It’s Jan. 9, 2022. Michael Knapp, former midfielder for the Montclair State University men’s soccer team and current midfielder for the United Soccer League (USL) team the New York Red Bulls II, was already living his dreams of being a professional soccer player. But, moving into a bigger professional league was not in his realm of personal possibility.
“My agent called me two days before the draft and he told me, ‘Mike, I think you’re on the [Major League Soccer] draft board, but don’t expect to be drafted by anyone since you are already pro,'” Knapp said. “So in my mind, I was thinking I was not [going to] get drafted because of what my agent told me. But [then again], he also told me to keep my head up.”
Two days passed. Knapp’s head was kept up, but all of a sudden on the day of the 2022 Major League Soccer (MLS) SuperDraft, he started to feel different emotions than usual. It was almost as if what his agent had told him was not going to come to fruition.
“The day of the draft I was just in the gym in the sauna thinking, ‘Man, I have a weird feeling. I have a feeling I’m going to get drafted,’ but because of what my agent told me, I didn’t think much of it,” Knapp said.
And then, the strange feeling Knapp had became a reality. A lot of people in Knapp’s circle kept reposting something on Instagram in the middle of the night, waking him up. This was presumably the announcement of Knapp being drafted to the MLS. Confused, he blew it off and went back to sleep. And then, he got one of the biggest texts he would ever get from his agent confirming his suspicions.
“My agent texts me [saying], ‘You have been drafted to Austin FC.’ I woke up in the morning to that text and I was like, ‘What is going on?'” Knapp said. “Since I was technically already a pro, I was really confused, so I called my agent and asked him questions [about] what the whole process was and how it was going to happen. It was pretty shocking.”
And with one of the most out-of-the-ordinary ways to find out that a player has made it into the big leagues, Knapp was officially drafted with the 61st pick in the third round of the 2022 MLS SuperDraft to Austin FC. And what better place to begin culminating soccer stardom than at one of the more successful Division III soccer programs here at Montclair State?
Knapp played for the Red Hawks during the 2018 and 2019 seasons, totaling three goals, with one of them being a game-winning penalty kick against New York University (NYU) to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division III Tournament.
He also notched seven assists, one of those being a game-winning pass to senior forward at the time, Nixon Soglo, to defeat the Profs of Rowan University early on in the 2018 season.
In just those two seasons, Knapp established himself as one of the top players at Montclair State and within the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) as a whole. He won NJAC Rookie of the Year in his first season, then proceeded to win the Pat Baldiserra Midfielder of the Year Award in the conference the very next season. Knapp described his favorite moment from playing soccer for the Red Hawks.
“I think my best moment was winning the NJAC [Championship] in my second year when we beat Rowan,” Knapp said. “Just the feeling of seeing [Oscar Sanchez] scoring in the last minute of the game — I will never forget that. Everyone was just so tired and limping around with the season about to end, and then I see [Sanchez] put the ball in the net, and I was going crazy.”
The assist from Colin Mulligan to Sanchez not only helped the team move onto the NCAA Division III tournament and bring about Knapp’s aforementioned penalty kick winner, but it also awarded current head coach Todd Tumelty the fourth NJAC Championship of his coaching tenure.
The win gave Tumelty his eighth appearance in the NCAA tournament, solidifying him as the all-time winningest coach in program history. Tumelty talked about some of the things that impressed him the most from coaching Knapp a few years ago.
“His explosiveness, his speed and his athleticism; those are things that he is gifted with, so when you have a player that encompasses those abilities, they are hard to teach,” Tumelty said. “Working on his soccer technique and also getting bigger and stronger in the weight room are a couple of things that I think helped [Knapp] get to where he is today.”
Another player currently on the Red Hawks and an old teammate of Knapp is junior midfielder Justin Goldberg. As a freshman, he had Knapp, Sanchez and other Red Hawk stars to take him under their wing — no pun intended. Goldberg spoke on what is like to see Knapp make it into such a big league like the MLS.
“The kid worked hard,” Goldberg said. “He had a goal, worked on it every single day and look where he is now. He is definitely an inspiring [individual] and role model. It goes to show how far hard work can take you in whatever you do.”
While talking with the newest member of Austin FC in his hotel room down in Texas, this is something he made abundantly clear in discussing his journey: hard work pays off. And if you keep on working hard, your dreams will come true. Knapp talked about the impact of his family on his journey and how that helped him reach new heights in his career.
“I want to thank all my family members and my brothers because if it wasn’t for them, I would not be where I am at today,” Knapp said. “Sometimes when I was down and didn’t think I could do [anything], they pushed me in the right direction. When I had nobody, I came to them. I really love them.”
Not many people would’ve thought that Knapp would make the leap from Division III soccer to the MLS. Proving them wrong, he soared as a Red Hawk, running through the competition as a Red Bull and now preparing to make a new mark in the big state of Texas with Austin FC.
“[In terms of] where I came from, I didn’t play at an academy; I went to Division III, got injured and kept on working,” Knapp said. “You just have to put your head down and go to work. Don’t listen to anybody and believe in yourself. That’s why everyone was so happy when I got drafted — I believed in myself when nobody else did. I’m proud of myself and everyone else that helped me go through the process.”