Photo courtesy James Madison University Athletics
Two weeks ago, Nashville SC made five selections in the 2021 Major League Soccer SuperDraft. One of the headliners of the group was James Madison University defender Tom Judge. Taken No. 36 overall, he 6-1, 175-pounder plays left back for the Dukes. He has led them to the NCAA Tournament in each of his three years on the pitch – and although Nashville General Manager Mike Jacobs raved about the versatility to Judge’s game, that left back position where he’s projected to line up at the next level, too.
According to JMU head soccer coach Paul Zazensky, the ability Judge has to shut down one flank has been key to the Dukes’ success in recent seasons. More important has been the mindset he brings each and every time he hits the field.
“The last three years, we’ve won the conference three times,” Zazensky explained. “2018, we were in the Elite Eight, and last year we went to the NCAA Tournament and lost in the first round. For a mid major to make it to the Elite Eight in 2018 – the reason why I bring that up is Thomas Judge was playing every minute of that run in which we beat UNC, Virginia Tech, and some big-name programs. Yeah, we’ve had a good amount of success with Thomas Judge on the field. He rarely comes off: he’s a very durable player, and consistent. He’s gotten a ton of minutes in that time, and led us to some unprecedented heights as a program.
“Going into what would have been his fourth year of eligibility – or still might be his fourth year of eligibility. Ever since the first day that we put him into a competitive situation, especially on an 11-a-side pitch, he’s been just an absolute competitor. You could tell it from the very first day that we got him: that he kind of just rises to the occasion when there’s a competitive match. He’s dynamic in the sense that he has athleticism that is unmatched, and from day one, he’s just been ultra-competitive.”
The lefty out of Central New Jersey has shown with multiple All-Colonial Athletic Association honors (a third-team selection as a sophomore, and a first-team choice during his junior year) that he has the game to excel at the highest levels of the sport. In addition to the attitude he brings, the athletic ability is there.
Teams have learned pretty quickly that it’s not worth even trying to test the standout defender if they want to have success offensively.
“For the three seasons of eligibility that he’s utilized, he’s played left back,” his coach explained. “His best quality is being able to be a lockdown 1v1 defender if he’s at the left back position. Like I said before, just that athleticism and a dynamic piece to his game at the college level has been unmatched: there’s not too many people that I have looked at in my six years at JMU and said, ‘yeah, he can run past Thomas Judge.’ So 1v1 defending and the ability to go forward and attack, and drive by players with ease is what I think are his best qualities.”
As he brings his game to the professional level, Judge will simply have to learn how to make the most out of that athletic talent by eliminating mental mistakes. When everyone is a professional-caliber athlete, his grasp of the tactical and technical aspects of the position will allow him to continue to find the success he’s had in college.
“I think – Thomas would say the same thing, and we talk a lot about it – at the next level he’s going to have to make quicker decisions, and he’s going to have to make sure that he’s in better spots,” Zazensky opined. “Because at the college level he can kind of rely on his athleticism to get him out of some interesting scenarios defensively and offensively. Just understanding a little bit more positionally and how to clean up a little bit of his technical side of his game before he enters into the professional ranks. Because I am 100% confident in his physical ability.”
Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the senior year Judge was expecting to have this Fall… didn’t take place. Instead, the college soccer season was largely pushed to the Spring (the ACC and Sun Belt were the lone exceptions). For players with professional opportunities like the one Judge has ahead of him, that could mean opting to head directly to MLS, rather than wait until as late as mid-May, after the NCAA Tournament, to begin his professional journey.
Those decisions haven’t been made yet. That applies even to most first-rounders, in addition to second-round selections like Judge, or those taken in the third, like teammate TJ Bush. In order to do what’s best for his players, Zazensky’s leaving decisions of timing up to them.
“First and foremost, if Thomas would like to communicate with me that he would be joining in with Nashville – whenever that may be – then I’m going to leave that up to Nashville and Thomas,” he said. “But there is a chance that he could come back for what would be his fourth year of eligibility and then report to Nashville after the conclusion of the spring season like a lot of other draft picks are doing.”
Jacobs regularly talks about “NSC DNA” as being an important factor when adding players to the roster. Getting those guys whose playing style fits the team is a big deal. Even more so is getting the right kind of man, not just player to help reach the heights of MLS.
When he does arrive in Nashville, don’t expect Judge to be a high-energy locker room presence. Judge projects more of a quiet intensity off the field, and is a proverbial switch-flippers when he steps between the white lines.
“He’s not your “rah rah” captain, that type of guy,” Zazenski said. “He’s more reserved off the field – quiet in nature. But he definitely plays with an edge and a chip on his shoulder, so he’s got a little bit of a bite to him. I wouldn’t say that is him off the field, but certainly on the field, he plays with that edge, and that’s why he’s been able to have success. But off the field, just an easy-go-lucky guy that just loves the game.”
That may be the very essence of NSC DNA.