Will Bates didn’t grow up with soccer in his blood. Born in Chester, Virginia, in football country and raised by a father who had been a gridiron warrior at Virginia Military Institute, his success story is a classic example of the expansion of the sport in this country and of a homegrown talent’s route to the big stage.
“It was very small town soccer, which is why at 14 I kind of had to face the decision, ‘Do you move on to where there are better players, more exposure and a better league?’” Bates said.
Will Bates (right) celebrates his game-winning goal against ACC rival Maryland, October 7. Bates notched a hat-trick against Wake Forest during an October 14 match.
That year, Bates decided to travel to Richmond to play for the Richmond Strikers, a powerful regional club that became part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy system in 2007. Six months after Bates joined the Strikers, he got his first national pool call up.
Bates grew up a Major League Soccer fan and remembers David Beckham as his first soccer hero, but these days it’s all about another Manchester United icon, Wayne Rooney, with whom he has been compared. It might be the shaved head and broad shoulders…or it might be the goals.
“Similar body structures and I would like to say similar traits on the field. People like to make jokes about it. They’ve done side-by-side photos and stuff like that,” Bates said.
By his senior year at Thomas Dale High School, Bates was a prized recruit, and eventually chose UVA over the University of North Carolina and Virginia Tech. Head Coach George Gelnovatch remembers the way Bates struggled to transition to the speed of the college game as a freshman.
“He couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, to be honest with you,” Gelnovatch said. “And I’m talking about in training.”
But Bate’s competitive qualities and physical attributes were too much for the coach to resist.
“He’s big, he’s strong, he’s athletic. Great competitive spirit. The kid is a winner,” said Gelnovatch. “Raw might be overdoing it, but he needed some technical work coming in here.”
Bates broke into the UVA lineup halfway through his freshman year. He ended up scoring five game-winning goals during the Hoos national championship run in 2009 and finished the season as the team’s leading scorer, prompting Soccer America to name him National Freshman of the Year.
“I just think one of my best traits is working hard. I don’t think anything’s super natural. I’m one of the first guys out to practice every day and the last to leave,” Bates said.
Bates, who’s a junior now, was named ACC Men’s Soccer Co-Player of the Week last week after he made one goal with a neat pass then scored the game-winner against an undefeated Maryland team that came to Klockner Stadium ranked second in the country.
The 81st minute goal was an exclamation mark on an outstanding all-around performance. After working a one-two wide on the right wing, Bates drifted into the penalty area, where he anticipated a layoff pass and took advantage of a narrow window to slam the ball into the upper right corner.
“The defender left no space for me to go far post, which is probably where I would have gone, and I kind of saw the goalie in the middle goal. And I was just like, ‘If I can put this upper 90 on the near side, that’s my best chance,’” Bates said.
Bates downplayed the head-to-head competition with Maryland’s No. 10, Casey Townsend, who is projected to be a high MLS draft pick at the end of this year and like Bates is one of the top scorers in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“For me it’s just the fact that on the night we got the job done. We were heavy underdogs coming in and more than an individual battle between me and him, I just saw it as UVA beating Maryland, which was huge for us,” Bates said.
This year’s team is a combination of veterans of the 2009 championship team and young, unproven players. They got off to a rough start with some tough out of conference losses to Liberty and Charlotte, and a slew of injuries and suspensions. After three consecutive wins, the Cavaliers dropped a 4-3 heartbreaker to Wake Forest on Friday. Bates notched a hat trick. The team sits fourth in the ACC, having already played Duke, UNC, Maryland, Clemson and Wake, and is approaching full strength for the first time since the start of the season.
“I don’t think I would put us as a frontrunner for a national championship, but then again it’s soccer and the way we’ve played the last few games it’s definitely given us some hope,” Bates said.
Bates has 13 goals so far, but he wants 20. Gelnovatch said the junior forward’s challenge is to get his technical prowess up to the level of his competitive and physical gifts, something Wayne Rooney dealt with early in his career.
“We want to see him make big differences in big games,” Gelnovatch said. “The Maryland game is as good as it gets in terms of production against a quality opponent.”
But Bates’ greatest gift is his will to win and his belief in himself.
“Any coach in any sport wants that kind of guy on his team. He has those competitive intangible qualities, and trust me there’s a lot of talented guys that don’t have that and a lot of talented teams that don’t have enough of it,” Gelnovatch said.
As for imitating Wayne Rooney, Bates has the more modest goal of making a living playing the game he loves.
“I told my mom and dad I’m not going to get a real job. I’m going to play soccer the rest of my life,” Bates said.