show in the College Cup semis, which undoubtedly boosted his stock before the SuperDraft. Masur and players from around Division I told him it ranked among the all-time great performances by a St. John’s keeper.
As a senior, Kitson finished his career by setting a new school record with 15 shutouts as he led the Storm to its fourth College Cup in school history. Kitson’s 0.48 goals against average, the second-best in school history, ranked fifth in the country. The keeper’s .888 save percentage also ranked fourth in the NCAA.
Masur offered some final parting advice to his All-College Cup First Team keeper before he left for his professional soccer career.
“Don’t get upset if things don’t come right away,” he told Kitson. “Work hard and be open-minded to continue to learn.”