It’s a cold, rainy day in October.
IU men’s soccer head coach Todd Yeagley and his team are out in the elements anyway, preparing for an upcoming clash with Michigan State. The starters scrimmage with the bench players and reserves, the two teams going back and forth until the ball falls to the feet of freshman defender Jack Maher. He doesn’t hesitate, dribbling to his right before surely pulling the ball back and passing to his left, keeping the ball moving.
The lone freshman in the starting lineup of a veteran team with monumental ambitions, Maher doesn’t stick out.
“I think he was an old soul when he came in,” IU assistant coach Danny O’Rourke said, “I call him Senator Maher because I could see him having a future in office because he’s so composed.”
You can see this at practice—he simply belongs.
Todd Yeagley stares into a camera on National Signing Day 2018. IU has just received a National Letter of Intent from recruit Jack Maher and Yeagley is introducing him to the Hoosier faithful with a short scouting report.
“Jack has all the qualities,” Yeagley says, “It’s no doubt that Jack was one of our first key recruits in this class, knowing that we’re gonna lose Grant Lillard to graduation. We think there’s no doubt that Jack has the qualities to slide in and help us continue to be one of the best back lines in the country.”
From the get-go, there was an expectation for Maher. He would come in and help fill the shoes of MAC Hermann Trophy finalist Grant Lillard, no easy task. It might seem unfair to put those expectations on an incoming freshman, but there was a good reason. The highly regarded recruit from the St. Louis area had more experience than the average freshman, maybe more experience than the average sophomore.
Before putting on the cream and crimson for the first time, Maher had already played in multiple tournaments in the red, white, and blue. As a member of the United States Youth National Team, Maher traveled to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Portugal to play.
Back stateside, he trained with Saint Louis FC of the United Soccer League, even making his USL debut at the end of the 2017 regular season in a match against Bethlehem Steel FC. Maher’s experience playing with and against professionals has helped him a lot. Those professionals are more often than not bigger, faster, and stronger than even the best college player. It was playing in the USL that helped Maher develop his greatest strength.
Coaches search for center backs that are tall, fast, and strong, all of which are tools that Maher has, or the potential to develop.
He’s 6’3” with room to grow into his frame and O’Rourke described him as “deceptively fast,” but there’s something else that is important for a central defender—their mental ability. This is where Maher thrives. In a scouting report on him people throw around descriptions like “cerebral,” “smart,” and “reads the game well.” Even Maher, ever the expert on his own game, recognizes this as possibly his greatest strength.
“One of my strengths is being a very good leader, someone that can communicate, and I feel like I’m pretty smart and know where the play’s gonna happen two, three, four steps ahead of the rest of the guys,” Maher said.
Sometimes he looks like an aircraft marshal on the pitch. He waves his arms directing traffic the way that marshals wave their orange wands on the tarmac. In Indiana’s College Cup matchup with Maryland, this was common. The Terrapins actively tried to shut down IU’s left wing—its more dominant attacking side. Maher was a key cog in combating this strategy as players would make back passes to him to either help set up forward runs or possibly a switch in play to try to work the ball up the right wing.
Maher’s self-awareness is something else that benefits him in a big way. He says that knowing your strengths and weaknesses can take your game to the next level. The thing about that is in order to know your weaknesses, you need to have them and that may not be the case with Maher.
“There’s not really a weakness to his game,” O’Rourke said, “I think the strong parts are strong and the weak parts have gotten exponentially better. If he doesn’t know something, he’s the first person to ask me.”
Things weren’t perfect for the freshman this season, there were speed bumps along the way. One in particular was IU’s match against rival Kentucky. The Wildcats had a big, strong forward in MAC Hermann Trophy finalist JJ Williams who gave Maher some trouble as Kentucky blew out the Hoosiers 3-0. Williams scored a pair of goals and assisted on another against the Hoosier backline. “He had to worry about winning second balls, first balls and second balls on him,” O’Rourke said, “I think that’s still something we can work on.”
O’Rourke went on to mention that Maher’s tools allow him to adapt quickly, the benefits of having a sharp mind and being effective with both feet.
Recently the freshman faced another challenge. The Hoosiers were in the postseason, looking to make a return trip to the College Cup and come home with some hardware this time. Though despite the stakes of the game, and despite the inexperience of the freshman on this stage, Maher wasn’t fazed.
“What’s truly special about this team is that every single game is a championship game,” Maher said, “We have to win every single game, we’re expected to win every single game, and so that it is postseason, it is still that same mindset that we need to win each and every game.”
The Hoosiers did win each and every game in the NCAA Tournament, all the way up to the College Cup semifinal. Maher and his fellow defenders performed admirably—they didn’t allow a single goal in the Tournament until their matchup with eventual national champion Maryland in Santa Barbara when they allowed two in a season-ending loss.
Despite the early end to his first campaign in Bloomington, the future is bright for Maher. He was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year at the end of the regular season and was recently named to Top Drawer Soccer’s First-Team Freshman Best XI. In 2019 he’ll be a key returner for the Hoosiers, especially with senior defenders Rece Buckmaster, Timmy Mehl and Andrew Gutman departing, as well as goalkeeper Trey Muse reportedly choosing to turn pro. As a sophomore, Maher could be one of the more veteran members of next season’s starting lineup thanks to the experience he gained in the 2018 postseason. This partnered with his skill leaves plenty of reason for optimism for Hoosier fans and coaches alike.
“As a freshman I wouldn’t trade him for anyone else in the country that’s how confident I am,” O’Rourke said, “If we do our jobs as coaches I’d see him having a very successful career here and at the next level.”