High School Sports

A Gulfport teen dreams of playing professional soccer. Now D.C. United is giving him a shot.

Perhaps one day Ashton LeBlanc will be able to repay his parents for the fence with his professional soccer earnings.

The Gulfport Admiral is set to embark on a rare journey for a Coast soccer standout, leaving the friendly confines of South Mississippi to make a run at playing professionally.

LeBlanc will depart Gulfport on Sunday and join D.C. United’s Under-19 academy team. From there, only LeBlanc can determine what’s next.

“I’ve always wanted to play professionally really,” LeBlanc said Thursday, recalling his earliest soccer memories. “It was the summer going into fourth or fifth grade. I would stay up all night watching Cristiano Ronaldo videos or YouTube videos and then the moment it would get bright I’d go outside and kick the ball against my fence, just do whatever I could to get better.”

As he got older, his training ritual continued.

His constant sessions left the family fence broken, battered and deformed — all in the name of soccer.

“We fixed most of them,” LeBlanc said. “You have a bunch of old, weathered boards and then there’s a couple of new ones from where we replaced them.”

But this spring, the extra work looked like it paid off when he attended an ID camp at Clemson. Through some new connections, he was encouraged to reach out to D.C. United’s academy coaches and arrange a tryout, which he did.

LeBlanc advanced through the early portion of the tryout and trained with the team for a week before eventually earning a spot on the team.

“I just tried to do my thing,” said LeBlanc, who also plays for the South Mississippi Soccer Club in addition to Gulfport. “I played to the best of my ability and I guess they liked me.”

With his boyhood dream seemingly within reach, LeBlanc could very easily have been intimidated by the moment.

“When you play defense you kind of have to go into the game or whatever you’re doing with the mindset that you’re the best player on the field, otherwise you’re going to get burned and lose your one-on-one battles,” he said.

Go get it

Having coached LeBlanc with the Admirals, GHS coach Henrik Madsen is confident in his young soccer prodigy’s ability.

“I think it’s a great opportunity. Obviously it’s not good for Gulfport that we lose a player like Ashton, but as a former player who took the plunge when I was about his age, I think you have to take the plunge if that’s what you want to do,” Madsen said. “If you have the opportunity given to you, you have to take the chance.”

As a tall centerback, the rising junior plays a physical brand of soccer and is strong in the air.

Madsen said LeBlanc will be tested most when it comes to the daily grind of soccer. He got a taste of it this summer when he traveled to Denmark to train with the academy squad of Esbjerg, a Danish Superliga squad.

“He definitely has the ability, it just becomes a matter of how hard does he want to work at it and how bad does he want it because you’re going to go through some tough times to get to that level,” he said. “Things won’t be as easy as they were for the first 16 or 17 years of his life, so now you have to work for it.

“He’s ready for it, though; he has the right mentality.”

Representing Mississippi

Mississippi has sent its fair share of baseball, football and basketball players on to professional careers, but the fact there aren’t a lot of household soccer names from the Magnolia State isn’t lost on LeBlanc.

“That’s a big thing for me,” he said. “I really like that I’m coming from Mississippi because it’s not considered one of the better soccer states and I really hope that I can be put in a position to fix that; basically put Mississippi on the map for soccer.”

D.C. United’s academy system is a member of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, which plays September through June with a training session during the winter months.

Academy players will have a chance to earn professional contracts, but the percentages aren’t great. The team’s website touts seven homegrown players, including goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who is a reserve goalkeeper for the U.S. Men’s National Team.

The academy players are unpaid so LeBlanc will keep his amateur status should a Division I program present itself as another option.

The team claims to have sent more than 80 players on to collegiate soccer, which may be a more likely route to the professional ranks for the young Admiral.

LeBlanc acknowledges the uphill battle he’ll face if he wants to carve out a career playing soccer, but he maintains he’s up for the challenge.

“(Washington D.C.) is a ways away,” he said, “but I want to play professional soccer and if that’s what I need to do then I’m going to do it.”

Patrick Ochs: 228-896-2321, @PatrickOchs