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All-Star Alston driven to succeed

Despite injuries that hampered his career, Kevin Alston has kept his eyes on the prize. Despite injuries that hampered his career, Kevin Alston has kept his eyes on the prize. (George Frey/Getty Images)
By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / July 27, 2010

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QUINCY — Kevin Alston feels comfortable driving from Gillette Stadium to a coffee shop just over the Neponset Bridge. But before last year, Alston hardly seemed destined for a professional career outside the District of Columbia.

Alston grew up in Maryland, not only a supporter of D.C. United but also a player in the MLS team’s youth system. And when United considered its first selection in the 2009 draft, it made a last-minute decision to select Rodney Wallace, an outside back who happens to be Alston’s closest friend, with the sixth pick. That allowed the Revolution to take Alston with the No. 10 choice.

“I felt like I was a part of their system, unofficially,’’ Alston said of D.C. United. “But things don’t always go how you expect them to go. I was more than thrilled to be picked by the Revolution — the situation they had, needing defenders and coach [Steve] Nicol being an all-around outstanding coach and the fact he played fullback in his day. That was something that excited me. And their legacy, especially being a D.C. United fan, I remember Taylor Twellman with his hand taped scoring goals, as far back I can remember. I knew they were a team with a winning mentality. I was definitely rooting against them until I was picked up by them.’’

Alston’s flexibility, perseverance, and what he describes as “tough skin’’ have served him well in his development as a player. He has progressed from a career-threatening injury while performing at the FIFA U17 World Cup in 2005 to a place on the MLS All-Star team, which will meet Manchester United tomorrow in Houston.

Seamless transition
“At first, honestly, he was a quiet kid, sheepish,’’ said John Hackworth, who coached Alston at the US national team residency program in Bradenton, Fla.

“We saw his potential or we wouldn’t have selected him in the first place, and he came out of his shell. He had two years [with] the U17 national team, and midway through the cycle I really thought he blossomed and started to believe in his place on the national team and that he could be a very productive player for us. He always had that athleticism and he began to master his technical ability on the ball and hone in on his game.

“The next year he was fantastic in the U17s but, unfortunately, he had the broken leg, which was tragic for us and for him. It was a long way to come back.’’

In addition to the leg injury, after enrolling at Indiana University, Alston underwent surgery for a hernia. The combination of injuries led to Alston’s profile with the national team being lowered. Alston played in the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2007, but he dropped out of the US training camp scene until a strong performance in his first MLS season led to a January callup.

The Revolution were in transition last year, the team scrambling to qualify for the playoffs. But the changing fortunes allowed Alston to break into the lineup immediately, his athleticism and competitiveness providing a relatively seamless succession to Jay Heaps, who had been the starting right back for eight years.

With Alston, 22, and winger Sainey Nyassi, 21, the Revolution have impressive right-side offensive threats. They are sometimes vulnerable tactically, though.

“That’s always been one of the biggest issues, just staying focused, staying clicked in for 90 minutes,’’ Alston said. “I think it’s just a bad habit. Coaches say to little kids all the time they don’t want them to watch the ball, to move off the ball. I was one of those players who watched the play. I wasn’t thinking about where should I be or how’s it going to affect me

“To this day, I’m still working on thinking of what I need to be doing at the time. In some situations if you’re good physically it will help when you make mistakes to make up for them, but not always, not in this league.’’

College first
Alston grew up imbued in University of North Carolina basketball culture, thanks to his father, Larry. An uncle, Mitchell Johnson, was an offensive lineman for four National Football League teams. Alston was always the smallest participant in family sporting outings.

“I’m not quite sure where he gets that competitive fire,’’ said his mother, Jeanne Fox-Alston. “He’s always really loved to play, he loves challenging himself and being in a competitive environment. It didn’t matter if it was the soccer field or some other venue. As a young kid, he was small and scrawny. His older brother and my sister’s husband, everyone would get together to play pickup basketball, and he was right there in the mix, even though he was the smallest one in the group. He took any opportunity to challenge himself against bigger, stronger, faster people.’’

One day, Larry Alston made a proposition to his son: basketball or soccer.

“I was always passionate about soccer and it made more sense, because I wasn’t going to be tall,’’ Alston said. “And, growing up, I was the type of kid who was always active. Ask any of my friends, when we were hanging out, I was always saying let’s go play basketball, four square, I was always that kid. I was really passionate about any sport I was playing.

“I never thought about playing professionally, just having fun and staying busy. When I got to [Bradenton] I saw guys going pro early. And my first year of residency, West Brom Albion wanted me to join their academy, and at that point I thought maybe this could be my career. I was already focused and that made me more focused.’’

But the Alston family also remained cautious about the professional game. They had a close view of the saga of Freddy Adu, who was also involved in the Potomoc Soccer Association. The plan was education first and, though Alston had been thinking about attending an Atlantic Coast Conference school, he opted for Indiana.

“I always like trying out new situations, new people,’’ Alston said. “I felt I was immature back then, and I thought it was important to at least get a start on an education, get some discipline and some structure before I try to make that jump to the pros. Indiana was completely different, the middle of nowhere, you go through fields before you get to the campus. I’m glad I did it.’’

Embraces pressure
Alston’s next move was New England.

“I’m fine here,’’ he said. “I’m pretty easy-going when it comes to being in places. I was away from home a lot but I never got homesick, I was never the person who said I can’t wait to go home. I like being in new places and new situations.’’

And tomorrow night will be another unique situation as Alston performs against Manchester United.

“I like pressure situations, and I like challenges,’’ Alston said. “That’s what gets me going the most. Going against a big-name player, I get excited, that’s what I live for. I love to compete. But why not compete with the best? It’s more fun that way.

“Nothing’s ever going to go your way 100 percent, completely. I know that and I try to stay positive. I try to find positives out of every situation. Maybe I could have done this better and I’ll do better next time.

“I try not to let things get me down because that’s a trap and people fall into that trap, they get down, and you have to pick yourself back up and get back on the horse. I try to stay as optimistic as possible. Nothing’s going to always be great. Definitely, easier said than done, but it’s part of the mentality.

“You’ve got to believe.’’

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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