Prolific as he was in his college career, it was only fitting that Connor Maloney would end up on the score sheet just 15 minutes into his first start in Major League Soccer for the Columbus Crew on Saturday.
Maloney, who had 27 goals and 17 assists primarily as a forward over four seasons at Penn State, earned his first MLS assist much the way he earned a spot on the team in preseason, by not giving up. After getting to the end line and delivering a hard cross toward Ethan Finley, the ball was deflected back to him and he beat his man to it to set up a wide open Ola Kamara.
“I just didn’t give up on the play,” Maloney said.
When you’re 5-foot-6 as a forward facing the grind of a Big 10 schedule, it’s not hard to figure out where Maloney, who was also a placekicker on his high school’s football team at Bishop McDevitt, developed the relentlessness that got him to where he is now, a converted right back chasing his dream in central Ohio.
A former PA Classics star who spent time in the Philadelphia Union Academy in its early days as a training environment for the region’s best youth club players, the 22-year-old was the 49th player selected in January’s SuperDraft, going fifth in the third round.
Being drafted, especially in the third round, is good for an invite to preseason and little else. To prove he belonged, in a position he last played for four games at way back in his freshman year in college, Maloney had to first go through a grueling training camp in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
“You’re going in there wanting to prove yourself, to prove your worth,” Maloney said. “I went to Brazil and got the most out of it I could.”
Maloney’s time with the Philadelphia Union organization, as a teenager, during one summer in college playing for Reading United and a training stint last summer with the first team were all building blocks to a preseason test he ended up passing.
“It gave me a perspective on what it was like in MLS,” Maloney said of his time with the Union last summer. “Each and every day it’s just a competition and sometimes it’s a grind.”
The Harrisburg native was twice passed over in the second round by his local club, which was denied an opportunity to sign him as a homegrown player when rules related to youth club affiliate players were changed by the league (Former Union homegrowns Zach Pfeffer, Jimmy McLaughlin and Cristhian Hernandez all played for youth club affiliates as did Union draft pick Keegan Rosenberry, whose homegrown claim was denied).
But just as he unashamedly wears Penn State gear in Ohio State country, he looks back with fondness on his time representing the Union as a teenager.
“Bringing the best players around to the Union Academy made me a better player,” Maloney said. “I also made a lot of friends and still talk to a lot of the guys I played with there.”
That includes his Columbus Crew teammate Zack Steffen, a Downingtown native he used to do battle against when the Crew’s starting goalkeeper played for FC Delco. Maloney and Steffen were both on the Union team that won the 2012 Generation adidas Cup, which is still the only trophy at any level the club has won.
The Crew faced the Union in back-to-back games last month. And while Maloney’s family was at the game at Talen Energy Stadium on July 26, his first start and second appearance (he’s made two appearances on loan with Pittsburgh Riverhounds) came just three days later and more than 2,000 miles away in Utah.
“I’ve been waiting patiently,” Maloney said. “I knew when my number was called I would be ready...I think I made the most of it.”
His start, which he found out would be happening only a day earlier, was also just his second appearance since replacing an injured Harrison Afful at halftime back on March 11. Afful, who was injured for Saturday’s game, and Hector Jimenez, who had played three days earlier, are both ahead of Maloney in the depth chart.
Crew head coach and Sporting Director Gregg Berhalter called Maloney’s first start an “outstanding debut.”
“Not only did he hang in there, I think he had a very good game,” Berhalter said in an interview Monday. “His positioning was good, his commitment to fight was good, he had an assist. Overall, very pleased with Connor Maloney.”
Maloney’s former coach at Penn State, Bob Warming, was also pleased with what he saw.
“The formation seemed to be a little different, one that favored Connor,” Warming said. “He helped get the goal by attacking all the way to the end line.”
Warming, who still has Connor’s younger brother Austin Maloney on his squad for the upcoming season, said the ways his former star forward developed as a player at Penn State, particularly in his passing, will continue to serve the team Connor plans to see in person against Ohio State in September.
“Any time you see one of your better players continue to improve that is inspirational for everybody,” Warming said.