The truth is, Daniel Woolard will likely never get his due. Under-appreciated throughout a career that has seen the 27-year-old defender fight for his livelihood in the furthest reaches of the American soccer pyramid, Woolard has by now become comfortable with his underdog status.
"I never feel like I'm going to be given anything," Woolard said, reflecting on the difficult path that landed the Bedford, Texas native here in Washington. "I feel like I have to earn it every week, because it hasn't been easy to get to where I've come."
Woolard's journey to MLS reads little like that of many of his teammates. As a ninth grader, he upset his high school coach by choosing to play football and basketball over soccer. Four years later, Woolard didn't have a single Division I scholarship offer as he mulled over his college choices. Looking to stay close to home, the sturdy defender chose Midwestern State University where he started 80 consecutive matches for the NCAA Division II program. Though he finally earned some recognition when named All-American in 2006, Woolard gave little thought to a career in professional soccer after his senior season.
"After the last game of our season, I'm thinking I'm fine with my career being over," Woolard admitted of his attitude following Midwestern State's elimination from the 2006 NCAA Tournament. "I was thinking more realistic. I had to finish my degree and start thinking about what I wanted to do in the working world. It wasn't something I was putting all my chips towards. I didn't think I had much of a chance after playing Division II."
While Woolard may not have had much of a chance, he took advantage of the one opportunity given him. Drafted by Chicago in the fourth round of the 2007 Supplemental Draft, the tenacious left back made the roster and finally had a foothold in professional soccer. It would be little more than that over the next season as Woolard failed to make a first team appearance during his rookie year. But press onward he did, and during Woolard's sophomore campaign the youngster made his mark. He made sixteen appearances over the next two seasons, but a coaching change at the end of 2009 saw Woolard end up as the odd man out when Chicago handed the reigns to Carlos De Los Cobos.
From there Woolard went in search of work. Unable to find it, he returned to the Dallas area to play for the DFW Tornadoes of the PDL. While training in America's fourth-tier league, Woolard suffered a concussion that brought his career to a sudden halt.
"For a while I was doing nothing," Woolard recalled during a recent interview here at RFK. "I was sitting at home not being able to train or run. I'd get out and run every week or so when I thought I was feeling better and then I'd get the headache again. For a couple months I was miserable, not doing anything. Then after a while, I decided to just go on with my life."
Worried that he was obsessing over the concussion, the usually reserved Woolard let loose. He went jet-skiing with friends and rode motorcycles in his spare time. To make ends meet, the unemployed defender picked up some inventory work in a buddy's warehouse while also adding youth coaching to his daily duties. Before long, the post-concussion symptoms started to subside and a rejuvenated Woolard was ready to go. All he needed was the right opportunity.
Woolard would get his second chance in September of 2010, thanks to one of the most promising young coaches on the American soccer scene. Current Vancouver taskmaster Martin Rennie was in his second year with the Carolina Railhawks of the USL and needed a mid-season boost to his defense. On the recommendation of Carolina midfielder Floyd Franks, who had played with Woolard in Chicago, Rennie essentially signed the defender sight unseen. To this day Woolard is thankful for his former boss’s leap of faith.
"I really enjoyed coaching Daniel," Rennie said earlier this year from Vancouver. "He was an excellent player for me, an excellent defender. I think he had a lot of ability, he just needed a chance to be in a team where he could play again. We gave him that chance in Carolina and that was a springboard for him to get back to the MLS level."
Woolard's solid performance in Carolina earned him a contract with United at the beginning of 2011, and within months he laid claim to a starting spot. That momentum has continued into this season, where the quietly confident Woolard is playing a key role on a team he truly believes in.
"The chemistry is really building," Woolard noted. "I could see this team really making an impact this year on the league and going far. But it's just up to us and how bad we want it as to how far we go. The talent is obviously there."
This article was originally posted in the April 18 issue of the Matchday Program