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Weston soccer star takes game on the road

McCabe heading to Florida for national U-17 program

Declan McCabe competes last spring as a member of the New England Revolution's U-16 squad. Declan McCabe competes last spring as a member of the New England Revolution's U-16 squad. (Keith Nordstrom)
By Jason Mastrodonato
Globe Correspondent / August 18, 2011

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When Declan McCabe was 8, his ability as a skier - or perhaps his ambition and pure guts - was at such a high level that his father, Mike, recalls rigging a few take-off ramps more than 20 feet high.

If Riley and Collin, his two older brothers, could make the jumps, so could Declan.

Now the 15-year-old Weston resident is taking another leap. But his recent selection to the US Soccer organization’s under-17 residency program - which has hosted the likes of professionals Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley, and Freddy Adu since its inception in 1999 - is well grounded.

“Declan is a modest kid,’’ said Bob Pipe, the varsity soccer coach at the Rivers School, where McCabe played as a freshman last fall.

“You’d walk down the street and you wouldn’t look at him twice. He does what he’s supposed to do. A good student, doesn’t get in trouble in school, but he doesn’t take over. He’s just a natural, normal kid.

“But you put him on a soccer field . . . he’s brilliant.’’

McCabe’s ability to maintain a level-headed approach has drawn rave reviews from his coaches, who believe it’s a big factor in the young midfielder’s success.

McCabe says he’s been playing soccer since he was 2 , and joined a club team at age 6. An early start, perhaps, but it led to his eventual spot on the New England Revolution’s U-16 squad, a chance to play at the US Soccer Under-14 and Under-15 national team camps in 2009 and last year, and starting on Aug. 27, a ticket to Bradenton, Fla., and an opportunity of a lifetime.

“It was one of those really lucky things,’’ said McCabe.

The U-17 residency program is a full-time commitment to soccer, with afternoon classes at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School sprinkled in to help the players keep up academically.

According to former Rivers soccer star Sheanon Williams, who spent 2 1/2 years with the program before finding a home with the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer, Bradenton is no fantasy camp. It’s a place of work.

“It’s a big commitment,’’ said Williams, a mainstay on defense for the Union this season.

“You’re moving away from home, your friends, your family, what you’re comfortable with. To move in with a bunch of people you don’t know and an environment you’re not used to, it’s a very big commitment.’’

And simply being selected to the program does not guarantee anything. The 21-year-old Williams said the program is not for the faint of heart; the roster is constantly being trimmed, as the players compete for a spot on the US team in the U-17 World Cup tournament in two years.

“You have till Christmas break and they make cuts at that time, and at the end of the summer they make another set of cuts,’’ Williams said. “It’s pretty cutthroat. There’s always someone trying to get your spot. It’s definitely not like club soccer, where you’re the big star.’’

But it’s a commitment McCabe said he is willing to make, and one that many think will lead to more success for the already accomplished rising sophomore.

“I think Declan will do well down there,’’ said Bryan Scales, director of youth development with the Revolution and McCabe’s coach on the U-16 team. “He’s not a finished product yet, but he’s got a lot of good soccer ahead of him.’’

McCabe said leaving his friends and family was not an easy decision, but he thinks he’s ready to take the next step.

“I always knew I wanted to go,’’ said the central midfielder, who shined briefly for Rivers last fall before a groin injury and his play with the U-15 national team cut short his time at the private school in Weston.

“I’ve been thinking about it for two years since I made the first national camp I went to. I knew if I got the call, I would definitely want to do it.’’

As a parent, Mike McCabe said, “you’re nervous about putting anyone who is 15 years old hundreds of miles away from you, and seeing them just a few times a year.

“But the reality is, he’s mature enough to handle it,’’ added McCabe, who played two years of Division 3 collegiate soccer at Ohio Wesleyan. “You have to surround yourself with people better than you. That’s how you get better, and he realizes that.’’

For his 5-foot-8, 135-pound son, who is praised by coaches for his poise, ability to keep the ball at his feet, and knack for making the right decision, learning the game may not be as much of an issue. He simply needs to grow into his young body.

“I think if anything’s going to hold him back, that’s it,’’ said Pipe, who called McCabe and Williams complete opposites, physically. “But that’s the great thing about him: He just gets the job done.

“I would never bet against him. I think he proves people wrong every day. And people in the school will say, ‘Is he really that good?’ And you say, ‘Yeah, he is.’ But if you don’t know soccer that well, you might not see it. Because he does all the little things and does them all well.’’

Roughly a third of the 300-plus players selected for the U-17 residency program have gone on to sign professional contracts, with 19 others earning at least one cap with the US national team. So it would be easy for McCabe to start looking too far ahead.

But that’s one hill that even the ambitious teenager won’t look to jump.

“I haven’t really thought about it yet,’’ he said. “I really just want to try to be in this U-17 World Cup and see what happens from there. I mean, it’s definitely in the back of my mind, but something I definitely want to keep there.’’

“If he finishes the residency program,’’ Pipe said, “plays for two years, goes to the World Cup, he will have professional offers when he graduates high school.’’

McCabe can only hope. But for now, it’s off to Florida, and he said he has one thing to keep in mind: “It all depends on what you want and how badly you want it.’’

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