If there was a single image that symbolized the common fan perception that the 2013 version of Zach Prince represented a radical upgrade, it came in the form of a Photoshopped JPEG that circulated around Facebook last spring.
Regiment stalwart Scott Johnstone simply added a Battery uniform with the number “24” — Prince’s number — to a cartoon drawing of the Tasmanian Devil.
That might be oversimplifying matters. While fans noticed that the former collegiate playmaker looked particularly intense on defense last preseason, Prince points out that he’s always been a prickly competitor. In everything. From his perspective, there was no particular change that contributed to last season’s progress. Maybe he just got more comfortable with the system, the league, his role.
But whatever the complete answer might be, Prince is coming off an eventful year and entering his soccer prime with a renewed sense of focus. Which makes him an interesting player to watch in 2014. Nicki Paterson and Jose Cuevas – two strikers who worked primarily out of midfield – are gone. Do-everything-mid Mike Azira is logging big minutes as a Seattle trialist. And then there’s Prince – a mid-career midfielder with the skills to sting defenders or shut down attackers – pushing himself toward the next level.
Because while Prince can’t explain what made him look so dominant at times last spring, when you ask him why his performance tailed off last summer, he answers directly. The 25-year-old spent last year holding down a second full-time job as a systems analyst for a local defense contractor, and the long hours eventually took their toll. As the Battery headed into the offseason, one had to wonder whether Prince was coming up on a tough career decision.
But then late last year, federal budget cuts decided things for him. Prince’s other employer laid him off, and he’s been training full-time for the 2014 season ever since. As he approaches his 26th birthday, it’s as a focused competitor with an increasingly clear vision of the man he wants to become.
CHSSoccer sat down with him in the courtyard at Kudu Coffee on Jan. 31st.
CHS: Tell me about your parents.
ZP: I didn’t grow up in a traditional home. My dad left about four months after I was born, so I’ve never met him. My mom was living with my grandmother at the time, and I grew up there. Lived there for 16 years – in Irmo – and then we moved out when I was about 16 to a little apartment that my mom got.
It was awesome living with my grandmother. We spent a ton of time together, but most of my time, we’d wake up early in the morning and my mom would take me to my grandfather’s house, because my grandmother worked as well, and my grandfather was a retired minister. He was definitely the most influential person in my life.
He passed away in January 2012… and then my grandmother died about a year after that. They had divorced years ago, and they were still good friends, and that was cool how they were really close.
My mom worked two jobs. (Today) she works inside sales for a hydraulic pump and hose company. You meet my mom, and she’s this free-spirited hippie lady. And she sells hydraulic pumps and hoses. She’s an awesome lady too.
People always (say to me), “It must have been hard growing up without a dad.” And it doesn’t even ever cross my mind, because I had such a cool family.
CHS: Have you ever had contact with your dad?
ZP: I’ve talked to him twice on the phone.
I have this half-sister. She is a couple years older than me – she’s from another lady, previous to my mom. And we’ve actually met a couple of times, and she’s met my dad a few times. That was interesting to talk to her and get her perspective on it.
In my sophomore year of college, my grandparents from his side contacted me, and they came down here and visited me. And my grandfather on that side, he actually passed away about a year after that, so I’m really glad I got to meet him.
I don’t know if you know, but my name’s hyphenated. My name’s Schaffer-Prince. Before I get married I’ll probably get it taken off. (Pauses) Actually, I don’t know if I’ll get it taken off. Because it’s me, you know?
CHS: Where do you think your athleticism came from?
ZP: I don’t know too much about my dad. He said he ran track. My grandfather was an offensive lineman at the University of South Carolina. He was going to go to the NFL, but he tore his ACL. And then my cousins are pretty athletic.
CHS: At what point did you realize that you were a soccer player?
ZP: I think I was in 8th grade, and I was playing for an AAU basketball team and playing for a soccer team and and my AAU basketball team, we were one of the top teams in the country. I was probably like a 5-9 kid who didn’t have a ton of athletic ability when it came to the basketball side of things. But in soccer, I was a little bit more athletic, because maybe the athletic kids were playing other sports back then. So I was a little bit ahead of the game athletic-wise playing soccer.
(I took) a lot of my … intelligence on the field, or getting away with not being athletic, from basketball. Because I had to rely on being intelligent rather than being athletic. So I’m really glad that I played.
The CofC years
After a standout career at Irmo High School, a late reversal by the USC Gamecocks left Prince hustling for a place to play. His search led him to Ralph Lundy Jr.’s program, where Prince made 71 appearances (with 53 starts as a forward) for the College of Charleston between 2006-09. He played PDL ball in the summers, and chipped in 5 goals and 5 assists as a senior to earn second-team All Conference honors.
CHS: How did you wind up at CofC?
ZP: My freshman year of high school, the University of South Carolina offered me a scholarship. So I took that right away. Because I was a local kid. My family was going to be able to see me play.
After being committed there for four years, they had one special admission, and my SATs were not the best. So I was going to have to get a special admission. And they ended up at the last minute using it on another kid. So I was without a team. May of my senior year.
I was scrambling for another team, and it ended up coming between Clemson and College of Charleston. We liked College of Charleston a little bit better as a family, so I came down here. They ended up having a scholarship come open, so it helped me out a ton. Because I don’t know that I would have been able to go to school if we didn’t have at least a little bit of money.
CHS: At what point did you seriously begin to think that you had a good chance of playing professionally?
ZP: Probably after my freshman year. I was playing forward with a guy named Jeremy Gold … and he was one of the most talented players I’ve ever played with. He was actually selected to go to the combine, but he broke his foot. And when he was getting looks (from scouts), I thought, “I have a chance.”
CHS: What kind of attention were you getting as a senior in 2009?
ZP: Pretty much from a lot of USL clubs. I still had a semester of college left. And slight, slight, slight attention from Salt Lake. I didn’t have an agent. I didn’t know how to get an agent. I’m really glad I didn’t get talked into going anywhere else. Because (the Battery) has been a great club for me, and obviously I love Charleston.
Prince earned a contract with the Battery in early 2010 and made 16 appearances (with three starts) during a rookie season that ended with the team’s third league championship. His role expanded in 2011, with 10 starts in 23 appearances. He contributed to the Battery’s 2012 championship season primarily as a sub, with 19 of his 25 appearances coming in relief.
But when Jose Cuevas went down with an injury in the 2013 season opener, Prince stepped up. He appeared in five of the team’s first six matches, contributing two starts, two goals and two assists. His offensive quality ebbed at times as the season wore on, but the fourth-year man remained a reliable closer. He made his final appearance in the waning minutes of the team’s semifinal loss at Orlando, helping spark a dramatic late push for an equalizer that fell agonizingly short. And his second goal of the season earned a nomination from USL PRO for its Goal of the Year honor.
CHS: There was a point early last season when people who’ve been watching the Battery longer than I have were saying to me, ‘He’s different. He’s different as a player.’ What was changing?
ZP: What do you mean? Different as in…
CHS: As in better. More complete.
ZP: Maybe more comfortable. I don’t know.
I think I know my role. I think I know what Auggie (Battery General Manager and Coach Mike Anhaeuser) wants from me. And I think it came to the point where I needed to lead a little bit in the team. And I really liked our group of guys the past two years. Some of my best friends I’ll ever have. And maybe that was it.
Maybe the penalty at Rochester gave me a little bit more confidence (Editor’s note: The Battery knocked off No. 2 seed Rochester Rhinos in August 2012 via a stoppage-time equalizer and a seven-round penalty shootout. Prince stepped up to take the fifth penalty with the Battery down by one).
CHS: Tell me about that.
ZP: I had a terrible year that year. I didn’t have a lot of playing time. And Auggie was going around. He wrote down his first four names in a matter of seconds. And as he was searching for the fifth name, and I just walked up to him and said “Give it to me.” And he had confidence in me, and maybe his confidence gave it to me.
CHS: At least two people in 2013 commented to me about your defensive play. Both said “That’s a development. This is a guy who has been an offensive player.” Did something change, or was that just a development?
ZP: You learn. You learn the system that you need to be in. And you learn where you can help the team. And I think that’s where I learned that I could help the team, is probably playing left-mid. (If) they have a good right back that likes to attack us, try to not let him get on the ball as much. Make him go backwards as much as possible. And then you’ve kinda done your job, you know?
My mentality, I kinda learned it when I was in high school (under Coach Phil Savits, who won 13 state titles and more than 600 games at Irmo before leaving for another job last summer). And (Savits’) mentality is: “Win. Do whatever it takes, and you win.”
I’ve kinda figured out (my role) on different teams. On Irmo I was the goal scorer. College of Charleston, I was a goal scorer, playmaker. And here, I might score a few goals, I might play-make, but my job is a little bit different here. To maybe get stuck in, set the tone of the game, and let them realize that we’re not pansies.
CHS: Are there any players who’ve been influential on you as a professional?
ZP: I learned so much from (former Battery striker and 2014 Orlando City assistant coach) Ian Fuller it was crazy. I learned a ton from him. About being so intense in every moment. Every moment is so important in a game that you can’t switch off for a second. And then I learned a lot from (former Battery attacker) Steven Armstrong. He’s probably technically the best player I’ve ever played with.
And even Colin (Falvey) and Nicki (Paterson). Their will to win is kind of infectious. It’s pretty remarkable to watch them fight through an entire game.
CHS: I thought you were an interesting player last season just based on your progress, but then I found out you were also holding down a full-time professional job. Is that still going on?
ZP: I got laid off Dec. 17. I got back from Nicki (Paterson)’s wedding over in Scotland, and got back to work that day, and they laid me off that day. Government shutdown, budget cuts.
It was actually a blessing in disguise I think, because I was pretty miserable at the job. I was waking up, going in to work for an hour or an hour and a half, and then coming in to practice and then going in to work again. And so after four or five days of doing that, it gets tough. I can already tell right now, after training for three weeks, that I just feel 10 times better than I’ve felt in two or three years.
CHS: You started off last season scoring and assisting, influencing games. And then those numbers dropped off. Why?
ZP: I think I got tired. I think I got really tired. Working (two jobs) was really catching up to me. Not to make any excuse, but I probably didn’t rest enough. Maybe on our off-weekends, instead of taking them off, going and having fun with all my friends, stuff like that. Maybe I should have just backed off just a bit.
CHS: Which was more of an issue: The physical exhaustion or just the mental side?
ZP: Probably the mental. Because I’m one of those guys that when we’re in practice, I try to get everyone going, try to get the game really competitive. So when you’re yelling and talking in practice, and trying to work a little bit, and then you go and you have to switch straight off and go into work, and then you’re presenting in front of a captain of the submarine radio room. It’s just different. And it’s a little taxing.
CHS: What was your job?
ZP: I did analytical work for the communications systems in submarine radio rooms. There was like a bunch of different communications systems, and I would show trends and how they fail, why they fail. Some of it (was statistical), but some of it was just breaking down the verbiage from when (crews) were out at sea, looking at what is breaking, relaying that back to say “OK, this component in this system is breaking all the time.”
CHS: How does one train for that kind of job?
ZP: I met a guy. I coached his kid. He gave me an opportunity.
CHS: When you were in school thinking about what you were going to do after you stopped playing, was that the kind of career you were thinking about?
ZP: No. See, I think it’s really important, because everyone always talks about having a Plan B. And I think it’s really important for people when they’re growing up to not have a Plan B. Have your Plan A, and go for your Plan A 100 percent.
My Plan A was to play. I wanted to play in the MLS. I went out and played for Chicago and Colorado’s PDL (teams), and I really loved Colorado. Probably if I could play for any club, I’d go play for Colorado, because I really enjoyed it out there.
CHS: You said to me at one point last year that you’d realized you weren’t going up to MLS. I get where you’re coming from, but on the other hand, you’re just entering your “soccer prime” at 26, and you’re a player who has progressed. But it’s like there is this sorting that goes on in North American soccer, and some people are identified as prospects in their early 20s and then scouts stop looking at everyone else.
ZP: Right. And I don’t know that I’ve completely given up on the chance of going to the MLS, but I’ve kinda realized. When I was 20, it was like “MLS or die” kinda deal. But now I’ve kinda realized that all these experiences that I’ve had with the Battery and all these MLS teams that we’ve beaten, it’s not necessarily my end-all, be-all anymore. It’s not going to give me any more satisfaction if I play for the Battery or if I play for Vancouver. I mean, yes, the money would be better, but in my eyes, I don’t necessarily see it as being more satisfying.
CHS: I felt like last year that you were going through a process of deciding whether this was something that you wanted to continue. Have you come to an answer?
ZP: Oh yeah. I mean, are you still figuring out what you want to do? I mean, you’ve fallen on this in the past couple of years, right? And you really enjoy it. And that’s kinda where I am. Yeah, I’m not going to be able to play (forever), but this next seven or eight months when I’m with the Battery, I’m going to play. And then if something else comes up, something else comes up. But I know I do want to stay in the game as long as I can, whether that’s playing or doing something in a front office somewhere.
CHS: What are the odds that you will have a second job this year?
ZP: Zero. You could offer me a lot of money right now and I probably wouldn’t take it.
ZP: Alright, I take that back (laughs). If it was the right job. If it was something that I really enjoyed. If you offered me a job and you were going to teach me how to do woodwork? I would take that. I really, really, really like (woodworking).
I’m glad that I’ve realized this at a young age. It’s not how much money you’re going to make, it’s what you’re going to do. And if you’re going to go into an office, or wherever you are, if you’re going to be happy has to be the main thing. And I know what it’s like to not be happy going into an office, and I’ll never do that again.
CHS: One of the things I saw last year was that you really got under people’s skin. For example, in the second game against the Houston Reserves, you didn’t let Mike Chabala do any of the things that he wanted to do. He lost his temper, and he was ineffective after that. Was that just play, or is there a lot of trash-talk going on out there too?
ZP: There’s a ton of talking, there’s a ton of play. But it annoys me (sometimes). Especially that scenario… we kept going back and forth.
But if you think about when you’ve been in a game, and someone pisses you off, and you keep looking at them and looking at them, you’re wasting your time and energy looking at that person, worrying about that person. So I just go and try to nail these kids, get in their ear a little bit, and then have them think about me. Because I’m not thinking about them. I’m thinking about the next play. I’m thinking about what’s going on. And they’re sitting there thinking about me. I hope. And then the next time they receive the ball with their back to me, are they thinking “Is that kid gonna come nail me? He’s crazy.”
I just like it when the defender, or the attacker, when they’re thinking “What is this guy gonna do next? I like that feeling.”
CHS: Have you always been that way?
ZP: A little bit. I used to be a lot more mouthy, maybe, in my college days. I’ve kinda got a little more gritty as I’ve become a professional.
CHS: If someone was playing against you at Monopoly, what kind of Monopoly opponent would you be?
ZP: Win at all costs kinda deal.
CHS: Would you talk trash in Monopoly?
ZP: Yeah, probably.
CHS: If I kicked your ass at Monopoly, would you be a good loser?
CHS: Would you be one of those guys who knocks the board over and storms away?
ZP: No, no, nothing like that. I would probably talk (trash) to you so you’d have to play me again to have to prove yourself.
CHS: Would you be as competitive if you weren’t an athlete?
Yeah. It’s kinda been ingrained in me.
ZP: CHS: By whom?
ZP: Probably my first coach. His name’s Eddie Crosby. He’s known me since I was 6. He was my camp counselor at an afterschool camp, and then started coaching me from there. He still lives right around here. His kids call me Uncle Zach.
He was the kind of guy that, when I met him he was about 21, and he’s the kinda guy that we’d play basketball and he would block my shot. He wouldn’t let me win, ever. So that would just piss me off more and more and more.
COMING UP: In Part Two, Zach Prince talks about the balance of power in USL PRO, the future of player development in the North American pyramid, his thoughts on the 2013 season, and his expectations for the Battery in 2014.
TOP IMAGE: Zach Prince boots the ball upfield in the waning minutes of the Battery’s 2-0 preseason victory over rival Wilmington in March 2013. The game was a rematch of the 2012 USL PRO championship. Charleston Battery photo. Uncredited photos are by Dan Conover, or come courtesy of Zach Prince.