Going into the 2022 MLS SuperDraft presented by adidas, University of Maryland midfielder Ben Bender was considered among the top prospects in his class after becoming an All-American and the unanimous Big Ten Midfielder of the Year as a sophomore in 2021.
The Baltimore-area native did a little bit of everything over his standout two-season run with the Terrapins, showcasing dynamic passing ability, a nose for goal and a relentless work rate. It all culminated on Tuesday with Bender getting selected as the No. 1 overall pick by expansion side Charlotte FC ahead of their debut MLS season.
Looking ahead to his professional career, Bender told reporters on his post-draft video call that fans in Charlotte can expect the same attributes that made him dominant at the collegiate level.
"My best attributes as a player, and I think what you can expect, is my vision and my passing, putting attacking players into really good positions," Bender said. "So, putting really dynamic strikers or wingers into goal-scoring positions and getting on the end of those. I love making the final run, the third-man run and picking up some goals like that too. So, I think that they can expect some of that stuff."
"My preferred position would be a box-to-box midfielder. I think that I'm best when seeing the whole field and linking the play, linking the backline, midline and the front guys."
As a rookie draft pick, nothing is guaranteed as far as playing time. Bender joins a roster of established professionals, many of whom have already played in MLS.
Still, Bender plans on using the upcoming preseason to impress head coach Miguel Angel Ramirez for an immediate first-team role. If he's not in the rotation right away, it then becomes about soaking up all the knowledge he can from his veteran teammates.
"I've had some good conversations with the club recently," Bender said. "I know that the style of play in Charlotte is going to be very attacking-minded, it's going to be one where we want to control the game and make it really difficult for the opponents. It's one where you really want to dominate the game on all levels.
"I've heard from some of the coaches that the players are really, really good. I know the midfield is really good, that's something specific they've said, so if I'm not going to play in the beginning I'm certainly going to be learning and taking it all in from them. So, it's a really good learning opportunity and development opportunity."
Ultimately, Bender said he's simply excited to help build Charlotte's culture and identity from the ground up. Their inaugural MLS match is just weeks away, with Charlotte opening Feb. 26 at Eastern Conference foe D.C. United.
"Every time there's a new team that enters the league, I think that the whole city is just super excited and ready to go," Bender said. "I know the fans of Charlotte are going to be itching to see the team win and win right away and I think that coming into an expansion club is a good scenario for me. I think I have the ability to make an impact, so I'm just really excited to hit the ground running."