Jake Swihart eats, sleeps and breathes soccer.
Before he leaves for school, he’s checking scores. When he gets back home, he flips on a game or plays one himself on his Playstation. He spends hours each week training.
“It’s pretty much all I do,” said the Oostburg senior with aspirations of playing professionally. “It’s soccer, soccer, soccer all the time.”
Swihart this year is poised to take what could be a big step toward transforming his longtime passion into a professional pursuit. The soon-to-graduate 17-year-old figured on Oostburg’s state-bound soccer team last fall. Now, he’s looking to earn a spot on the newly formed Wisconsin Fire, a Major League Soccer-affiliated U-18 roster.
When MLS’ Chicago Fire decided to form a Wisconsin-based youth team to compete for the first time this year in a league comprising squads from professional soccer teams across the Midwest, it looked for some of the state’s most talented teenage soccer players by culling the ranks of nine club-level teams from around Madison and southeastern Wisconsin.
When Swihart, who plays with Cedarburg’s North Shore United soccer club, one of the nine teams targeted by Chicago, got an invitation this summer to show up to the first of several Wisconsin Fire tryouts, he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. But he showed up anyway, and survived the first round of cuts, earning an invitation to another tryout shortly afterward.
“I just thought it would be a great opportunity for him,” said Joe Hammes, the North Shore United club’s director of coaching who nominated Swihart for the tryout invitation.
“He’s definitely a smart payer,” Hammes added, noting Swihart’s position on the competitive Wisconsin Fire team could put him squarely in soccer scouts’ cross-hairs and provide chances to leapfrog forward in his playing career. “(He) has a good knowledge of the game, and just a real tireless worker.”
Swihart survived two more tryouts, eventually earning a chance to play an exhibition game of sorts against the Chicago Fire’s 18s Academy, an elite team that pulls developing soccer prospects from around the country — including, this year, from as far away as Mississippi.
“Stepping into Toyota Park was definitely one of the memories of my life,” Swihart said, referring to the Chicago Fire’s home stadium just outside Chicago, where the exhibition game took place.
“I saw a lot of stuff I can improve on just by playing in that game,” Swihart added, noting the Chicago 18s Academy players were among the best he’s ever played against. “… It just shows how much you need to improve your game if you want to be up on such a high level.”
“Watching a whole team at that caliber is so different,” said Jake’s father, Randy Swihart, noting the family is getting excited for the upcoming club season to start and for Jake’s potential role with the elite Wisconsin Fire club.
Swihart remembers developing an early distaste for soccer. He was a young kid when he started playing, and he was less than enthused by the sport.
“It didn’t really click. I didn’t really like soccer.”
A string of good coaches between the U-10 and U-12 levels, though, stirred his passion — “That really started the fire for me to like soccer,” he said — and eventually propelled him into Sheboygan- and Milwaukee-area soccer clubs.
A freshman trip to Spain, where he and his teammates played a tournament, helped stoke his interest. “It was a good experience,” he said. “Shows how much quality is in Europe.”
He has remained a force at the midfielder spot for Oostburg, which last fall earned co-Central Lakeshore Conference champion status and made its first trip to the state tournament since 1994. The team lost a 1-0 state semifinal match against a solid upstart St. Anthony team, which was playing in its first-ever state tournament.
“He’s worked a long time for this,” Oostburg soccer coach Steve Herzog, who steered the Flying Dutchmen to another state tournament appearance in the early 1990s, told Sheboygan Press Media in a brief statement. “He sees the field very well, knows how to distribute the ball. He has a nice touch on his kicks, he has some tight ball skills and he has improved as a leader.”
He stays busy training year-round. After school most days, he hits the gym — sometimes by himself — and spends hours each week shuttling to and from Cedarburg, where he often trains with his club team. (That’s on top of his schoolwork, of course.)
“I don’t know of a whole lot of kids that would start training at 16 years old … and train six and seven days a week on their own without somebody pushing them — doing it on his own I guess is one thing that’s really important,” Randy Swihart said.
“It’s very exciting to watch the progression as a player in general,” Randy added, “but as your own child it’s very rewarding.”
Always into sports
Randy Swihart admits his son’s fascination with soccer was a bit unusual for the family, which had never been much into the sport before Jake picked it up as a kid.
Then again, his growing passion for the game wasn’t totally shocking for the sports-centric family from Oostburg.
Jake Swihart had always been active growing up. He started racing ATVs as a youngster; he was just years removed from toddlerhood — his dad said he was about 5 years old when he got behind the four-wheeled vehicles’ handlebars — and he still races every now and then.
He also played baseball and basketball as a kid — “I wasn’t very good at either one of them,” Jake said. But he had something of a natural knack for soccer, and was playing on teams of older kids by the time he was a preteen.
“He got started playing rec ball, and it didn’t take him long and he was playing two years up,” said Randy Swihart.
“Everybody was surprised in the family” when Jake decided to focus entirely on soccer, shedding his earlier interest in ATVs, the elder Swihart added. “But we said, ‘If you want to, go ahead.'”
Sparking a ‘Fire’
The Wisconsin Fire is scheduled to launch its inaugural season in November, when among 18 of the state’s top players are expected to suit up for a showcase event in Ohio.
Before then, team officials are expected to finalize the Fire’s roster. Nobody, including Swihart, has officially locked up a spot on the team’s lineup, though Hammes said his performances in tryouts and the recent exhibition game should make it likely he’ll earn one of the team’s final roster positions.
“… Right now, I think he’s pretty much solidified himself there,” Hammes said. “I think he’s got a real good chance of staying there.”
Officials eventually expect to narrow down the talent pool to about two dozen players, from which they will pull the top 18 kids to travel to each of the Fire’s games. Who among the roughly 24 eligible players will earn a spot on the team’s rotating traveling roster could change from game to game, Fire officials said.
During the team’s season, which is scheduled to run into next spring, Swihart and other Fire players will continue playing on their normal club teams, and play in occasional Fire games. That means Swihart will still likely spend much of his time this year and next working with the North Shore Club team to which he’s grown familiar, hoping to catch regular spots on the Fire’s traveling roster.
Swihart said he’s looking to play soccer at college next year — a scholarship would be nice — and segueing elsewhere from there.
“It definitely shows that the U.S. is growing professional soccer, just because of the talent that was at that (exhibition) game,” Jake said.
Randy Swihart said the progress his son has made toward playing with the Fire has fanned his hopes that Jake’s dreams of playing professionally may be all the closer now of becoming reality.
“It is possible,” the elder Swihart said of his son’s professional aspirations. “I think it all comes down to the desire of the player, and he definitely has the desire and he sets the bar high for himself.”