Littering the walls of Loyola men’s soccer head coach Neil Jones’ corner office are the bright multi-colored jerseys of his program’s most prized possessions — its professional players.
Fresh off an offseason in which two more former players turned professional, Jones has now helped eight of his former players reach the pros in his six seasons in Rogers Park. Jones said this achievement is a major source of pride for the program and also a huge boon for recruitment as prior to his arrival, the program had only a single player turn professional in its history.
“For us it’s a big recruiting tool being able to show off these jerseys to a 17-year-old kid that comes here and says, ‘I want to play [Division] I and be a pro,’” Jones said. “Well, you can come here and it’s a realistic thing and hopefully we’ve got many more coming soon.”
These two new professionals were former standouts Grant Stoneman, who joined the hometown Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer (MLS), and Tucker Stephenson, who signed with the Swope Park Rangers of the United Soccer League (USL). Both arriving as transfers in 2016 and 2017 respectively, Stephenson said Jones and his staff were key to both of them becoming professionals.
“I think it really became ‘I could really do this’ after the last couple seasons with Loyola,” Stephenson told The Phoenix in July. “Neil really pushed us. He gave us the confidence to believe that we can really do this.”
Joining Loyola in December 2012, Jones took the reins from former head coach Brandon Eitz and was immediately faced with a monumental challenge — transitioning to the increased competition of the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) as opposed to their former conference — the Horizon League.
Despite this difficult situation and a fifth-place finish in his first season, the Ramblers thrived under Jones’ leadership in 2014 and his staff took home the MVC’s Coaching Staff of the Year and an MVC semifinal appearance. Jones said it was at this time he began seeing the benefits of playing in a league like the MVC for developing his players into professionals.
“The change in conference I think it’s definitely helped,” Jones said. “The Horizon League is still a very good conference, but the MVC is probably more high-profile conference in terms of name recognition and the teams in the conference so that has really helped recruiting wise.”
Continuing to build the program and its success, Jones said his goal from day one was to shift the team’s standards and create a sense of competition and accountability. This transformation was realized shortly after his arrival as Loyola began to see a breakthrough in creating professional players — beginning with striker Brian Bement in 2014, defender Ryan Howe in 2016 and Elliott Collier in 2018.
“We always have held our training sessions to a high standard,” Jones said. “The competitive environment at our training sessions bleeds into the game and our players are always ready to compete in our games because they compete with each other every day in training.”
This success of developing professionals players continued as the program began to reach greater heights. This culminated in 2015 and 2016 as Jones led the Ramblers to back-to-back, double-digit win seasons and he saw another two of his former players, goalkeeper Tim Dobrowolski and defender Eric Schoendorf, reach the professionals.
“As the standard here has raised, so has the level of recruits and talent we’ve been able to bring in,” Jones said. “As we began to produce professionals, it sort of snowballed since it’s such a powerful recruiting tool to young players because not only do we have a strong track record of it but a recent one as well.”
As the Ramblers approach the 2019 season with hopes of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016, Jones said his eyes are always towards on-the-field success over everything. Despite this, he remained that creating professionals players is a source of pride and will continue for years to come.