PROVO — Two seasons ago, the BYU men's soccer team attracted national attention with the announcement that it would forgo its club status and become a semipro minor league team.
But after the media glare of publications such as Sports Illustrated and the New York Times subsided, the Cougars ignominiously suffered through a 2-15-1 campaign in their first season in the Premier Development League.
BYU carved out a measure of respectability in the PDL by going 8-9-1 last season. Now, entering year three, the Cougars continue to evolve in the wake of the landmark experiment to turn pro, forging an identity that includes an international presence.
"We have more talent than we've ever had," said head coach Chris Watkins. "We're developing talent, and we're certainly bringing in talent. Finally we have a soccer team that is worthy of the talent these guys have."
Watkins points to the transfer of former Utah prep soccer play of the year Jacob Cavanaugh from South Carolina as evidence of an unprecedented groundswell in BYU's talent pool.
"When we were a club team, it wasn't challenging and our players weren't becoming the best they could be," Watkins said. "Now they have the opportunity to do that with the quality of opponents they play and the quality of team they play with.
"There are 52 PDL teams in the country, so being a PDL team isn't unique. (But) we're the only college team in the PDL, making us unique in that respect."
For their part, players have welcomed the opportunity to play against tougher competition with open arms.
"It's really good soccer — that's the best part," says center fullback Jeff Jensen. "The tough competition is good because it makes you better. But it's like a double-edgesword because it also means you might not play as much —we're attracting better talent than we did before."
Jensen, 25, speaks from experience when he addresses the evolution of the team from club play to semipro status; he played for four years as an undergraduate, with his tenure spanning two serious knee injuries and the inaugural PDL season.
After taking a year off from school to work as an IT consultant, he has returned to Provo for graduate studies and another dose of soccer, too, since eligibility never expires in the PDL like it would intercollegiately.
"The soccer team was a very positive factor in my decision to come back to BYU, because it's the only school I can come to and still play competitive soccer," said Jensen.
International travel would appear to be a natural fit for the Cougars as they seek to advance the goals of BYU and the LDS Church while riding the unmatched wave of popularity that soccer enjoys worldwide. In recent years, the team has traveled to Spain, Holland and Mexico and, in February, it will head to Costa Rica.
"We changed our slant, so that our mission is to use soccer to gain positive publicity for the school and for the church," said Jensen.
Added Watkins: "The idea is to represent the church within the international game and on a global level,. It makes perfect sense; I think we're the most natural fit for that.
"I recognize the way we can most benefit the church and university is to travel internationally. You just have to see us once when we're outside the country. They treat us like rock stars; they believe that we're important people."
One of the few downsides to PDL play is a season that stretches from May to July. Players must forgo summer jobs and internship opportunities. And with the majority of the student body away for the summer, crowds are considerably smaller than they were when BYU played a club schedule in the fall.
The Cougars have played three home exhibition games against local club teams in as many weeks — Weber State, Utah State and Utah Valley State College. The team concludes its fall exhibition season with a 7:30 p.m. game on Friday, Oct. 15, against BYU soccer alumni.
"The main reason for the games is to get our guys that didn't play much last season the chance to play," said Watkins of fall play. "We're going to be primarily playing reserves and giving them a chance to see what they can do."