Eddie Gaven - Columbus Crew SC - Close up
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What ever happened to Eddie Gaven? | Charles Boehm

Before Alphonso Davies, before Paxton Pomykal or Efra Alvarez, before even Freddy Adu, there was Eddie Gaven.

The kid from New Jersey became the youngest player in MLS history when he signed with the MetroStars in 2003, a year before Adu smashed that record (which he still holds today). And while most of the talk around Adu is that of potential unfulfilled, it’s mostly the opposite for Gaven, who blossomed into a, well, steady-Eddie wide midfielder with attacking flair as well as a relentless engine. 

A US youth international, Gaven earned MLS Best XI and All-Star honors at age 17, then really found his place in Columbus after a 2006 trade to Crew SC, where he played a key role in the Crew’s 2008 MLS Cup triumph. A consistent contributor happy to cede the spotlight to others, Gaven won the deep respect of teammates and fans, and had a fluid way of gliding around the field that was rare among American players at the time. He also had an endearingly offbeat manner about him:

And there was the whole goalkeeping thing: He holds a special place in league history for his role in the “Cheatin’ Bob” caper of 2003, and even gamely donned the gloves again for a slightly longer stint in 2010, making two saves and allowing a goal in emergency relief of injured goalkeeper Will Hesmer.

Then, at the end of the Crew’s 2013 campaign, 11 years into an MLS career marked by 51 goals and 37 assists in 278 regular-season appearances, Gaven walked into then-Columbus technical director Brian Bliss’ office and said he was retiring, at the relatively tender age of 27.

“He sat down, met with me, kind of laid it all out,” Bliss told MLSsoccer.com at the time, noting that Gaven eschewed a speech to the whole squad in favor of informing his teammates individually. “He didn't elaborate on it, he just said, 'Look, I've done my time,' type of thing. 'I'm ready to move on to another chapter of my life,' he said. He wanted to pursue some other things that he felt were important.”

Perhaps it was the recovery process from a torn ACL earlier that year that inspired the seemingly abrupt decision. Or was it just the enactment of a long-term plan? Gaven’s devout Catholicism was likely a factor. Earlier in his career he’d rediscovered his faith during a hernia injury layoff, as he explained in a 2012 interview with the National Catholic Register.

“I was caught up in the ways of the world,” he said. “So while in the hospital and recovering at home, there was a lot of time to think. I started to see things more clearly and realized that while soccer is fun, it won’t last forever. What will last forever is heaven or hell.”

Gaven dived deep into classical Catholic theology, switching to the Traditional Latin Mass and occasionally coaxing teammates into coming along with him, as Brad Evans recently recounted to The Athletic, who named Gaven to its “MLS all-time cult hero XI.”

Today Gaven is back in soccer, but in a particular niche befitting his unique path. Since 2016 he’s served as the head men’s soccer coach at Ave Maria University, a small NAIA program in a quiet corner of Southwest Florida with a particular backstory.

Founded in 2007 by Domino’s Pizza magnate Tom Monaghan, Ave Maria is a strongly Catholic institution surrounded by a planned community with the same outlook: To provide a haven for the devout to live their lives in full keeping with the Church’s theology.

Carved out of 4,000 acres of Florida scrub and marshland some 30 miles inland from Naples, the project has fought through severe mosquito infestations and financial difficulties and is currently home to some 30,000 residents. It’s become a beacon for religious conservatives, drawing headlines for a legal fight against contraceptives provisions in the Affordable Care Act that went all the way to the Supreme Court, and in recent years has hosted visits from Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Ave Maria’s soccer facilities also hosted Chicago Fire preseason camps for several years, and now Gaven is charged with leading the men’s program up the NAIA pecking order. Launched in 2009, the Gyrenes have yet to post a winning record, though Gaven oversaw their best-ever season in 2018 and can take hope from the rise of Florida Gulf Coast University, a nearby NCAA Division I program with a comparable history that’s quickly become a regional contender. 

Gaven, who politely declined an interview request for this piece, is married to his teenage sweetheart Paula and they now have five children.

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