Ben Bender is in a loose-fitting Patagonia jacket, short khaki shorts, and pair of old worn-out sneakers. His hair resembles that of skaters from the 2000s: long, flowy, and messy.
Not the appearance you’d associate with a professional footballer, let alone a rising star in Major League Soccer. At first glance, Bender looks like one of your typical college kids and you wouldn’t really be completely wrong in that assumption.
A little over 4 months ago, Bender was just that, a college kid... well a little more than just your regular college kid. He was a Big Ten Midfielder of the Year and a First Team All-American for the University of Maryland’s soccer program.
He was drafted number one in the MLS SuperDraft by Charlotte FC and has had a dream start to his professional soccer career. He’s already worked his way into becoming a regular starter and has scored three goals and assisted one so far this season.
Part of Bender’s early success on the pitch has come from an easy transition off the pitch. He’s found adapting to Charlotte to be a smooth process overall.
“Adapting to Charlotte has been great. I came from Baltimore, Maryland which is pretty big I’d say. Once I got down to Charlotte, the city is really new, clean, and young and that is something I’ve really enjoyed, living in South End.
“That’s been a really awesome spot, because it’s like 15 minutes away from the airport, like 5 – 10 minutes away from the stadium. There are so many awesome restaurants around there. I think Charlotte is an awesome spot because I really love the beach and the mountains.”
It isn’t Bender’s first time living on his own away from his hometown. His first experience came at just 14 years old, when he played with the Philadelphia Union Academy. This time around, he’s experiencing the less glamorous parts of adulthood, but still finding growth in them.
“I guess it’s pretty close to what I expected it to be like. When I was 14 I played for the Philly Union and I lived on my own for pretty much a whole year. My dad would come and stay twice a week at the apartment I was at but that was really my first experience of living on my own.”
“And once I went to college, I was on my own a lot, so it hasn’t been too much of a jump. I mean, now I am experiencing a little more of adult life because I’m starting to pay the bills, pay rent. Making all these calls about electric bill, the water bill, wifi.
“Some of the stuff you don’t want to do, but at the same time it is cool to do this now and become an adult, and figure stuff out on my own. When you’re younger, your parents and other people do everything for you. But when you figure out how to do all that difficult stuff, you feel kinda good about yourself.”
Unlike most of his teammates who are living in apartments, Bender has opted to live in a house. And you may ask why a 21-year-old would need an entire house, but it comes down to the one thing that Bender values above all – family.
He wanted to make sure his family had a comfortable place to stay whenever they visited. His family is a tight-knit group that has been Bender’s cornerstone both on and off the pitch.
“My family are my best friends.
“I have two brothers, I have my dad and mom, I talk to them pretty much every day. I’m also really close to my grandparents. Apart from all that stuff, I think relationships are the most important. They just give me really good advice on and off the field. They are there when I need them.”
Staying true to valuing relationships, Bender has adopted a new family in Charlotte in the form of his fellow young, American teammates. Even though they are all professional athletes, at the end of the day they are a group of friends who like to go out together and play Fortnite.
“It’s been amazing so far, having a good group of 6 – 8 younger guys to relate with. I can relate with the college guys a lot, like Chris Hegardt, George, Koa, we shared a lot of the same experiences coming from college. And having guys like McKinze, Jaylin, and Adam, who have been pros for a little bit, that’s really awesome, because they have welcomed us in and have shared a bit of their knowledge.
“I’ve been hanging out with a lot of the young guys and that’s been really great. The young group of guys, we go out like once a week. Also, I’ve been playing a little bit of Fortnite. I should probably take it easy on Fortnite...”
“We’re all getting closer day by day and I think it is showing on the field too. We are building those connections on and off the field and I think that is really important.”
Bender has already made quite the impact within the Charlotte FC community, especially among the youth. According to local parents, kids were fighting over who was going to be Ben Bender in their soccer game and mimicking his signature karate kick celebration. Things are moving fast for the 21-year-old, but it's been going about things with integrity that has helped keep him get to where he is and kept him grounded.
“Integrity. That’s a big one my dad talks about. One of the big points they [his parents] were making to me, on the field, never really get too high when you’re doing well because that is not where your identity comes from.”