Former Bearcat Gardner Ready to Defend MLS Cup

Feb. 27, 2014

Gardner

Former University of Cincinnati men's soccer player Josh Gardner won the MLS Cup in 2013 as part of Sporting Kansas City. GoBearcats.com's Ellen Hadley caught up with Gardner about the MLS Cup victory and his journey from UC through the professional ranks.

The success of one University of Cincinnati men’s soccer alumnus has left a lasting impression on Head Coach Hylton Dayes and his program.

Josh Gardner had a few options when he was deciding which university to attend come fall 2001. Luckily for UC’s men’s soccer team, Gardner was very interested in the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning in addition to the scholarship he was going to be offered.

Gardner would be entering a soccer program with a different coach than recruited him when Jeff Cook left and current UC head coach Hylton Dayes took over the position.

“It was kind of just trying to show off for a new coach and to do well for him and for the team.” Gardner said. “But I think after the first games the relationship between Hylton and I was pretty good and we had an understanding of how we wanted to play the game.”

As one of the youngest members of the team, freshman Gardner was one of the three Cincinnati players to start all 19 games.

“Josh was a starter from day one. He did not have a standout freshman year but he had a great work ethic and probably made the biggest improvement from his freshman year to sophomore year of any player we have had,” Dayes said.

In his second season at UC, Gardner was named second team All-Conference USA; he tied to lead the team in assists with five during the 2002 season.

“By his junior year, Josh was simply one of the best attacking players in the conference and also nationally. He could score goals from the run of play or on restarts. He also got many assists because of his service from the left flank,” Dayes said.

His third and final season as a Bearcat, Gardner led the team in total points and assists (6) and tied for team lead in goals (6). In 2003, Gardner also earned all C-USA first team honors, second team All-Region and first team All-Ohio after leading UC to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in school history.

“It’s a special moment, I think, when you have success, especially winning at conference like that. We had a really strong team and I think that the recruiting class that was brought in did really well that year,” Gardner said.

Gardner left Cincinnati after his junior season when the opportunity of a lifetime more or less fell into his lap.

He was back home in Houston for the summer when one of his youth coaches called him because they need another player to play with the U-20 team. In one game in particular Gardner played in, he made the assist on the only goal scored, sparking the interest of an agent. The agent told Gardner that if he had a really good junior season, he would try to get him out of college early to sign with Nike Project-40, a team aimed at raising the level of young soccer talent in the U.S.

“That was kind of my motivation going into my junior year—to have a good season—and to hopefully get offered a contract,” Gardner said.

Gardner was offered a contract and would play for the 2004 Project-40 team with Freddy Adu and Clint Dempsey.

“I was not surprised when Josh got called up for the U-20 national team because he had just finished an excellent year for us and had blossomed into one of our best players.” Dayes said. “It affected the team in a positive way because Josh came back even more confident and he played at a high level all year.”

He was drafted 13th overall in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft by Los Angeles Galaxy.

“The college experience was great for me. I miss the guys. To miss their final season and not to be able to be a part of that group was sad for me but you also have to take it with a grain of salt and just take the good and the bad and move on from there,” Gardner said.

Gardner would go on to play for the Galaxy for three seasons, starting two of the first three games of his first season with the MLS. He scored his first MLS goal against Real Salt Lake on July 8, 2006. Gardner played 1,096 minutes in 21 games with the Galaxy and won his first MLS Cup and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup during the 2005 season. He was released by the Galaxy on March 23, 2007 and signed with the Seattle Sounders of the USL First Division later that year.

He helped the Sounders to win the USL1 Championship his first year with the team.

When the Seattle Sounders were replaced by the MLS expansion team Seattle Sounders FC a year later, Gardner took his talent to the Carolina RailHawks at the beginning of 2009. He helped Carolina to a division title and to the final of the USSF Division 2 Pro League playoffs the following year.

“You learn everyday. You’re never really done learning the game,” Gardner said.

Gardner returned to MLS in 2011, signing with the Columbus Crew. He stayed with Columbus for one year before the Montreal Impact picked up Gardner during the 2011 MLS Expansion Draft. Following once season in Montreal, the Impact disbanded and Gardner landed with Sporting Kansas City. This past season, Gardner won his second MLS Cup with Sporting KC.

“I love being able to see my kids grow up in a professional environment and after we won the MLS Cup this past season, just seeing the joy on their faces, being on the field and celebrating with me. Those are the moment you might not ever get again,” Gardner said.

Sporting KC is Kansas City’s first professional sports team to win a championship game in front of their home fans since the 1985 World Series when the Royals defeated the St. Louis Cardinals. For Gardner, it all began at Cincinnati.

“Josh has definitely left a legacy here at UC because of his play,” Dayes said. “He was a part of the first conference championship in program history and is still the standard by which we measure any left-sided player.”

Sporting KC opens the 2014 season on Saturday, March 8, versus Seattle Sounders FC. The match can be seen on NBC Sports Network at 3:00 p.m. ET.