Standout Schlaefer keyed soccer’s NCAA return

By Tim Murphy

From the first time he saw Peter Schlaefer between the lines, one thing was clear to former mens soccer head coach John O’Connor. His prized recruit, the tall defender with the velvet-soft touch, had game.

“What I noticed first was he was very calm,” O’Connor said. “When the ball came to him he didn’t feel the pressure at all. After that, I noticed how well he struck a ball. He could knock the ball 40 yards easily on a dime. I said, ‘OK, this kid can play.’”

For the next four years, Schlaefer made that fact painfully obvious to attackers from across the UAA. So it should have come as no surprise that last November, with the Maroons fighting to stave off elimination in the second round of the NCAA tournament against Wartburg, the man they turned to to carry them was the same one who had caught O’Connor’s eye half a decade earlier with his composure and touch.

“He was very confident, very fresh, and by the time he had finished he knew he had played to his potential,” O’Connor said. “We trailed in both tournament games and his ability to keep things together stood out. He and Giordano were handling the entire show, and as a coach that’s a great thing. They knew exactly what we needed to do. He was a puppetmaster at that point.”

When the dust had settled, a 1–1 second-round defeat to Wartburg on penalty kicks spelled the end of the line for Chicago and the end of a career for the squad’s fourth-year co-captain. Schlaefer walked off the pitch in Waverly, Iowa a victim of soccer’s cruelest ritual. He will graduate this spring having contributed one of the finer careers in program history. A starter at center back since his first day in Hyde Park, Schlaefer helped the Maroons notch 33 total shutouts during his tenure, the highest of any four-year stretch in program history.

“The running joke when he played was that he always wanted to be a center mid, but he was a great center back,” O’Connor said. “If I had to make an all-time top-11 from my time here, I’d take him at center back.”

For Schlaefer, the natural ability has always been there. But where many players who are given a starting spot upon their arrival might get complacent, content to fill their role and do little more, the Tar Heel put the onus upon himself to get better. He progressed each season, improving his one-on-one defending, field vision, and decision-making.

Epitomized by his performance last November, Schlaefer’s maturation into a fiery yet cool-headed leader marked a turning point in his transition from good to elite player. He was never short of critiques and comments for himself and his teammates as an underclassmen. But because of his age, his influence on his teammates was lessened. As he acquired more and more experience on the pitch, he emerged as an outspoken leader.

“What he did was he’d pose questions to the team and they’d answer. ‘Are we playing well enough?’ They’d say no. And then he’d ask the same question to himself,” O’Connor said. “It’s easy to yell and tell people what they’re doing wrong, but he knew when to pull a player aside and say, ‘I know you’re better than this; here’s what you can do.’”

As he grew as a player and into his role as an elder statesman on a young team the impact was hard to ignore. With Schlaefer leading the way at the center of the flat-back four, the Maroons’ goals against average dropped from 1.28 his first season to 1.11 in 2003 and a miniscule 0.61 his third year with 11 clean-sheets in 2004.

The improvements had a noticeable impact in the attacking half of the field as well. Coaches spew the phrase “the best offense is a good defense” like babies eating mashed carrots, but Schlaefer validated it, consistently starting offensive bursts and providing support. With his field vision, touch, and ability to place the ball with precision to all corners of the field, he proved to be a major asset for the conservative Maroons attack. Although he lacked outstanding speed, he had all the necessary skills and judgment to know when to push forward in a supporting role.

“For his entire career he’s been trying to move up into the midfield. He can attack, he steps up,” Palloni said. “We had great outside backs and a lot of stuff started from the back. But he’s also really disciplined.”

“It’s very easy to build on an attacking style, but the D can make one mistake and that’s it. Peter and the other defenders, we had confidence that we could defend with four guys, or three guys, or however many we had until people could recover,” O’Connor said. “He might be in on a corner, and the other team would get it and counter-attack and I could hear him and see him sprint back, basically yelling, ‘I’m coming.’”

Along with Palloni, he will head to Scotland to play for a team in the Highland League, a semi-pro league that is fast becoming a stomping ground for Maroons ex-pats—former All-American Pat Barry (A.B. ’02) also played for the team. Plying their trade on a club peppered with grizzled veterans of and precocious teenagers loaned out by Aberdeen of the Scottish Premier League, the two will look to prolong their playing careers while getting a flavor for a different culture of sport.

As the rock in the center, Schlaefer led one of the stingiest defenses in the NCAA for his past two seasons and helped carry the team through their two playoff games. He provided an example, through his actions and his words for a young squad that will look to build off of this season’s accomplishments. Regardless of how his stint in Aberdeen turns out, Schlaefer’s contribution to the soccer culture at Chicago will not soon be forgotten.