NEW BRITAIN — Two of the best soccer players the Naugatuck Valley League has produced in the last decade — if not ever — are leading a new Connecticut squad in the nation’s top amateur league.
Naugatuck’s Ryan Kinne and Prospect’s Jesse Menzies are members of CFC Azul, a first-year team in the United Soccer Leagues’ Premier Development League. The PDL bills itself as the top amateur soccer league in the country.
CFC Azul might be brand new to the top amateur soccer scene, but the organization already has high goals to elevate the team — which doesn’t have a home field — pretty quickly.
“The club has visions of building a stadium,” head coach Dave Kelly said. “We’re really trying to do it right. The long-term plan is to become a professional team, whether it’s in USL Pro or MLS. But the near-term plan is to build a stadium and make this a quintessential team where top local amateur players want to come.”
CFC Azul draws mostly from current and former college players with local connections. That meant the opportunity was just right for Kinne and Menzies.
Kinne, a 2007 Naugatuck High graduate and a 2011 grad of Monmouth University, has racked up as many accomplishments as any area athlete in recent memory. A 2006 All-American at Naugatuck and a two-time collegiate All-American, Kinne joined CFC Azul after being released from his pro contract with the MLS’ New England Revolution in March.
“It really was a bad time [to be cut],” Kinne said. “I tried contacting other pro teams and those teams already had their rosters pretty much set. I saw that this team was coming together so I made some calls and got on the team. It’s a great thing for me to get some game time with some really good players.”
Kelly welcomed Kinne to the squad for a number of reasons.
“He has all the essential tools you need to succeed,” Kelly said. “He has technique and athleticism, but beyond all that he has passion and hunger. He loves the game, he loves to play, and he loves to compete. He’s hypercompetitive.”
Kinne had a chance to rejoin the Revolution’s reserve squad earlier this month when the team was short of players.
“It was nice,” Kinne said. “A lot of my good friends are still there. It was great to play with them this year.”
Kinne is Azul’s leading scorer with 16 points in 12 games. That’s twice as many points as any of his teammates, and his seven goals are three more than anyone else on the squad. But the numbers seem to mean less to Kinne than the development of his overall game.
“This has given me time to regroup and focus on different parts of my game that I needed to work on,” Kinne said. “I’m playing with a lot of kids I played with when I was younger, so it’s been pretty cool.”
He’s not getting the paycheck he was during his stint as a pro, but playing locally has some perks for Kinne.
“Being able to live at home is definitely a plus,” Kinne said. “It’s nice to have a little home cooking.”
But Kinne hopes he doesn’t have to stick around too much longer after Azul’s season finishes on July 14.
“I’m still looking to move on to bigger things,” Kinne said. “I’m working with a buddy of mine from college who’s an agent. He’s going to try to hook me up with some tryouts in August.”
Menzies will have to wait at least a while longer before he gets any pro tryouts, as the 2009 Woodland Regional High grad prepares for his senior season at Central Connecticut State University.
The 2008 All-New England player at Woodland has noticed a marked difference between college competition and what he’s faced this summer.
“Everyone’s at a really high athletic level,” Menzies said. “In college and high school you can get away with being the fast kid on the field. Now everyone’s as fast and strong as you are. Now it’s more about skill.”
Even though Menzies hasn’t scored for CFC Azul, he leads the squad in an equally impressive statistic — Menzies has played every one of the 1,133 minutes possible through 13 games.
“It gets tiring after a while, I guess,” Menzies said. “It makes me feel important to the team. There’s not a position I don’t play, either. I’m a utility player. If someone’s hurt or tired at one position, I can fill in. It makes me feel like I’ve got a really good purpose.”
“He has exceeded my expectations,” Kelly said. “He’s a phenomenal athlete. He’s quick and strong on the ball. He’s been one of our most consistently good players.”
Menzies hopes that the experience with CFC Azul helps him reach his goals of personal recognition this fall with the Blue Devils and a pro career.
“I haven’t gotten the personal accolades yet,” Menzies said. “We can’t play in the postseason tournaments [because of the team’s academic ineligibility], so I’m going to try to get some recognition and work on my own game. I have some aspirations for a pro career.”