“Is that a freshman playing?” could be heard multiple times on the sidelines of the Harvard men’s soccer team’s home opener on Sept. 1, as several of the team’s newest members either started or were substituted into the game. It has been clear from the start of the season that Harvard (1-5-1) has a talented set of freshmen—one of the strongest classes in program history.
This strength can be attributed, in part, to the atypical pre-college experiences of some of the players. While many student athletes dream of playing for professional or national teams after graduation, midfielder/forward Paolo Belloni-Urso and midfielder Cornelius Bencsik have already done so.
Belloni-Urso has had quite the international soccer career, playing for clubs in three countries.
“Overall, I’ve gotten different experiences in different ways of playing because I’ve played on...different teams,” Belloni-Urso said. “So I’ve learned from playing in different countries and with different people, their perspectives.”
Prior to his arrival at Harvard, the midfielder played for youth clubs in his native Honduras before moving to Florida. During his time there, Belloni-Urso attracted interest from the national level. In 2013, he was invited to the U.S. U14 national team’s training camp.
Bellon-Urso then caught the eye of Genoa F.C., a club in Italy’s Serie A league, where he would spend the next few years playing on the youth team. He captained the U16 and U17 teams, and helped his team win four Serie A national championships.
Bellon-Urso was named to the Honduran U17 team before making the American U18 team, for which he played in the Slovakia Cup earlier this year.
While his now-teammate was in Slovakia, Bencsik was about 1,000 miles away making a name for himself in Norway’s professional league. The midfielder began to notice he had natural talent at a young age.
“I was always playing soccer by myself and with friends, all day, every day,” Bencsik said. “I figured out I was pretty good when I was around 10 or 11 years old.”
He joined his hometown of Brumunddal’s youth team, where he garnered enough attention to be offered a spot on the youth team at Stabaek. In 2013, he moved away from home to play for Stabaek and attend the Norwegian College of Elite Sport.
During his three years with Stabaek, the Norwegian, known to his teammates as “Coco,” helped his team win Junior Interkrets Oslo/Akershus four years in a row and take second place in the Norwegian Cup.
At age 17, Bencsik was called up to the senior A team, and made his Tippeligaen (now Eliteserien) debut in the team’s match against Aalesund. The next year, though, Bencsik made the B team, and decided to play for Asker. After a few months there, he joined A team, for which he has played for the past year.
It might be surprising that both players can be seen on the Harvard pitch now, and are not continuing on the international professional circuit. At one point, Belloni-Urso was thought to be following in the footsteps of former Genoa and current A.S. Roma player Stephan El Shaarawy, who also began his career playing for Genoa’s youth team. Belloni-Urso had a bit of a change of heart, though, during the past season with Genoa.
“In Genoa, a lot of my teammates didn’t go to school, and being in that environment, I realized that it wasn’t what I wanted—it wasn’t the person I wanted to become,” Belloni-Urso said.
Belloni-Urso declined an invitation to play for Honduras’ U20 team at the U20 World Cup and decided to join Harvard’s team instead.
Bencsik, who was also performing well in the classroom, started to consider other options as well. An opportunity came knocking in the form of a Facebook message from Harvard coach Pieter Lehrer.
“I just decided to go for it because I could go to Harvard, which is an excellent academic school, and play soccer at the same time,” Bencsik said.
The Honduran remains a member of the Genoa squad, while the Norwegian is a free agent. But for now, their focus is on adjusting to collegiate play, something which both acknowledge is quite different from what they are used to.
“The environment around is really good, with the professionalism around the team, and the environment within the team is really good.” Bencsik said.
“Coming here to Harvard, and seeing new ideas and new ways of playing...it’s just a combination of learning different styles and trying to adapt to what the best one is,” Belloni-Urso added. “Playing with a different background and, of course, with people from different nationalities, everyone brings their own perspective and we just work on trying to condense everything into one style of player, one idea in order for the team to benefit.”
It’s almost midway through the season now, and the duo has adapted well. Both players have scored their first goals for Harvard, and Belloni-Urso was named Ivy League Rookie of the Week. They will surely be using their respective experiences to make the most of their Crimson careers for the next four years, both on and off the field.
—Staff writer Katherine H. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.