This is the third of a three part series from New York Red Bulls team writer, Frank Giase showcasing the youth and development programs that RBNY has to offer.
Jeff Zaun was 25 when Major League Soccer began in 1996. That’s young enough for most players to have time to make their mark, but after four grueling years of college soccer at Rutgers and several more bouncing around minor-league clubs, his body had pretty much had enough.
But if you had seen Zaun play at Shawnee High School, where he was New Jersey Player of the Year in 1988, or at Rutgers, where he was a four-year starter who helped the Scarlet Knights advance to the Final Four twice, you remember what a special player he was.
Zaun was never a burner. Instead, he read the game, and as a sweeper directed its flow and always anticipated the next pass. His game was cerebral, which didn’t quite fit into the way MLS played when he was a MetroStar. He was just ahead of his time
Today the game is quite different. MLS has improved considerably, and so have its coaches. So if your child is a member of the Red Bulls’ Under-14 team, or will be shortly, consider yourself lucky. He will be playing for Jeff Zaun, who will teach your child the way the game should be played.
“The 14s are an interesting age,” Zaun said. “After being in college it was an adjustment a little bit, but it’s a fun age, too. They still have such a desire to be high-level players and they process everything you tell them, so that’s the nice part. It’s eighth and ninth graders, so that’s a good age.”
It was only by accident that Zaun got into coaching, but watching him as a player you knew he had the smarts to be a good coach.
“It was almost five years ago. (Red Bull Academy director) Bob Montgomery called me and said he had an opening on his staff because Cris da Silva moved up to be a scout and he had the Under-14 team. I met with Bob and started the following week. I’d known Cris and I’d known Paul O’Donnell, who’s coaching the 18s, and I talked to them. They said it was a great opportunity. I came in and I loved it. It’s been great.”
Zaun would also have loved to have played more, but his body was giving out. Four years of playing on the artificial surface at Rutgers will do that to you.
“The Astroturf was rock hard,” he said. “You’d slide tackle and from here down (knee to ankle) would be a mess. We didn’t wear shin guards. That stuff was brutal. It took a toll on us.”
Still, his time at Rutgers was well worth it. From 1989-92 Rutgers, under head coach Bob Reasso, was one of the top college programs in the country. Rutgers reached the NCAA Tournament semifinals in Zaun’s freshman year, losing to a Virginia team led by Tony Meola and Jeff Agoos and coached by Bruce Arena.
A year later, the Scarlet Knights advanced to the NCAA final, only to lose to UCLA on penalty kicks following a scoreless tie. Rutgers nearly won the game in sudden death overtime, but a header by Alexi Lalas hit the crossbar, leaving the Scarlet Knights inches short of a national championship against a UCLA team that featured Brad Friedel, Cobi Jones, Joe-Max Moore, Chris Henderson and Mike Lapper, and coached by Sigi Schmid.
Following graduation, Zaun played a few years with the North Jersey Imperials of the USISL before being drafted in the fourth round by the MetroStars in the 1996 inaugural player draft. He spent three years with the MetroStars and had a brief stay with the Chicago Fire under Bob Bradley in 1999 before retiring.
“At that point I was like 31 with the body of a 51 year old,” Zaun said with a laugh.
Following assistant positions with Lehigh Valley of the A-League and at Rutgers, Zaun joined the Red Bull Academy staff.
“It’s been great,” said Zaun, who was inducted into the Rutgers Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008. “They’re doing it the way it should be done. We travel and play in tournaments. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun.”