In new DePaul head coach Mark Plotkin’s first year as head coach of the men’s soccer program, he brought with him nine freshmen including five players from Illinois, three from Minnesota and one from Maryland.
The class quickly gelled to the point that Plotkin said they look like they have known each other since they were four years old.
That part is true for two players in particular in freshmen midfielders Matthew Brickman and Robert Rao, who met when they were five years old playing Chicago Park District soccer. Since then, they have grown close both playing with Schwaben AC, a prominent club soccer team in Buffalo Grove, and remaining close friends despite going to two different high schools, with Brickman attending Stevenson High School and Rao attending Carmel Catholic High School.
“It’s been a really special relationship,” Rao said. “We met each other in park district soccer and we’ve been great friends ever since, so getting to see each other grow together has been really special for me and it’s been a really close relationship since we’ve always been on the same soccer team.”
After facing off three times in high school -resulting in one win for each and a draw-, the two are back sharing the same midfield, this time, in Lincoln Park.
Both made the decision -on their own- to attend DePaul, with Rao committing first, followed by Brickman later that summer. Both have found it beneficial for a variety of reasons in the classroom, on the field and socially.
“I think it really helped especially because Robbie [Rao] is really on top of everything,” Brickman said of entering school with his friend. “So if I didn’t know what to bring I just asked him. I was like ‘what do you bring to school?’ And I just copied his list basically but then especially when we got here not knowing anybody on the team, really it was just nice to have somebody that I could talk to and it wasn’t awkward at first.”
Attending DePaul with Brickman had its benefits for Rao as well.
“It was very helpful especially coming in with someone as close as Matt [Brickman] is,” he said. “It really helped me to stay focused obviously in classes but also sport and soccer.”
While both had their fair share of success in high school, with Rao finishing as a two-time conference champion and Brickman earning All-Conference and All-Sectional honors after finishing with five goals and 25 assists, arguably the best preparation for the two might have come with Schwaben AC under head coach Thomas Gansuage, where they reached regional and Premier Cup championships.
Plotkin said the level of competition and physicality both players experienced with Schwaben helped prepare them for when when they got to DePaul as they adjusted to the faster and more physical nature of college soccer.
“It just put them in an environment especially with the club they’re playing for at Schwaben where they’re playing in men’s leagues and youth leagues,” Plotkin said.
“So that ability to kind of to play and compete against men it’s a whole different type of thing and I think that helps that transition into college much better because you are dealing with bigger faster more physical people, so you have less time on the ball. Whereas when I watch them play in a youth game, they had all the time in the world to do things, which you don’t have as a college player.”
While Brickman got the opportunity to get on the field right away, appearing in eight matches including five starts, Rao sat out the fall season -partly due to the players in front of him- but received extensive playing time this spring.
“It was great,” Rao said. “It really helped my confidence, getting minutes during the spring season, especially like teams against or against teams like Indiana which obviously is a very high-quality team. So, getting minutes was great. It really helped to boost my confidence and, hopefully, it helped boost my play.”
Plotkin praised the way Rao took the opportunity to improve and understand there were players in front of him that prevented him from getting on the field.
In the meantime, both players have the benefit of having someone on the roster that knows the other’s game inside and out having watched the other for over a decade. Although they have slightly different roles in the midfield with Rao more of an attacking player and Brickman being more defensive-minded, they have leaned on each other to improve.
“I feel like we complemented each other’s roles,” Rao said. “Especially as we come here he’s continued to stay more defensive as I’m more a little more attacking. So he’s helped me when I’m attacking him and I’ve somewhat have helped him when I’m attacking him.”
While the two have been friends for much of their lives, both said the way the freshman class has come together over the past year has made acclimating to school that much easier.
“All of us are so close,” Brickman said. “I feel like everybody knows everything that’s going on with each person. And it’s cool because some of us live on one side of our dorm and some of us live on the other but every day it’s just back and forth back and forth everyone’s going to see what the others are up to. So it’s a really cool environment.”