‘He’s got all the tools’: Goalkeeper Russell Shealy emerges at Syracuse
‘He’s got all the tools': Goalkeeper Russell Shealy emerges at Syracuse
As Russell Shealy prepared to take the field Oct. 24 in Blacksburg, Va., an old feeling crept back in: nerves.
Making his first collegiate start in more than a year, Shealy hadn’t felt those “butterflies” in a long time. And that’s when the redshirt sophomore knew he was ready to seize his opportunity.
“I always get nervous before a game,” Shealy said. “And if I don’t, then something’s wrong.”
The transfer from Maryland never felt those nerves for the Terrapins, which he said meant he didn’t play his best soccer there. But against Virginia Tech in late October, Shealy’s eight-save performance helped the Orange hold on for a 1-1 draw against the Hokies after extra time, even as Shealy’s side played down a man for the final 42 minutes.
“I thought he was very good today,” SU head coach Ian McIntyre said of Shealy after the match. “He was calm, when he was called on he made important saves.”
Junior Christian Miesch, who started 17 of 20 games in 2019, served as Syracuse’s primary goalie for the first three games in 2020. But McIntyre tapped Shealy for the final two games of the Orange’s abbreviated season.
Shealy followed up his eight save performance against the Hokies with another strong one in a 1-0 loss to Virginia, making several saves one on one against attackers and even dove the right way on the Cavaliers’ controversial penalty kick.
Ahead of the Virginia match, McIntyre explained that the switch to Shealy wasn’t a reflection on Miesch, but rather a recognition that Shealy’s work in training would translate into a “terrific” performance.
But Shealy’s path to becoming Syracuse’s No. 1 keeper hadn’t been linear. A decommitment from Wofford College, complacency at Maryland and battling Miesch for the starting job have all been part of his journey. And if it wasn’t for his longtime mentor Joe Nasco, a former MLS goalie and current assistant coach at Birmingham-Southern, Shealy might not have been a keeper at all.
Shealy spent his early years playing as a left back for his club team. When he was around 12 or 13, he signed up to be a goalie at a summer soccer camp. He did it just so he could have some more fun training, Shealy said. But Nasco, who was coaching at the camp while playing professionally for the Atlanta Silverbacks, quickly recognized Shealy’s potential.
“He just had this raw ability to do things and get things done as a goalkeeper, which I kind of saw a lot of myself in because I was never really trained as a goalkeeper until I got to college,” Nasco said.
Nasco would train Shealy four or five times a week at Darlington Academy in Rome, Ga., where Shealy played for Chad Liddle, a former goalkeeper himself. Like Nasco, Liddle saw the same traits – natural athleticism, a big vertical jump and a tireless work ethic – that allowed Shealy to excel early on without much training.
Still, both of Shealy’s mentors knew he needed work. In addition to their work at Darlington, Nasco spoke to Shealy’s parents about doing some private sessions one on one and the pair would work together two or three times a week on top of their time together at Darlington.
Nasco noted that Shealy’s footwork labored, meaning that he would make a routine save look like an exceptional one as he pushed his body with everything it had to make flying saves. Instead, Nasco taught him to take two or three quicker steps, turning those difficult saves into routine ones. Their work continued for over two years before Nasco’s professional career brought him to the Colorado Rapids, but he’s still kept in touch with Shealy and worked with him when he returned to Georgia.
Liddle, who has previously worked with the U.S. national team, said Shealy always had the attributes you can’t coach – the fearlessness to throw himself at attackers’ feet and the confidence to shake off mistakes – but that didn’t always translate into his command of his defense in front of him.
At Darlington, Liddle taught Shealy not only to bark more commands out and to use visual cues by motioning with his arms, but also how to read the opposition and stay locked in mentally for a full 90 minutes.
“I think the mental side is probably the hardest part as a goalkeeper,” Nasco said. “I saw that from day one. We stand around for 80 minutes and maybe actually do physical work for 10 minutes a game.”
By ninth grade, Shealy had fully devoted himself to being a keeper, playing for Darlington and multiple club teams. Around that time Nasco advised him that “if you want to be successful at this you have to cut something out.” At the time, Atlanta United, formed in 2014 but didn’t have its first MLS campaign until 2017, was initially building out its academy before assembling the first team.
Shealy left Darlington and his club team the Concorde Fire to join Atlanta’s academy in 2016. Across 37 appearances for the U-18 and U-19 teams, Shealy’s side lost one time.
“We were just, we were crazy,” Shealy said. “We won the regular season our first year, then we only lost one game in the spring.”
In his junior year of high school, he committed to continue his soccer career at Wofford College in Spartanburg. S.C., not knowing if he wanted to chase a professional career or not. But the following summer when United’s academy trained with the first team, Shealy said he felt comfortable and able to keep up with a squad that would go on to win an MLS championship in 2018, giving him the confidence to pursue his childhood dream.
He decommitted from Wofford in the fall of his senior year, beginning a “frantic” search for a school in need of a keeper, Shealy said. Eventually, he narrowed his options down to Maryland, Syracuse and Pittsburgh, before committing to the Terps.
Shealy said his first year with Terps was a “surreal” experience as he backed up senior Dayne St. Clair while Maryland made its run to an eventual national championship. The following spring, he started every game in the team’s spring league and he felt secure in his position as Maryland’s starting goalie.
Just like his first game for SU, Shealy began the 2019 season well, posting a shutout in a 1-0 victory over South Florida. Nasco said he sees a lot of parallels with his career and Shealy’s, noting that the pair always played well in the first appearance of the season, with the nerves that come along with it helping him focus. But following that up with another strong performance is where Nasco and Shealy have sometimes stumbled.
For Nasco, that meant following up an excellent game for the Rapids against Seattle with a historic one against LA Galaxy, where he was sent off just 34 seconds into the match, the fastest red card in MLS history. Though Shealy’s was less dramatic, letting in three goals against UCLA in the Terps’ second game of the season, things never felt right as they had brought another keeper from Germany, Niklas Neumann, to compete for the starting gig. Shealy would make just three more appearances for the rest of the season, and when he did play, he said he was in his head and “thrown off.”
“At Maryland I wasn’t feeling the nerves,” Shealy said.
Having taken a redshirt year his first year at Maryland, Shealy was prepared to stay and fight to reclaim his starting job in 2020. But the Terps coaching staff said they wouldn’t stand in the way if he wanted to transfer. Even though Syracuse had an entrenched starter in Miesch, Shealy said he felt confident that if he played to the level he knew he was capable of, he would play.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, it took Shealy awhile to get up to full fitness. But by the Virginia Tech game he was back to form and the pre-match nerves were, too. Liddle, who said he’s watched the game back at least three times, noted that with the Orange down a man Shealy’s communication to organize the defense – anticipating switches of play and positioning his defenders on the opposite flank from where the Hokies had possession – was key in securing a point.
“I think Russell’s going to be, definitively, a future professional if not in the national team pool,” Liddle said. “I believe in him that much.
“He’s got all the tools.”