WASHINGTON — As a 6-foot-4 center back with comfort on the ball and a knack for reading opposing attacks, Matt Hedges offers an impressive set of tools. But there was a time when that towering frame was more of a burden than a boon.
When Hedges was a 5-foot-9 high school soccer standout in Indiana, he thought he was doing just fine. Then a late growth spurt threw him off. It turned out "gangly" wasn't exactly an enticing attribute to scouts.
While then-Butler coach Kelly Findley still offered him a spot, Hedges felt lucky "that a college coach took a chance on me at all."
"I was good when I was shorter," Hedges told Goal USA with a laugh. "But then I got so awkward."
It wasn't until his sophomore season at Butler that Hedges felt he grew into his body and started reaching his potential. Time spent playing alongside C.J. Sapong, Andrew Wenger and longtime friend Raymon Gaddis with PDL side Reading United during the college offseasons furthered his development.
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After a transfer to North Carolina for his senior season helped boost his stock, Hedges went No. 11 overall to FC Dallas in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft. Following 28 league appearances as a rookie and 33 matches last season, Hedges has played every minute in 2014 as Dallas has gotten off to a 5-2-1 start.
"Everyone sees his tactical and technical ability and his jumping ability," Dallas center back Stephen Keel said. "He's got a little bit of that stuff that guys talk about. He's got something to him."
Although his father played golf at Morehead State and his mother played basketball there, Hedges decided to follow in the footsteps of his sister — a four-year letter winner at Wisconsin — in choosing the beautiful game.
That appears to have been a wise decision. Now 24 years old, Hedges is hearing his name arise more frequently in the U.S. national team conversation. With a new World Cup cycle on the horizon and the USA's center back depth an area of concern, Hedges is an intriguing prospect despite lacking experience in U.S. Soccer's youth setup.
It was a month ago that Dallas coach Oscar Pareja gave his endorsement, telling reporters after a 3-1 win over Chivas USA that Hedges "is ready to go and help us in the national team."
"I feel like it's about time," Hedges said. "Not necessarily for the full national team, but I never got called up for any youth national teams, any Under-20 teams, any Olympic teams, anything like that. I thought I was good enough to play on every one of those teams.
"You see you can play with those players. I've played against them on youth clubs and in college, and thought, 'I'm just as good as these guys.' You just use it as motivation to get better. Don't be bitter about it because those coaches have decisions to make, and they're tough decisions. But you want to improve and make that decision ever harder for them."
That improvement has been evident in Hedges' first season playing under Pareja, who arrived from the Colorado Rapids this past offseason. Now that Dallas is playing a more technical, possession-driven style than it did under Schellas Hyndman, Hedges has found himself growing as a distributor. And he is chipping in on attacking set pieces as well, having already notched two goals and an assist this season.
"[Pareja] has a lot of confidence in me to move the ball and be a director in the back," Hedges said. "He's allowed me to carry the ball into midfield a lot, which I feel like I'm pretty good at doing. It really helps our attack a lot if we're stagnated or we need something else going on."
With two years under his belt and veteran center back partner George John sidelined by a patella injury, Hedges has also been asked by Pareja to handle an increased leadership role — including the captain's armband. For the soft-spoken Hedges, it's another step in his evolution from raw prospect to confident defensive force.
As Hedges said, "Your rookie year and second year, you don't feel like a veteran yet. But I definitely feel like one now."
"They're really pushing for him to take the next step leadership-wise, and I think he's embraced it," Keel said. "All aspects of his game, they just keep getting higher and higher. It's pretty cool to see."