When Callum Stretch sat down to watch the MLS SuperDraft in January, he couldn’t help but notice that the No. 2 overall pick was Indiana center back Jack Maher.
Stretch, a 6-foot-4 center back himself, had opted to stay in school after each of his first two seasons at the University of Denver, but he had a goal in mind.
“Ideally, I’d like to go No. 1 in the draft,” he said. “That was fantastic for Jack, but I have to do him one better.”
The Los Angeles native took a big step in that direction when he announced on March 4 that he would be transferring to IU for his junior season.
The decision to transfer didn’t actually come until late January, but when it did, Stretch knew that a place like Indiana was where he wanted to go.
“I was going to stay at Denver, but seeing how the draft went and having conversations with the coaches about the plans for next year — I love Denver, but for me, I needed the next level up,” he said. “Indiana, with the caliber of players they have, no disrespect to Denver, is the next notch up. That is what I need to get a Generation Adidas contract (like Maher) or go high in the draft the next year.
“I needed that exposure and push and the contacts Indiana has with the amount of pros they’ve produced. That’s what I needed and wanted.”
Stretch is certainly typical of the talent the Hoosiers put on the pitch year in and year out, but he has taken anything but a typical route to Bloomington.
After spending time with the Galaxy Youth Academy, having just completed his freshman year of high school, Stretch began going to trials with Premier League teams. His dad, Roni, was a native of England, so Stretch had dual citizenship.
Tottenham was the first team to show interest in signing Stretch, but he had to get an official passport first. By the time all the paperwork was done, the manager at Tottenham had been fired, and the whole process started over again.
Stretch also had a trial with Sheffield, but the former Tottenham boss was now at Aston Villa. So after another trial during which he met American goalkeeper Brad Guzan, Stretch finally signed and joined the Aston Villa Academy program in 2016. He made his U-18 Premier League debut on Feb. 25, 2017, in a 2-1 victory over, fittingly, Tottenham.
On the field, it was a dream come true. Off the field, it meant small sacrifices.
I still don’t have my American driver’s license, only my British one,” Stretch said. “I was very much immersed over there and lived with an Irish player. My parents said, ‘Every time you come back, you sound Irish now.’
“I definitely grew up very quickly. You had to. It was a culture shock.”
Aston Villa, however, was relegated for the following season and could only offer a one-year professional contract to Stretch, who was in his senior year of high school.
“Going into the reserves wasn’t something I wanted to do,” he said.
The other options were to return to the United States and sign with an MLS or USL team or play college soccer. The latter wasn’t something Stretch followed closely at all while he was overseas.
“I started looking into it, so the first school I went to visit was UCLA, 10 minutes away from my house,” Stretch said. “Then I took a joint visit to Wake Forest and UNC, but I had no clue about college soccer really. A family friend knew Jamie Franks, the head coach at Denver. They had gone to the Final Four in 2016, so I went to check them out. It wasn’t too far from home, a great city, the coach was super young. I really got on with Jamie and signed there.”
Stretch’s first college season was almost everything he had hoped. The Pioneers went 15-4-2, led by standout forward Andres Shinyashiki, and Stretch was named Summit League Newcomer of the Year and first team all-conference. He was also ranked No. 2 in the TopDrawerSoccer.com Midseason Freshman Top 100 but passed on an offer to sign a Generation Adidas contract to enter the MLS Draft.
“I didn’t think I was ready to go,” Stretch said. “I wanted to develop more on the athletic side.”
His sophomore season didn’t go as well. Denver struggled to a 6-12-3 record, including a 2-1 loss to IU at the Mike Berticelli Tournament in South Bend, but was the upset winner of the Summit League Tournament to qualify for the NCAA Tournament again. Stretch was second team all-conference.
“At that point, I knew the college system and knew the Summit League is not a great league, although we play a lot of good out of conference games,” Stretch said. “I felt like I needed more exposure, to be at a bigger name, so that’s where the whole transfer thing came in. Jamie wasn’t happy but he kind of understood, because we are losing a lot of seniors, so I didn’t want to put my eggs all in (next year’s) basket.
“Denver was great for two years with not knowing anything about college soccer coming in. I played in every game in two years, so I have no complaints, it’s just now to go to the next level I need that push.”
There were more than 30 schools hoping to provide it, including hometown UCLA once again, but Stretch knew what he was looking for this time and jumped at the chance to visit Indiana in late February.
“Once I went to meet Indiana, I really fell in love with the coaches and everything, plus I played against them this past year,” Stretch said. “Having watched them play and played against them, I like to get on the ball and play. That’s something they do, so that was a big thing.
“It’s completely different than Denver, which is a small school in a big city and right next to downtown. Bloomington is a huge school in a smaller city, so it will be a different experience. I’m looking forward to that, having people more involved in sports. It seems like a closer community, more of a college experience, which should be enjoyable.”
Not only that, but prior to college, Stretch was a member of the U.S. U-18 national team with a pair of future Hoosiers in Justin Rennicks and Griffin Dorsey. Stretch was roommates with Rennicks during the Nordic Cup in Sweden in 2016.
“I’d watched Indiana with those guys and liked the way they played,” Stretch said.
Now it’s just a matter of time until Stretch gets to play for the Hoosiers or anyone else for that matter since the coronavirus pandemic has put soccer on hold.
With his parents having relocated to Las Vegas since he went to college, Stretch was slated to work out with Las Vegas Lights FC of the USL this spring ahead of playing in the Premier Development League (PDL) for Chicago United this summer.
In the meantime, he’ll settle for some home workouts while keeping his goal in mind.
“I feel like I had made the right decision to go to a place that would look after me but also give me the platform to get drafted,” Stretch said.